One man sitting at a table and two other men are standing behind him. They are in front of a yellow wall that says \"Assistive Technology.\"
Photo cutlines: From left: Ian Kunkes, Ed.D., director of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity; Christopher Parthemos, senior access specialist with SAEO; and Joseph Venezia, information associate with VCU Libraries. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

New lab provides VCU students with technology to make learning more accessible

Assistive Technology Lab, located in the Commons, provides tools for help with time management, writing improvement, and converting speech into text, among other needs.

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Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity office has opened an Assistive Technology Lab in the basement of the Commons to connect VCU students with technology to make learning more efficient and accessible.

“The Assistive Technology Lab is really about helping students move toward independence,” said Ian Kunkes, Ed.D., director of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity, part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity is the designated office on VCU's Monroe Park Campus charged with fostering an environment where all students have equal access to the university's programs, services and activities.

At the end of the spring semester, the office was supporting 2,300 students who had disclosed a disability. The new lab is meant to help support both students who are registered with the office, but also any others who might be looking for tools to help with time management, improve their writing, convert speech into text, or other assistive technology needs.

“For decades now, students have come into offices like ours looking for peer note takers. They can’t focus in class and take notes at the same time,” Kunkes said. “If we could provide them software or hardware technology solutions where there’s note taking happening with and for them, and that doesn't involve reliance on another person, that’s a move towards independence.”

Christopher Parthemos, senior access specialist, said students visiting the Assistive Technology Lab will find information about assistive software and hardware.

“In terms of hardware, it might be a ‘smart pen,’ which is a pen that synchronizes your notes you're taking with audio that you're hearing in the lecture,” Parthemos said. “Or it might be a portable magnifying device that makes it easier to read text.”

Software tools might include adaptive fonts for students with dyslexia; Grammarly to check spelling, grammar and punctuation; or Equatio to help with math.

Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity provides free access to certain hardware and paid subscription software as an accommodation to registered students. The tools are also available to other students at a cost, though they are often quite affordable, Parthemos said. Also, any student visiting the lab can gain information about freely available tools that assist with dictation, spelling, reading and more. Staff members such as Parthemos are available to provide training on how to use hardware and software to support learning.

The Assistive Technology Lab is also partnering with VCU Libraries on a new accessibility station that is available on the first floor of James Branch Cabell Library. It provides any member of the VCU community with access to a magnifying reader, a tool that reads text aloud, a large font keyboard and more.

“We’re so delighted that this new accessibility station is in an area of Cabell that signals our intent to be inclusive of all abilities,” said Laura Gariepy, Ph.D., associate dean for research and learning with VCU Libraries. “Our partnership with SAEO has been invaluable in efforts to advance our efforts to ensure library services, collections and technology are truly for everyone.”