Mary Lester
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Arthur J. Harvey
Barry Forbes
Fred Johnson
Mary Lester
Jon Darling

Modeling Access for People with Disabilities in Rural America
Mary Lester  is the Associate Director of the Alliance for Technology Access and the coordinator for ATA's MIRA project. Ms. Lester's knowledge of assistive technology is both personal and professional. Her experience base consists of thirteen years in the field, working on local, state and national levels to create effective partnerships among the public and private sectors to advance the access of people with disabilities to conventional and assistive communication technologies
Mary Lester

Most agree that the exponential developments of the Information Age, most notably the Internet at the moment, hold huge potential for information access, communication, and increase of quality of life for all who have access to it. The reality, however, is that for many reasons, it is still a minority who do have that access, and this is especially true of those outside of the mainstream of education and vocation -- the technology disenfranchised -- including rural communities, people of color, elders, and people with disabilities.

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Mary Lester with Richard Sclove from the Loka Institute (which houses the Community Research Network) at the first meeting of the Managing Information with Rural America (MIRA) policy groups in Battle Creek, MI, July 1998.
The Alliance for Technology Access is a nationwide network of 40 community-based technology resource centers and 80 technology vendors and developers working to increase access to empowering technologies by people with disabilities. ATA promotes access to conventional, assistive, and communication technologies through public service, public awareness, and public policy which mandates universal design and insures access to all technology products by the broadest spectrum of people. Our vision is of a future in which technology is flexible, inexpensive, accessible and seamless in connecting us to the world.

There are multiple policy issues of major concern to the Alliance for Technology Access and the communities it serves. Legislative mandates and regulatory decisions play an enormous role in the lives of people with disabilities. Among the key policy concerns of the ATA and its technology centers are the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, all of which address the importance of access to technology by people with disabilities. At every turn in the policy-making process, equity for people with disabilities has to be safeguarded and protected because it can be so easily and carelessly lost. In many cases, like the implementation of section 255 of the Telecommunications Act, the issues are very complex and achieving the goal of accessible products and services for all people with disabilities is complicated and arduous -- but absolutely critical. What's at stake for people with disabilities is nothing short of participation in life - education, employment, communication, recreation and independence.

Through the Managing Information with Rural America (MIRA) initiative of the Kellogg Foundation, the ATA is supporting four of its technology Resource Centers to conduct innovative projects that will model how consumers and their families can impact local and regional policies and practices to improve the use of conventional, assistive and communication technologies in rural areas in schools, libraries, homes and businesses.

Parents Let's Unite for Kids (PLUK), Billings, MT

Technology Tools for All Students

Computer technology and distance learning are used extensively in Montana public schools, and high tech assistive technology is commonly accepted as an option for students with the most severe disabilities. However, most rural schools do not view students with milder disabilities as appropriate candidates for assistive technology. The unwritten policy is that students with mild disabilities need to learn in the conventional ways because "they won't always have a computer with them."

The focus of this project will be to influence local policymakers and educators in the public schools to consider a policy change from denial of technology to encouragement of computer use to circumvent aspects of learning disabilities that cannot be remediated easily. The goal for the students is to prepare them to be more efficient learners whose output more closely matches their intellectual capabilities. The project will try to influence local decision-makers so that use of assistive technology for learning disabled students becomes culturally assimilated as something that is necessary and appropriate.

Project implementation involves on-site demonstrations of compensatory tools and trial use of laptops with appropriate software so that staff and students can experience and demonstrate how conventional, assistive and communication technologies can circumvent the barriers faced by students with learning disabilities, who represent 56% of the 17,000 special education students in the state. These students are covered by IDEA and local policymakers need to fully and appropriately implement its mandates addressing technology.

Carolina Computer Access Center, Charlotte, NC

The Tele-School Project

The Carolina Computer Access Center (CCAC) is addressing a growing need for the development of policies and procedures to bring the classroom setting to home-based students with disabilities in the least restrictive manner -- using videoconferencing technologies. These current technologies have the potential to facilitate and enhance the inclusion of students with severe disabilities in their assigned school-based general education classrooms and provide a workable model for school policymakers in rural areas to replicate.

Various technologies will be surveyed in the course of the project, some of which will be proprietary in nature, will require the installation of customized equipment in both the classroom and the home, and may require the installation of ISDN lines at the home of the student being served. These technologies will represent the high-end range of solutions, and will deliver the highest quality videoconference possible. Other solutions will be Internet-based and use a combination of proprietary and industry standard technologies to render video of an appropriate quality to support a learning environment. These technologies will be relatively less expensive to implement and represent the mid-range solutions. Still other solutions will utilize purely non-proprietary technology, including standard analog phone lines. One of the objectives of the project will be to determine which solutions represent a practical, replicable alternative for students and policymakers in rural areas.

East Tennessee Technology Access Center, Knoxville, TN

Affordable Access to Communication Technologies

The project focuses on the need to develop low-cost Internet access for people who live in rural areas, are isolated, and live on fixed incomes. In many areas of East Tennessee, calls outside the county in which people live are long-distance, and many areas also lack local Internet access numbers. This project focuses on the policies, procedures, and laws that govern the pricing of Internet services.

Project staff will work in conjunction with the Knoxville Oak Ridge Regional Network (KORRnet) and their Computer for Homebound/Isolated People (CHIPS) program which provides computers to individuals in 15 rural counties. They will build a coalition of people that will work toward change in internet funding practices. The first step goal is to get low-cost Internet access to CHIPS participants so they can use the donated equipment to connect with the rest of the world. The next goal is to address low-cost services for all rural people in East Tennessee, and then to address affordable access across the state.

Western Kentucky Assistive Technology Consortium (WKATC), Murray, KY

Project ACCESS

There are good resources and policies in place in Kentucky, but people do not always know about them. Kentucky school policy states all children must have equal access to technology, the statewide network and other information needed to meet their schools' instructional goals. There is a trust fund (the Kentucky Education Technology System) that can be spent for assistive equipment but it is little used.

Project staff in Murray will train administrators, library media specialists and teachers in six school districts about accommodations which would make computers accessible to students with disabilities and how to access the educational trust funds. Accessible computer workstations will give students with disabilities access to electronic media and the statewide technology network. WKATC staff will provide training and information about low- to high-tech adaptations which will allow individuals with disabilities to use computers in the library and classroom. A Computer Access Kit which outlines resources (equipment and funding) to make computers accessible will be a product of the project, along with a blueprint for consumers and their families to change how policies can get put into practice to increase funding and access to assistive technology in rural areas.

The anticipated result is that the total funding will be made available in the form of technology and support to those students for whom it was intended.


Together these projects will increase access by impacting local, rural policymakers, while developing and refining policy change strategies that can be replicated in other rural settings. By documenting these projects ATA will develop some basic blueprints that can be followed by communities wanting to create more equity in the availability and use of vital conventional, assistive, and communication technologies.