They call themselves the AzTechs.
Like the ancient American tribe, they may be rather unknown to most Carleton students. Yet these three students, Lily Sacharow ‘12, Tom Callister ‘13 and Karen McCleary ‘14, are working hard to provide accessible technology to all members of the Carleton community through the college’s Assistive Technology (AzTech) department.
Carleton’s Assistive Technology department was formed three years ago as a way to provide resources that make it easier for students to use technology. The department was established when then-freshman Sacharow responded to an email from her supervisor, Technical Support Specialist Kevin Chapman, looking for volunteers to start an Assistive Technology department.
The department started as a one-man operation directed by Sacharow, who began researching ways to make technology more accessible to students. As Sacharow became more knowledgeable, she began consulting with students who came to her seeking ways to make technology more compatible with their unique needs. Later Callister and then McCleary joined the growing operation.
“It’s been a long process,” Sacharow said, “but we feel we’re finally in a place where we can move to bigger projects.”
One of the main challenges that Sacharow has faced in growing AzTech is the department’s visibility.
When she started AzTech, Sacharow said, “I quickly realized there was no user base to support.”
She said her main task so far has been to make AzTech’s presence known to students who can benefit from its services. The AzTechs have done this largely by reaching out to other departments on campus, including SHAC, Disability Services, the library and the Academic Support Center, who can refer students to AzTech and its resources.
Two of these important resources are the programs Kurzweil and Dragon. Kurzweil is a program that converts text to speech and is designed primarily to serve dyslexic students. Dragon is a program that converts speech to text as a way to aid students with motor impairments or physical disabilities. Both of the programs are available on certain computers across campus.
Approximately 20 students use Kurzweil, while only a handful of students use Dragon, although the AzTechs believe there are many more students who can benefit from their use.
Beyond these two programs, the AzTechs also assist students by teaching them how to change the settings on their computers to make them more accessible.
“Many people are not aware of the simple changes they are able to make to their settings,” Sacharow said.
The AzTechs would also like to expand to in-class resources. They are beginning to explore the use of iPads and smart pens as note-taking tools for students with dyslexia and ADD.
The AzTechs say the great thing about these technologies is that they have broader applications that can benefit many people in the Carleton community.
“We are exploring ways in which Kurzweil and Dragon can be useful for ESL students, for example,” Sacharow said, adding that some people also use these technologies simply because they prefer to hear text out loud.
“We want to make people’s academic lives as easy and accessible as possible, to give everyone the same opportunity to succeed at Carleton,” Callister said.
As Chapman attests, simple changes can often have drastic results.
“As the world becomes more technologically driven, things are being made easier and more efficient,” he said. “For some people it takes just one tool for them to experience a dramatic improvement in their academic life.”
Chapman also emphasized that students shouldn’t be afraid to use their resources.
“Carls hate asking for help,” he said. “But it doesn’t need to be intrusive. We point one thing out and you’re on your way.”
One of the aspects of the AzTech program that makes this easier, Chapman said, is that it is “students reaching out to other students.”
Indeed, AzTech is very much a student-led endeavor.
“I have put a lot of faith in these students, and they have run with it and done amazing things,” Chapman said.
For Sacharow, this is what makes her appreciate her job.
“I love my job,” she gushed. “It has forced us to be really independent. Setting goals and defining the job for ourselves has been very rewarding an satisfying.”