Monday, November 19

Alumnus works to improve UCLA’s Disabilities and Computing Program

Patrick Burke, who grew up blind, knows how to help others use technology effectively

Patrick Burke has strolled through the UCLA campus for 29 years, but has no idea what Kerckhoff Hall, the Inverted Fountain or the Murphy Sculpture Garden look like.

Burke is blind, and has been since he developed the eye disease retinoblastoma as a baby.

He is also the coordinator of UCLA’s Disabilities and Computing Program, which ensures that students with disabilities have equal access to software and information. His task is somewhat of a dichotomy ““ he finds technological solutions to problems that disabled students encounter, while coping with his own blindness.

“I definitely (used to feel) the barrier between me and the world of books, newspapers and other information. But starting with the system that scanned paper documents into electronic text and read them with computer-synthesized speech, suddenly mountains of information were there for me,” Burke said in an e-mail.

“The barriers are still there and are always changing, and helping find the solutions, both for myself and others, is one major thing that keeps me going.”

In his Math Sciences Building office, Burke offers numerous services to the Bruin community, from translating course materials into an electronic format to making campus Web sites easier to navigate. Burke started working part time for the Disabilities and Computing Program in 1994 after arriving on campus in 1987 as a graduate student in German, and he climbed his way up to run the program in 2005.

Before he came to UCLA and benefited from the computing program he now runs, the most sophisticated disability-oriented technology Burke had used was a talking calculator. As an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University, he took oral exams and wrote papers on a typewriter.

“(One) professor used a magnifying glass to read the indentations on my essay when the ink on my typewriter ribbon ran out mid-page,” Burke said in the e-mail. “Every blind student from the ’80s has a few no-ink typing stories.”

Once on the UCLA campus, Burke had difficulty learning how to get from one location to another. The Office for Students with Disabilities made him a tactile map of wooden blocks and yarn that literally helped him get a good feel for the place, but he said that even today, parts of Ackerman are still “too loud and confusing” for him to navigate.

The Office for Students with Disabilities also recorded hundreds of hours of reading on cassette tapes for Burke. Meanwhile, the Disabilities and Computing Program’s technology enabled him to scan in texts in multiple languages ““ German, English, French ““ and he started spending more and more time in the Disabilities and Computing Lab as a result of the support they gave him.

“(UCLA) started the lab shortly after I got here, and at that time I had no idea what computers could do. I wasn’t really interested in them because I was studying 18th-century literature, and they didn’t have computers back then,” Burke said. “But gradually, they worked on me.”

Eventually, Burke was offered a job that began his career in the Disabilities and Computing Program: putting paper through the Braille machine.

“At the time, the Braille printer went at the pace of one page for every minute, and they would have 500 pages,” Burke said. “So someone’s going to be sitting at the Braille printer for an awfully long time. They said, “˜We’ll pay you to do it,’ and suddenly it wasn’t sounding so bad.”

Now Burke has a faster black, green and cream Braille printer in the office where he delves into often unseen issues that plague the disabled population on campus. Last year, UCLA had 1,443 disabled students, according to Kathy Molini, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities.

Many students may not take the time to consider how people with severe dyslexia would ingest the information compiled in their chemistry or history textbook. Burke’s job is to pinpoint and fix such difficulties.

The Disabilities and Computing Program provides Kurzweil 3000, a program that reads text aloud, for students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities. Dragon NaturallySpeaking software performs the reverse process, allowing those with hand or mobility disabilities to dictate text and control the computer with their voice. And many of the titles Burke listened to on tape as a graduate student are now available through Project Gutenberg and other sources.

“Patrick thinks from a perspective that many of us don’t default to in our everyday life,” said Kyle McJunkin, a UCLA College academic counselor and adviser for the disabilities studies minor.

For example, many students view UCLA’s iTunes U as a useful conduit to lectures, videos and podcasts posted by departments. But when the university was first considering adopting the iTunes system, it was impossible for Burke to even find and press the play button.

His text-to-speech computer software JAWS analyzes the material on his computer screen and reads out the most important parts. When JAWS, which operates under Windows, was applied to Apple’s iTunes U, the differences in the two systems confused the software.

“Now we’re getting Web designers to think naturally about accessibility instead of just saying, “˜Hey, this is a cool feature. I should put it in,’” Burke said. “You have to get them to say, “˜This is a cool feature, how do I make it accessible?’ Once they’ve got an answer, now they can put it on.”

Burke has also created Web sites for programs such as the Chancellor’s Americans with Disabilities Act & 504 Compliance Office and the Disabilities Studies minor. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against those who qualify as disabled.

“Students view (the Disabilities and Computing Program) as an essential service to their success at UCLA. It gives them the opportunity to use critical tools in academia, computers and computer-based software in a way that is successful and meets their specific accommodation requirements,” said Stephanie Fisher, the executive director of the Marilyn Hilton Multiple Sclerosis Achievement Center at UCLA and cochair of the UCLA Committee on Disability.

Though Burke may not be able to see Janss Steps or Powell Library when it comes to his work, it makes no difference.

“He’s really good at his job, whether he has a disability or not,” said Monroe Gordon, director of the Chancellor’s Americans with Disabilities Act & 504 Compliance Office.

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