Educational Equality on the Web?
One Mother's (and Coach) Perspective;by Anne Macleod
Living life with a disAbility or special challenge has the potential of being like anyone else's life; unfortunately this is typically not the outcome. It is my philosophy that we all have gifts we've been given and challenges to overcome in life. Attitude, an appropriate education, good healthcare, community involvement and adequate resources should be all it takes to grow and meet or exceed that potential. In addition, our Constitution and current disability laws mandate equality, fairness and legal recourse when injustices are suspected. So, how is it that kids with challenges can enter an educational Internet contest and be denied these civil rights; the necessary accommodations they need in school to do basic academics like read, verbally communicate with others, write, adaptions that include technology??
Unfortunately, our systems and society are not yet prepared to accept the unknown, to teach the differently-abled (especially if it's an Invisible DisAbility) or make laws and enforce them, without strong advocacy and loud voices from this minority. Even then, when assertiveness and education empower the individual to speak up for their needs, they are met with blame, ignorance, distrust, lack of accountability on the part of the Governmental Agency or Organization and never enough money to fight the fight. Although I have been told that we are 25% of the population of the United States and growing as seniors live longer and more productive lives, and that 12% of the population of America's Schools are considered learning disabled (Invisible DisAbilities), we are still not recognized as we should be: as a worthy and powerful population! The saddest portion of this tale is that even when approached with educational materials about the various disAbilities and easy accomodations, I have found that most are not interested, do not "have the time" or money to even consider the request. I recently had an experience where I was told that there were no funds in a public school to even copy the information. If Federal, State and Local Laws are not enough motivation for equal access, and the human factor is ignored..... what will it take to insure equality for future generations?
With the Internet's increasing accessibility and potential for bringing this population's voice together in force, we have an even greater chance of being heard, forcing change and improving the lives and potential for ourselves, and the people we love. With this preface in mind, I share with you my ThinkQuest Adventure........
Speaking of Accessibility...Accessibility can mean a variety of things to different individuals. There's wheelchair accessibility to buildings or physical structures; accessibility to "A Fair and Appropriate Public Education" and other essential services such as medical care, rehabilitation, transportation etc. The type of Accessibility I will address is Internet and Technology Accessibility which for the first time in history, offers more open doors and possibilities for the differently-abled than ever before!
Let's define Accessibility rather pragmatically as:
ThinkQuest™ AS A JOURNEY!
The Captain of this ThinkQuest™ ship was daunted by the challenges that existed for us as an Internet Team; to simply participate per the rules of this incredible International Educational Web Page Design Contest was like a hurricane in open seas! I wanted more than anything in the world, to show my son Pat and others what was out there for them on the web; to let them know that they could climb the same mountains and plant the flag as everyone else! I thought that the technology would equalize the playing field like no where else in their lives... Naive? Yes! Idealistic? Yes! And there were many times we ran into a sheer rock face with no solution in sight; did we go for the GOLD anyway? Yes! Did we plant the flag or as most call it- WIN? Yes!
Actually, the official judging is not yet over as of the writing of this piece, but I would doubt with all the technical problems on the site that we would actually place. As any mother would, I questioned of the kids: "is that what winning is about?" It's certainly not what I stressed or what I want my kids to value in life. The winning is in the process; it's in the success we feel as we learn new things and contribute something of value to the world. This, we already know we have achieved and thus.... We have already won!
In hopes of improving access for our kids to Educational Internet events such as ThinkQuest, I would like to share a few of the challenges we faced and offer some possible solutions as well.
THE THINKQUEST™ RULES WERE A DEFINITIVE CHALLENGE:
The Rules and Subsequent Challenges;
STATUS: Since last February 1997, this rule has been changed to "12-19 years of age".
Pat had just turned 13 and was achieving 5 years below his cognitive potential. As previously noted, Pat's level of achievement was known to ThinkQuest Contest Administrators when they made their decision for NO accommodations for Pat. Kate had just turned 15 years old and Cole, 13 as well. The collective cognitive average age of this inexperienced team was approximately 12-13 years.
CHALLENGE:These two rules are certainly restrictive if one or all student participants need a "studybuddy"; either due to lack of technology resources or need for support for academic, cognitive or disability related challenges. As a solution, we chose to pair Pat with his sister and as the third student team member, who we thought could provide the peer support (rules require students to do all the work) and technological savvy (she learns quickly) to do whatever he could not- together. This left Kate with a huge burden of being "two team members" and emotional peer support for an already alienated adolescent. This proved to be a competitive negative as we ended up with one very overwhelmed Team Leader who had her own learning curve to achieve, to be at a place where she could successfully work with her brother.
These choices proved to be counter-productive for both sister and brother:
CHALLENGE: Should we have chosen an 18 year old who had no special challenges and was an expert webmaster, just to WIN or compensate for a member deemed less competent, especially with denial of accommodations? Are these educational contests geared toward "winning" to the point of exclusion? Are the hidden lessons or messages given here "within the rules" to students and coaches ones that promote team spirit and inclusion of all students?
Or ... Do they promote and encourage society's norm; a discriminatory or elitist attitude by encouraging choice of team members of those that are already overachievers, families that have the financial resources and/or school districts who are economically or financially "well-off" and already have the "advantage"? An inequity already exists without enlarging this chasm by not allowing federally mandated accommodations to kids whom need them....
RULE: Encourage broad-based collaboration over the Internet by scoring (25%) based on the overall diversity of the team. This includes factors such as geographic location, socioeconomic groups and access to technology and the Internet (1998 rules lean more heavily toward technology access).
Collaboration over the Internet has a few challenges yet on it's own without adding additional hurdles such as access issues.
Assumes support of school administration for resources such as teaching personnel, hardware, software, Internet access, knowledge of special needs and guidance (coaching), etc.
In a year of dramatic State and Local budget cuts in suburban districts for special needs and general education (to a lesser degree) and an increase in both educational funds and technology funding in at-risk or inner city districts, a district such as ours would not and could not justify the costs of adaptive hardware and software or get special education personnel to assist in this 7 month commitment. As a result, this portion of the team had absolutely NO support from the schools.
Assumes that generally, all 12-19 year olds can compete on a similar cognitive/academic, physical and communicative plane with the same level of support.
If this were true, why does "special education" and IDEA or the ADA exist? Why do we have middle schools seaparate from the high schools?
Have placed their extensive libraries of rules, forms, technical tips and guidelines, links to resources, resources for coaches and students on one web site (and in one format) that is extremely large. Although there is a site map, it's vast resources make it difficult to navigate and find information, even for an adult!
TQ needs to apply the full measure of accessibility standards they encourage their participants to use.
REQUIRE that student team members must do all work.
It was my experience and interpretation of this rule that it assumes a certain level of competence and access; for example: researching on the web through TQ's links (words underlined in blue, until recently when I noticed some web addresses spelled out) and search engines on how to do Java or CGI scripting or encoding of Real Media on their UNIX server.... Or what are copyright rules for the Music Industry? These baseline competencies are extremely high tech and require a rather sophisticated degree of proficiency, an academic reading comprehension and applications level near 19 years old and equipment resources most schools, much less households do not have.
There are a few options available to correct this inequity.
Based on the above parameters, I emailed the Director of ThinkQuest prior to submitting the kids' application for participation, to ask for feedback on supports and special needs based on my son's disAbilities and school accommodations. Upon a request from TQ for further information regarding the exact nature of his disAbilities, I forwarded another email which explained in depth his strengths and areas of weakness that I saw to be an issue, as well as some academic assessment results for documentation.
I was told that no accommodations were needed for Pat to fully participate; that the other team members "could do what he could not." Knowing my son's challenges and gifts, I suggested that for full participation and inclusion, he might need more support for ThinkQuest as he had in his educational and home setting. Again I was told to have the other students do those activities that he could not manage.
Schools: absolutely no support was provided. In fact, with the two investigative EDUCATIONAL excursions we made for this contest, the kids were essentially penalized for missing school.
Equipment: The entry form for ThinkQuest only asked for and provided a place on their form for the School's technology resources - which for us, was entirely irrelevantas the school was not involved.
Pat & Kate (and eventually I as well): PC Pentium 133 with what eventually turned out to be a bad hard drive) which I use for business. Apple's Disabilities Solutions Group loaned the kids a used MAC of which we were extremely greatful. Unfortunately this computer did not meet the technical demands of the contest.
Cole and Nancy: have two PC's (one Pentium) and a new laptop with MMX.
Coach in Wisconsin: Pentium
Local and most critical coach: MAC Professional level power and speed, scanner, video capture card, VCR and two Monitors. (resigned for medical reasons early on)
Basics for the students;
Professional software for the initial coaches (I was not privileged with professional level software when I became head coach at a later date, as described below).
America On Line and some surfing for this Captain; no experience in the area of HTML or web mastering (I became a coach quite suddenly for my two children in May and June because of illness of one coach and family illness in another). No web Page Design or HTML experience for any team members. Of our original coaches, one teaches computer graphics arts in college and has web design business and another is a professional web master as well as an adaptive computer consultant had extensive knowledge and experience. Cole's Mother had little to no experience in web design but is a MIS specialist.
Coach's status: All were volunteers. One coach was local (Pat's resigned in May due to illness) and Kate's (Pat's older sister Kate, was chosen for the role modeling and peer support rather than what was suggested by ThinkQuest rules: by knowledge and expertise) was in Wisconsin over 2000 miles away and could not actively participate for months due to wife's illness and job demands. In addition, accessibility (I spent hours totaling in the "days"), cutting and pasting the TQ extensive rules and regulations into email to send to Dick in a format that was accessible to his adaptive hardware and software. Cole had his Mom and MIS specialist for a coach. As a working Mom she was unavailable much of the time.
Donations: As a marketing and non-profit fund-raising professional of 20 years, I spent well-over 1000 hours and $3,000 soliciting, obtaining and supporting the hardware, software and technical guidance over a 6 month period of time. This was necessary just to get the team through Plan A (Over 40 extremely generous vendor, non-profit and community sponsors). This effort was insufficient in dollars and support; it distracted daily from the time that was needed to properly coach and train both Pat and Kate in the necessary software, hardware and web techniques. I was constantly caught in the time and resources conflict: spend time with the kids or get donated what we needed to make the web site complete.
Lack of: financial resources, volunteer educated coaches and support for the kids, school support, time, web accessibility (ISP and access to information in proper format) and many other assorted reasons (as cited above and more) prohibited us from reaching our goals and completing the entry as we had planned. When we requested more time because of these reasons, we were given 3 extra days - as were many other teams, due to TQ's technical problems- not our needs. 3 days was still insufficient time to overcome the challenges that caused our greater need for time and access.
Another Rule That Needs Addressing:
The limits TQ rules placed on the sponsor page prevented the team from keeping commitments to our many sponsors. We were allowed ONE page only for placing the logos of our very generous sponsors, with each logo only permitted to be 15,000 pel. First, it took us two emails to the TQ Help Desk and over a month to determine what a PEL was (a pixel for those as ignorant as us!). Because this page kept growing and logos given to us by vendors were so large, we could not technically fit per the 15,000 pixel rule and have the page load under 10 minutes. Thus, we were unable to fulfill our commitments to these incredible sponsors! This in fact caused quite a conflict as the kids "wanted to get the information on the pages" and be "accurate" and I was concerned more with keeping my commitments to the sponsors who made it all possible! The Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia OnLine has assisted us by providing space for a mirror site, so the kids could display all the logos as well as correct the error and omissions left undone with the time constraints there at the end. In the end- I hope... as most seem to, that they not only understand these restrictions, but that they support kids in this type Summit event in the future. Their belief (Phila Online/Inquirer and other 40+ sponsors) and trust WAS and is invaluable if kids are to benefit from their support in the future!
The Greatest Challenge: Communication
Per the rules, student team members and coaches were chosen based on diversity including geography. An effective method for Communication over the Internet became our first priority. Cross-platforms, varying levels of hardware needed for sophistication of software we expected to need, lack of ISP access (free AOL account) and thereby incompatible services, financial resources and Pat's disAbilities were hurdles that literally took over two months to overcome. A voice conferencing system (Voxchat by Voxware, Inc., another of our incredible sponsors) was eventually decided on as Pat could not type colloquially in a chat or could he read the emails and understand them. Pat had tried so many programs and methods and had failed at them too many times in front of "new people", that he gave up the on the sense of team spirit or inclusion very early on. He has not regained this feeling of being a team, despite our many efforts.
Name and purpose:
During the first phone conference call we held to discuss this issue of communication and compatibility, we also determined as a team, the entry's concept, goal and name. "Just Because We Have A disAbility Doesn't Mean We BYTE!" was an actual answer Pat had given when asked what he would like to say to all the kids at school regarding his disAbilities. We all agreed this was an excellent name. The goal was simply to educate kids about how it feels to have a disAbility and about the different types of disorders. The kids believe that through education (experiential) and understanding, comes compassion and tolerance for other's differences... A worthwhile goal…..
ThinkQuest: A Journey of Learning & Hope.
I can only hope that through the telling of Pat's very negative experience in this educational contest and our incredible frustration and heroic efforts at making it happen", that the Global School Network and Advanced Network & Services, Inc., as well as the readers and other participants in this journey, learned some valuable lessons. I challenge ThinkQuest and their dedicated employees and administrators to make this contest accessible, equitable, enjoyable and a positive values based experience for all that choose to enter. In addition, I challenge them to rewrite their rules and technical guidelines, looking less at the winning aspect of this contest and more at the LEARNING contribution or educational value for each INDIVIDUAL participant. In accepting this challenge and making their methods more universally accessible, they will truly be bringing equity and Universal standards to not only the participants, but all the students worldwide that access the final products and... to a dynamic and worthwhile experience called: THINKQUEST!
The Big Picture............. THINKQUEST is Not Alone
Theoretically, it is feasible with the assistance of technology for those demographic groups such as Communication Disordered, Polymorbidic Learning disAbled, Mobility Impaired etc. to attend college, have meaningful careers, live their dreams if they so choose. Distance Learning, readily available on the web, eliminates many obstacles individuals with disAbilities face; experiencing the frustration of those around them who are not comfortable with stuttering or an augmentative communication device; for those that cannot get out of the house either because of the expense of lift accommodated transportation, accessibility or acute illness etc..... They can see the world, discover new friends and further their education if they so choose- be employed online and thereby a positive economic force rather than being forced to accept public assistance when they are able to have a career! They can live their dreams!
This will only be possible.....
when the cost of adaptations to access a switch or type an email become reasonable or made available so that all individuals in Special Education and vocational rehabilitation can contribute to society as they so yearn to do!
This will only be possible.....
when the schools and our Governmental Leaders see through the educational & political haze; and understand that the kids who could benefit most from the increase in technology dollars can't access the web without Universal Design and adaptions, and are being fought in court to the tunes of tens of thousands of dollars in school solicitor fees because school board members, technology teachers and administrators question: "THE NEEDS OF THE MANY OVER THE NEEDS OF THE ONE"; if we give it to one kid, all the other parents in the district with expect a computer for their child!.
A Personal & Very Painful Experience: I've even had one School Board Member ask me " What makes you think your child is $5,000 more important than 500 other students?" I asked this sadly ignorant individual: "Is your child of a high IQ and achieving 5 years behind his peers? Can they write for the first time using a computer?" The response was: "Help him at home like we do our children!"
Interpretation: It's all YOUR Fault your child has a disAbility and we won't pay for your screwed up kid!
Until these mentalities change through education and experience... until a new paradigm is realized by those allocating funds, legislating and enforcing the laws put into place to insure equity... we will need to continue to voice our realities to companies like Advanced Network & Services, Inc., teach our kids self-advocacy, continue to remind them that THEY have Civil RIGHTS and are worthy, and to navigate these stormy seas together..... so all children and adults whom are challenged have equity and can choose to pursue their careers and live their DREAMS!
Sites to Visit
Anne Macleod (RMacl49796@aol.com) is a marketing professional and mother of three exceptional children. After 5 years of research and course work in assistive technology, software and services, Anne's aggressive advocacy for her son within the school district, State Office of Administrative Law and community led to success in accessing the technology he desparately needed to communicate and achive academically in school and life. As a result of her experiences, she hosts 2 live-support forums on the web for parents experiencing similar challenges and is actively involved with her kids in accessing the web's full value. Most recently, she successfully coached a team of 3 exceptional children (including 2 of her own) in an International Educational Internet Web Design Contest after which she questions: "Is there Educational Equity on the Web?"
Copyright © 1998 by Anne Macleod. All Rights Reserved.