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Release: Aug. 31, 2001

EDITORS: You may find this story particularly timely given that October is National Deaf and Disability Awareness Month. Reporters interested in testing some of the specialty equipment in the assistive technology lab themselves or photographing/videotaping people using the equipment may contact Robert David Dawson at 335-5280 to make arrangements.

UI College of Education bolsters assistive technology services

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- At some point during each assistive technology class at the University of Iowa, Robert David Dawson likes to put his students before a computer screen and place in their hands an object that looks like a cross between a Frisbee and the underbelly of a weed trimmer.

The students' mission? To compose a paper, a paragraph -- even a simple sentence. One click at a time.

The object -- a blue disk topped by a smaller green disk -- is a computer-input device designed for paralyzed people who may only be able to move one finger. It works in tandem with a program called an on-screen keyboard. Each click of its solitary button tells the computer to break up the keyboard on the screen into smaller and smaller sectors until the desired character is reached. The steps must be repeated for every letter, every comma, every number and every space.

"My students say, 'But it's so slow.' And I tell them, 'Imagine if you were never able to type before,'" says Dawson. "It becomes extremely emotional when you give someone who has a significant disability something like this device."

Making technology accessible to people with disabilities has long been a priority of the College of Education's Education Technology Center. For more than seven years, staff from that department have volunteered countless hours testing and making available in their lab an array of computer software and hardware designed for people with disabilities; training UI students, faculty and staff; even consulting businesses and students, parents and teachers in Iowa K-12 schools. This semester, the College of Education made a major commitment to expanding those services by creating the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology and Educational Resources (ICATER), appointing Dawson as a full-time coordinator for one year and allocating $20,000 for computer equipment to the office. The college's hope is that the center will secure enough grants and other funding support from within and outside the university by next year to continue operating.

"We feel assistive technology is really in its infancy and that it has considerable potential," said Sandra Damico, dean of the College of Education. "Our college is always looking for ways to make knowledge more accessible to people who -- for whatever reason -- aren't served by traditional methods and resources."

Dawson, coordinator of the center, says he sees ICATER filling three distinct roles: as a training center, as a research center and as an educational resource.

The center can provide training on seven dedicated computers equipped with special software and hardware to make them accessible to people with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities. For the sight-impaired, there are programs that magnify images on the screen so they're more easily viewed. For people who are blind, there are computers that will read aloud any page displayed on the screen, including books and other paper scanned into the system. There is also a plain black box the size and shape of a small synthesizer that translates data from the computer into Braille that the user can read by placing his or her fingertips on a row of moving pins. There is also a device called an embosser that converts data into Braille and imprints it onto paper. For people with mobility impairment, there are voice-recognition programs that convert spoken words into text and "augmented input devices," such as large keyboards, track balls and joysticks in place of the standard mouse.

In the area of research, Dawson plans to evaluate software and hardware intended for people with disabilities. He said he wants to see what works, how much it costs and how well it can be incorporated into the classroom, home or other locations that may need to accommodate students with or without a disability. And while his interest is primarily in utilitarian products -- those that help people type or browse the Web, for instance -- he's also tested a few entertainment programs, including a pinball game designed for the blind that uses sounds in place of graphical bumpers and paddles to tell the user where the "ball" is at any given moment.

"The thing about games is that they let people learn how to use the equipment in a fun way," Dawson says.

He also hopes to conduct needs analyses throughout the University of Iowa, as well as of K-12 classrooms throughout the state; form focus groups; and assess existing technologies -- such as those used in distance-learning -- to see how they might be made more universally accessible.

As a resource center, Dawson hopes ICATER can help collect, pare down and disseminate all the information on assistive technologies generated nationally -- information that can overwhelm students and parents trying to find the best solution to their situation. Through workshops, seminars and consulting, he wants ICATER to help people make informed decisions about buying and using assistive technologies.

Although ICATER is not the only center on campus that offers assistive technology, Dawson said it is quickly gaining a reputation on campus as a leader in the movement to improve, expand and better coordinate the university's efforts in the area.

Susan Vess, director of the UI's Office of Student Disability Services, says her office serves about 800 students, many of whom could use some of the assistance offered by ICATER. About as many faculty and staff are served by the Faculty and Staff Disability Services, which is part of the UI Human Resources Office.

"I think one of the things important about Dave Dawson's work is that he not only is helping the university keep up with its responsibilities in the area of assistive technology, but he's also providing a forum or means by which students with disabilities can learn about the assistive technologies that are available for purchase for personal use or study," said Vess. "His program is really a key link between assistive technology that students are exposed to in secondary schools and the technology they will encounter in the workplace after graduation."

Dawson, who is clearly enthusiastic about the future of the center, is motivated by personal interest, as well as professional. Diagnosed as a child with cognitive and learning disabilities, Dawson went on to earn a Ph.D. this summer in rehabilitation counseling from the College of Education.

"So I'm coming to this as a person with a disability who uses assistive technology," he says.

People interested in getting training or information can reach Dawson at (319) 335-5280 or via email at