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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

SHRS Researchers Receive Two Grants to Offer People with Disabilities a Window to the World Of the Internet

PITTSBURGH, January 13, 2003 People with disabilities experience significant barriers to accessing and using computers and the Internet studies show that the Web is three times more usable for people without disabilities than for those with disabilities.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) department of health information management have been awarded two grants to help people with disabilities overcome these barriers.

The first grant, a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), will evaluate barriers to using computers experienced by people with disabilities, as well as new and existing accommodations, which include assistive technology and training, to reduce these barriers. In addition, this grant will fund the creation of a gateway server that will make any website, regardless of its level of accessibility, available to those with visual impairments, giving users a Window to the World. This portion of the project also will be funded under a second, $490,000 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Information technology and the Internet have a tremendous potential to broaden the lives and increase the independence of people with disabilities, said Bambang Parmanto, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of health information management, SHRS and principal investigator of the project. The Internet can help people with disabilities overcome environmental, educational and social barriers. Studies show that the Internet has the potential to increase the independence of individuals with disabilities by offering a wide variety of educational and employment opportunities and allowing individuals to participate in community activities. But before this can happen, the Internet and computers must be made accessible.

Under the project, researchers will maintain computer labs in three community-based locations, Pittsburgh Vision Services, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living and the Institute of Advanced Technology at the Community College of Allegheny County. At these labs, they will test the range of accommodation possibilities by matching the assistive device to the individual and providing coaching and mentoring. The project also will involve two national organizations: the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

There is a seed of change in disability research to accommodate the needs of consumers with disabilities at a level close to the foundation of a research project through what we call participatory action research, said Miriam Hertz, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of health information management, SHRS and co-principal investigator for the grants. This project will include an infusion of ideas from study participants at Pittsburgh Vision Services, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, and the Community College of Allegheny County. By having people who will be the end users of the product evaluate the product during its development we can best address their needs.

In addition, a gateway web server will transform Web content into the most accessible format for a given user. Initially, the software will focus on people with visual impairments, creating an adaptive server that responds to user preferences and delivers customized information. The server will be free to both users and developers.

The development of this server is the backbone of this project. Of the 25 most-visited websites, none is accessible. Although there is a way to check sites for accessibility, many developers don't want to take the time or spend the money to change their site, since they are not required by law to make the site accessible, said Dr. Parmanto. Through this server, we can offer a cost-free alternative to updating their sites.

Studies have found that people without disabilities are three times more likely to have Internet access, and four times more likely to use the Internet than people with disabilities. The disparity in computer ownership also is striking. Numerous research studies have found that individuals with disabilities experience high levels of unemployment and high societal costs associated with welfare support. Individuals with disabilities are more likely than people without disabilities to live in poverty and are less likely to complete high school.

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