Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2006

Adaptive Technology: Not Just for People with Disabilities

by: Sherry E. Gelbwasser, Information Service Librarian, Asnuntuck Community College

Reprinted with permission from Connecticut Libraries, October 2005

What can possibly be so useful and yet is misunderstood and underfunded in libraries? The answer is "adaptive technology." Even when Michael Moran, director of the Learning Resource Center (LRC) at Asnuntuck Community College, and I received a Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grant to make the center more accessible, we were hard pressed to justify spending over $10,000 to meet the needs of what is usually perceived as a small population.

When we prepared the grant application in 2004, 16 ACC students identified themselves as living with a disability according to a counselor who dealt primarily with students with such students. However, all of us can say that we either have lived or we do live with something that challenges our ability to function in one area or another. For example, we don’t normally perceive people who wear corrective eyeglasses or contact lenses as living with a disability. But, "if you wear glasses, then you have a handicap," said the police officer who administered the exam for my learner’s permit when I was 16.

The first paragraph of an ERIC document by Mary Prentice best summarizes our changing understanding of people living with disabilities, and especially as this relates to student populations. 1

People with disabilities make up the single largest minority group in the United States. Over the past ten years the traditional profile of disabled persons as older, poorer, less educated and less likely to be employed has begun to change. This is due in part to a dramatic increase in the number of students with disabilities who are seeking higher education. 2 This increase is attributed to, among other things, enhanced technology, expanded support service programs, and higher expectations of what students with disabilities can accomplish. A majority of these students have turned to two-year colleges for their educational needs; of the students with disabilities in higher education in 1997-1998, 55 percent were enrolled in community colleges. 3
Students as a whole are getting older because the population as a whole is aging. The potential impact of this fact is that it has most likely changed the description of those for whom LSTA was written. The act was passed: (1) to provide information access through technology, and (2) to provide information empowerment through special services. 4 It provides libraries and museums with federal funding to improve their ability to meet the special needs of library patrons.

In March 2004, the LRC at ACC was 1 of 2 college libraries in Connecticut to receive an LSTA grant to upgrade their adaptive technology and make resources more accessible to students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community borrowers with disabilities, or to those with special needs -- an even broader and more accurate description of our population. After talking to experts who work with adaptive technology, reviewing the related literature, and attending relevant workshops, we purchased the following equipment and software: Dell Pentium IV computer workstation, laserjet printer, scanner, closed- circuit television desktop magnifier, 2 height-adjustable tables with wheels, Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, Kurzweil 3000 software for students whose first language is not English or who have learning disabilities, Tracker 2000 hands-free mouse, ZoomText Magnifier/Screen-Reader software, uniphone (all-in-one TTY, traditional phone with an amplified receiver and printing capabilities).

This adaptive technology was installed between December 2004 and May 2005. A state contract-approved vendor provided tiered training, beginning with those employees meant to become resident experts and extending to student assistants. Later, I trained all faculty, staff, and students who were not at the vendor’s training sessions. The vendor will provide additional training on the software for other key ACC employees in the near future.

The new adaptive technology area of the LRC is being promoted through posters, press releases, and discussion in library instruction sessions and in orientation programs for new faculty and students. Highlighting this new area in updated college publications is another means of getting the word out.

The most common problem hindering students, faculty, staff, and administrators from using the adaptive technology area or from taking the time to attend training sessions is a misunderstanding of who can benefit from adaptive technology. Those who have attended training sessions and then used the new equipment have already discovered that it makes the process of writing academic assignments easier. In some cases, students disclosed challenges with reading and writing that were previously unknown to the library staff. Overall, these students believe that the adaptive technology area will become even more useful to them as they get more experience with the equipment.

Small numbers of potential beneficiaries can be deceiving when applying for grants or special funding for special needs populations. When we applied for our LSTA grant, we did not suspect that adaptive technology would have such broad appeal, or that it would benefit so many people. Now that we understand that the need is greater than anticipated, we hope to do more to respond to that need.


  1. Mary Prentice, "Serving Students with Disabilities at the Community College," ERIC Digest 2002, Retrieved August 22, 2005, from www.ericdigests.org
  2. M.C. Smith, The College Access, Retention, and Employment (CARE) Program Model (Washington, D.C.: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 1998) ERIC Reproduction No. ED 418 751.
  3. L. Lewis and E. Farris, An Institutional Perspective on Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education, (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).
  4. U.S. Code 20 Chapter 72, Museum and Library Services.