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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bergeron's World

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut published "Harrison Bergeron."  In this story, America has become a politically correct nightmare society: Everyone is equal.  And, unlike the pigs in Animal Farm, no one is more equal than others.  To ensure this, anyone with above-average qualities is hobbled by the authorities.  The strong are forced to wear heavily-weighted boots and other impedimenta, so as to bring them down to a baseline level; the eponymous protagonist's father, a man of above-average intelligence, is subjected to jarring noises sent through an earpiece so as to prevent him from forming dangerously intellectual ideas.

But in this world where no one is allowed to rise above anyone else, the one who must be most forcefully pushed down is Harrison Bergeron:

"Nobody had ever borne heavier handicaps. . . .  Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. . . . Scrap metal was hung all over him. . . . In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds."

The reason for such handicaps becomes apparent when Harrison sheds his extra baggage on national television.  The audience sees standing before it a god among men: incredibly strong, unfathomably graceful, unbearably handsome.  Before Harrison can complete his revolution, though, he is struck down by a shotgun blast from the "Handicapper General."  The story is set in the year 2081.

Vonnegut was off by a few decades.

The Solipsist was reminded of "Harrison Bergeron" today.  A bit of background:  YNSHC works at a college and chairs a committee charged with developing programs to assist students in need of skills development.  At the moment, while the rest of the economy is crashing and burning, this committee finds itself in the odd position of having lots of money to spend.  The only catch is that the money must be spent by the end of June, or the college must return it.

Well, this real-life "Brewster's Millions" scenario is not too bad.  In fact, this committee had a perfect use for these one-time funds: We would purchase a very high-class software system that provides instructional support in math, reading, and writing, to students ranging in ability from elementary school all the way up through junior college.  English teachers loved it.  Math teachers loved it.  Administrators loved it.

Of course, there was a catch.

The Solipsist was told today by the office for students with disabilities that the program was not "508 compliant."  "508" refers to the section of the federal code that deals with people with disabilities.  Essentially, it says that any organization that receives ANY federal money (which is just about ANY public institution) must ensure that all services are accessible to all people, regardless of disability.

OK.  Seems reasonable as far as it goes.  So what's wrong with this piece of software?

Well, people with visual impairments wouldn't be able to use it.

But, the program has a feature that will actually read the text on screen out loud.

Well, yes, but a blind person wouldn't be able to position the cursor over the icon to turn on the "voice" without assistance.


So, to sum up: This software program, which would potentially benefit almost every student at the college--including the VAST majority of students with disabilities--is verboten because a relative handful of students MIGHT have difficulty using it.

In what universe does this make sense?

Understand, the Solipsist is all for access.  He believes that everyone should have the opportunity to get an education regardless of age, race, sex, ethnicity, or disability!  

(Digression: Height's another story: The short can drop dead for all YNSHC is concerned!  End of digression.)

But how does it help the visually impaired that the college is not able to purchase this software--which may even BECOME compliant with the legislation before too much longer?  Isn't this cutting off the nose to spite the face?  Not even Harrison Bergeron had to cut off his nose!

1 comment:

  1. OK, so this post hits near and dear to my heart. Not for the high-falutin' social commentary of Kurt Vonnegut (thought it makes for a nice allegory). But because I'm a technologist and have some insights into the realm of "useability", as we in the software development world put it.

    Rather than put the kaybosh (sp?) on the whole software project, which would appreciably benefit MANY students, I would contact the software vendor to see if they have a workaround to what may be a legitimate issue. Often, Microsoft Windows has accessibility options that may assist (like making the cursor pointer bigger), which can workaround this perceived limitation. Besides which, many people with disabilities are used to having people assist them, and if they can use the software with a little assistance, so what? As someone who also has a close affiliation with the disabled, I can state assuredly that many people with disabilities will seek out assistance. Happens on the NYC subway all the time..

    C'mon, academics! This is just bureaucratic bullshit. Someone's reading the letter of the law, not the intent. That's probably why I'd never thrive in academia... sheesh!