A new normal | Adaptive technology opening possibilities for disabled students, employees at Bellevue College

Bellevue College's new hearing loop in the theater is one of several innovations used to help students with disabilities.

When Susan Gjolmesli was a high school and college student, the Americans with Disabilities Act was still decades away and the pervasive mindset about people with physical and psychological disabilities remained arcane.

As she studied for a career as a teacher and simultaneously dealt with increasing blindness due to a genetic condition that slowly sapped her vision, Gjolmesli was constantly underestimated and even discriminated against because of her condition.

“People didn’t think I would make it in education,” she said. “Because of my blindness.”

After beginning her career in disability services at the Department of Services for the Blind, Gjolmesli took an unconventional detour to a horticulture school in Colorado, where she again found an instructor uneducated on the functionality of people with disabilities and a system unwilling to integrate technology to assist them.

Those experiences, and her own history with adaptive technology, led her to seek out an employer that was not only dedicated to assisting individuals with disabilities, but integrating services to existing infrastructure that would allow them to thrive. As Gjolmesli said, once the playing field is leveled for those who have difficulty seeing, hearing, walking or utilizing motor skills, the opportunity for greatness is discovered.

That belief took her to Bellevue College.

For nearly 18 years, Gjolmesli has served as the Director of the college’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), which serves some 900 Bellevue College students each year. Unlike previous stops in her life where she was doubted because of her blindness, Gjolmesli found the environment at BC to be accommodating. That idea is underlined by the integrated system she uses to send and receive email and set appointments, which reads to her as she sits at her computer. All Bellevue College computers run the program, which interfaces to make web browsing, word processing and other computer tasks accessible.

On Tuesday, the DRC welcomed a program from the University of Washington known as AccessSTEM or the Alliance for Students with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, to showcase adaptive technology for people with a range of disabilities and celebrate the installation of a “hearing loop” in the Carlson Theater that amplifies speech or music while minimizing distracting background noises.

Noah Seidel, a graduate of the University of Washington’s program in disability studies who has been with AccessSTEM since his time as an undergraduate, said showing both disabled and able-bodied people the incredibly ingenuity that goes into adaptive technology and the ease it can open a new world of possibilities and offer a new perspective on what disability looks like.

“It’s the best part,” he said. “Seeing kids who are four and five years old get excited because they can do something, and watching their parents see their children can participate is great.”

Seidel showcased a range of technologies from a batter-powered water-level sensor that vibrates when the water is at the desired amount in a beaker to plastic models of the life cycle of a butterfly, which are ideal for both blind students as well as those who have difficulty conceptualizing material in traditionally taught methods.

The hearing loop offers a number of exciting opportunities as well for students to both enjoy performances and find greater audio clarity during lectures and group discussions. BC is only the second institution of higher learning in the state to install the loop and Gjolmesli said it is yet another sign of the dedication the college has to its disabled population and the community at-large, even in spite of the economic downturn.

“It’s pretty cool to have the support of the college and faculty,” she said. I think Bellevue College does a fabulous job in the scheme of things.”

A battery operated device adjusts to vibrate when water touches a pair of prongs that sit on the inside of the beaker to let blind individuals know when they have the desired volume. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

Noah Seidel demonstrates a color teller, which calls out colors after being touched to a surface. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

An electronic device uses a pair of magnets to stir or mix liquids, an especially useful device for those who struggle with shaking and motor skills. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

Contact and submissions: jsuman@bellevuereporter.com