They are all around us. Our sense of reality is based in a large degree on the ways in which we can classify objects around us. The success of our species has been based around the ability to quickly categorize an object and come to some conclusion as to whether it warrants further attention. In essence, all objects are simply spherical frictionless blobs of nothingness until we classify where it goes within our experience.

  • Is this an opportunity?
    • Can I eat it?
    • Can I have sex with it?
  • Is this a threat?
    • Should I fight it?
    • Should I take flight from it?

This basic ability of humans to quickly categorize things, both physical and abstract, has some downsides to it however. While we can quickly size up things that are within our everyday experience, the ability to integrate things that are different tend to go into the “this is a threat” category until we have built up enough experience in order to see the value of the experience as it is presented.

Welcome to the world of biased perception. A world in which we can quickly and easily discount people or things based upon how we classify them in relationship to the rest of our experiences.

Over the next 30 minutes I would like to present to you an alternative viewpoint of our innate bias and how it can be leveraged to overcome issues of accessibility. Near the end of this presentation we’ll apply these concepts to the educational field.

Rethinking Disabilities

To start, I want to use a listing of nine (9) general disability types as recognized by Industry Canada for the purposes of workplace accessibility issues. As I start to list each of these items, I want you to pay close attention to where the general theme of this is going as it should be obvious in a moment.

  1. Cognitive Impairment
  2. Deaf-Blind
  3. Dexterity Impairment
  4. Elderly
  5. Hearing Impairment
  6. Learning Disability
  7. Mobility Impairment
  8. Speech and Language Impairment
  9. Visual Impairment


With only one real exception, the general theme here is that of impairment, not disability. This distinction is important as it forms the basis from which bias creeps into our perceived classification of whether someone experiencing these types of difficulties represents friend or foe.

Let me put this into perspective – with the exception of those who are deaf/blind – everyone on the face of the planet is going to experience some form of impairment in every single one of the other eight categories. Think about this for a moment.

As we age – our sight gets worse, we don’t hear as well, our ability to learn new information decreases, nevermind things such as joint / hip replacements. If you work on computers all day then you will probably experience some form of carpal tunnel syndrome.  Heck – even getting old is an impairment. While the severity of such impairments can be anywhere from mild to extreme the bottom line is that we need to stop thinking in terms of impairment being something that only happens to someone else.

Disability isn’t about other people – it is about us – everyone.
Like death and taxes – it is unavoidable.

Words have power though. And as such it may be time to stop thinking of these challenges as being a disability for which we can nothing but rather an impairment for which there are remedies and solutions.

Workplace Accessibility Toolkits

In industry, a WAT is a workplace accessibility toolkit which is an essential toolbox for overcoming impairments through the use of assistive technologies. Toolkits however are only as good as the information used to identify what is available, how to obtain it, and what impairments they can help provide solutions for.

The assistive technology links on the Industry Canada web site can help provide a lot of this information. On this site it breaks down various impairments and associates a number of assistive technologies that may be useful in overcoming the difficulty.

For example, for those with hearing difficulties the following technologies are listed as being available through various companies to help overcome those difficulties.

  1. Hearing Aids
  2. Multimedia Captioning (Hardware)
  3. Multimedia Captioning (Software)
  4. Non-printing TTY Advice
  5. Note Taking/Real Time Captioning
  6. Printing TTY Advice
  7. Show-sounds (software)
  8. Sign Language Interpretation
  9. Sound Enhancement / Replacement
  10. Speakers / Amplifiers (Hardware)
  11. Teletype (TTY) (BAUDOT) Phones
  12. Teletype (TTY) Emulators
  13. Text/Speech to Sign Translators
  14. Visual Alarm System
  15. Visual Alert Indicators

This is not to say that any or all of these will be of assistance however it is difficult to discuss options with those experiencing difficulties if the only option in your toolkit is say “note taking/real time captioning”. It is that age old problem that if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem you come across will look like a nail.

People Aren’t Nails

People are individuals. While there may be opportunities to broadly classify people’s impairments under specific demographics, when it comes to the wheels hitting the road, each individual’s circumstances is going to be different.

  • Different severity
  • Different economic circumstances
  • Different environmental conditions
  • Different application
  • Different personal preferences / wants

There are several databases from which to develop a WAT. Industry Canada provides a breakdown of some of the major international ones which include.

(Source Ref:

Databases like AbleData are crucial to developing a workplace accessible toolkit. Resources including information centers, libraries of publications, and product indexing across multiple categories. For example AbleData cite eight (8) different products for the classroom that are available for children with dexterity challenges. (Ref:,11436)

WATs in the Classroom

Not all options however are necessarily going to be available to overcome impairments in any given situation. Just because an assistive technology exist doesn’t mean it has to be employed. That may sound harsh in some cases however whether you are talking about Industry Canada guidelines or the US Section 508 provision, at issue are three core values which form the basis of what needs to go into the toolkit:

  1. Ensure all clients receive services they are able to access,
  2. Deliver multiple formats in a timely manner, and
  3. Make multiple formats available at the same cost.


Everything else from this point on is based upon a request for service using an alternative format – not that every alternative format has to be available. This is where your toolkit comes into play.

To be accessible your organization should prepare in advance a policy statement on

  • what assistive technologies are currently in place to address challenges immediately,
  • what technologies they are prepared to offer with advance notice (including timelines), and
  • what processes someone with an impairment that is not covered should use to request service using a mutually agreeable format for service (including timelines).

This can provide for additional challenges on the part of the instructor in the classroom as it may require modifications or re-writes to course assignments in order to accommodate the assistive technology being used. In these cases the instructor has a few options available to them

  1. Re-work the module so that assignments are not dependent on assistive technologies,
  2. Re-work the module so that the assistive technology is being used by everyone,
  3. Re-work the module so that assistive technology options are available upon request,
  4. Develop alternative modules that are equivalent to the main modules.

For example, individual lab assignments may be more appropriately done using teams to remove the requirement for assistive technology usage. By the same token, having everyone in the classroom using the same assistive technology may provide for additional learning opportunities that wouldn’t normally be available if the technology wasn’t required.

The ideal situation is always to be more inclusive rather than less. The classroom environment is one of those key places of learning where biases can either be removed or reinforced. So where possible integration should be strongly encouraged as compared to developing alternative scenarios which segment a portion of the class out as being ‘different’.

— Kevin Feenan

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