Volume X Number 1, August 2004

Celebrate EASI? That's Easy!

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
University of Washington

It was suggested that I, in recognition of Information Technology and Disabilities' tenth anniversary, write an article chronicling the history of its founder, EASI. Perhaps I earned this honor because I've been active in EASI for the longest time, or because at one time I saved the acronym EASI (read on for more on this pivotal moment in EASI's history), or maybe because I have been a cheerleader for EASI since its early beginnings. Actually, it could be because I am a packrat and a very organized one, so I have and can still find old files on just about anything I've been involved in. Norm Coombs, our fearless leader, helped me out on current news. And I got lucky-one of the founders of EASI, Krista Kramer, attended EASI's traditional Mexican buffet at this year's CSUN conference after many years of absence; she gave me some details about EASI's origin.

For new members of EASI, I hope you find our roots interesting. For old-timers, I hope this article will stir up some warm memories.


Nils Peterson, a computing professional, arranged to have dinner with Steve Gilbert of EDUCOM, the professional association for postsecondary academic computing administrators, in spring of 1987. Nil's wife, Krista Kramer, joined them. After some mainstream tech-talk, the dinner conversation turned to a course Krista was taking in her graduate school program-Microcomputers in Special Education. She said classmates were wondering if colleges were making efforts to assure that their computers were accessible to students with disabilities. Steve acknowledged that although it was a relevant topic, it had not yet been formally addressed within EDUCOM. He suggested that Krista submit an article for the EDUCOM journal Academic Computing. "Computer Accessibility for Students with Disabilities" was published in September 1988. Steve invited Nils, Krista, and others to attend an EDUCOM working session in Washington, D.C. That's where plans for an accessibility awareness campaign began. Beginning in 1988, EDUCOM supported EASI as one of its Education Software Initiatives. Nils designed an EASI logo.

Krista secured funding from EDUCOM for travel and publication costs. She managed the EASI budget and recruited and facilitated communication between participants. In those early days, we were particularly interested in the movement toward graphical user interfaces like that of the Macintosh computer and how its barriers to individuals who are blind might be overcome. We also focused on keeping up with the rapid development of assistive technology for individuals with a wide variety of mobility impairments.

Once Krista earned her masters degree in 1989, she moved on to a job outside of higher education and ended her role in EASI. Darola Hockley, coordinator of the Adaptive Technology Center at the University of Missouri, became the EASI Chair. In 1990, this position went to Danny Hilton-Chalfen, coordinator of UCLA's Disabled Computing Program, and Jane Berliss of Berkely Systems became vice chair. Carmela Castorina took on the role of EASI publications editor and I, manager of Desktop Computing Services at the University of Washington, coordinated conference outreach. During Dr. Hilton-Chalfen's two years as Chair, EASI grew to more than three hundred members in more than a dozen countries and into an internationally-recognized resource regarding computer access for individuals with disabilities in higher education. An electronic mailing list was established as a communication link for project work and information updates and as a forum for questions from growing numbers of EASI members. A newsletter, EASI News for You, began distribution during this time.

When Danny decided it was time to step down as EASI Chair, we talked about recruiting Norm Coombs, professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, for this role. Many of us knew Norm and had heard him speak about Internet-based distance learning and people with disabilities at conferences. At first Norm declined being EASI Chair because it would take time away from his work as a historian. But when asked a second time, Norm decided to pursue this intriguing new interest, which had the potential to change people's lives.

Danny and Jane stepped down from their positions in August 1992 and were replaced by Norm as chair and me as vice chair. As Danny passed the baton, he said, "The most important thing to me is that so many new people have gotten involved in EASI and are doing such good work. Norm and Sheryl are two of the best people in the field, and they'll bring tremendous experience and depth to EASI." In the same EASI newsletter article, Norm reflected, "Since I started using a computer equipped with a speech synthesizer, there's this whole new world that I can seize, I'm interested in trying to show other handicapped people and non-handicapped people what a person can do in spite of a handicap." Looking to the future of EASI, he added, "EASI is moving into a new phase of its mission. It has done significant work in raising the consciousness of the academic computing world about the need to make computer technology accessible. Now, EASI wants to lead the way in opening doors to information technology as well. In the next year we will be expanding our focus from accessible hardware to accessing information."


In 1993 Norm suggested that we change EASI's name to better fit an expansion of our role in computing access to cover libraries and information resources. Knowing firsthand how hard (and important) it is to come up with a good acronym, I looked for a way to change the name without losing the great acronym, EASI. I expected that few would even notice if we simply replaced "Instruction" with "Information." I was right! EASI changed its name from Equal Access to Software and Instruction to Equal Access to Software and Information. The only problem was that, by then, we had an inventory of T-shirts with the old name and logo. EASI donated them all to a new little program I was starting, called DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology); I continue to distribute those old EASI shirts to lucky "valuable prize" winners in our summer programs for teens with disabilities at the University of Washington.


In the beginning, EASI was a member of EDUCOM's Educational Software Initiative (ESI), a collection of volunteer projects that provided members with a forum for addressing specific information technology issues. In keeping pace with the evolution of academic computing ESI was later renamed EUIT, Educational Uses of Information Technology. Steve Gilbert directed EUIT. The mission of EUIT was "to provide national leadership for improving the quality and accessibility of education through uses of information technology." EUIT provided opportunities for "birds of a feather" to join in discussions and projects of current interest to postsecondary academic computing professionals. Within this framework, EASI's mission was established: "to serve as a resource for the higher education community by providing information and guidance in the areas of access to information technology by people with disabilities."

In the early years, much EASI planning occurred in the August EUIT working sessions (sometimes in a hot tub) in Snowmass, Colorado, and at the yearly EDUCOM conferences in the fall. EASI has always moved with the times. Not surprisingly, its focus in the EUIT working session at Snowmass in 1991 was on implications of the new Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) for postsecondary academic computing organizations. There was a growing demand for development, implementation, and management information surrounding barrier-free computer access on postsecondary campuses. As reported by one EASI member, "We're getting a lot of feedback that people (academic computing directors, etc.) want to know what is the minimum they really have to do." Other hot topics of interest for EUIT groups that year included evaluation of online resources and academic software, ethical uses of information, user documentation exchange, public telecommunications and higher education, and software licensing. EASI took steps to spread the word about accessibility issues to all of the other working groups in EUIT and quickly earned recognition for being one of the smallest, most enthusiastic, and most productive EUIT groups. EASI subgroups at Snowmass '91 included the seminar series, speaker's bureau, online resources, and legislation and policy issues. Under Norm's direction, EASI focused increased attention on access to electronic text. With the leadership of Richard Jones of Arizona State University, EASI developed a white paper on the topic.

EASI established several working groups to respond to specific information technology access issues in higher education. For example, the Online Resources Work Group addressed the increasing importance of online information and telecommunications in instruction, research, and employment. This work group made EASI information available online; became a liaison with other online services and organizations; developed resource information on how campuses were responding to the need to provide access to online information databases (such as library catalogs); and answered inquiries regarding methods of providing access, including the delivery of distance education through telecommunications.

In 1994, coinciding with Steve Gilbert's move to AAHE and EDUCOM's change in direction, which left no place for EUIT, EASI moved its primary affiliation from EDUCOM to the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE). Here EASI could more easily reach postsecondary administrators in areas beyond computing services. In late 2000, following Steve's departure from AAHE to form the nonprofit organization Teaching, Learning and Technology (TLT), EASI became a nonprofit organization as well. Norm became and still serves as CEO. Being part of EDUCOM and AAHE gave EASI more credibility with funding sources and was good for contacts and networking, but becoming a nonprofit organization gave EASI full control of its projects.


Most of the work of EASI has been accomplished with contributed time of professionals in the field. However, some activities do require external funding. In the early days EASI received support from EDUCOM for travel and duplication of publications. EDUCOM and AAHE also provided small grants to support EASI as it transitioned between the two organizations. Beginning in 1994, EASI also received a total of three grants from the National Science Foundation. Most funding for EASI activities now comes from tuition for its online courses.


In 1990 EASI began to develop Seminar Series content and presentation guidelines and materials to be used to help postsecondary institutions develop new or enhance existing computer access support services for people with disabilities. EASI Seminars were designed to be presented as in-depth workshops lasting one or two days or as one- or two-hour sessions that consisted of an overview of key issues. The eight seminar modules could be adapted to meet the needs of a particular campus. Module topics included are critical issues for then and for today:

  1. Introduction and Background (including disability demographics, key legislation, and adaptive computing awareness issues)
  2. Disability Awareness and Technology Access Issues (sensitivity training and barriers to computer access)
  3. Input and Output Technology Solutions (a hands-on look at all major classes of assistive computing technology)
  4. Computing Lab Environment (how to set up an accessible computing lab)
  5. Service Delivery (technology access support services that successful campus programs provide)
  6. Integration and Implementation (strategies for planning an effective computer support service and integrating it into the institution)
  7. Transitions: Issues in Education and Employment (preparing for key transitions from K-12 to two- and four-year schools, and from college to the workplace)

The pilot presentation of seminar series content on September 25, 1992, at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts was well received by participants, who noted, "It was an eye-opener," "Well prepared," and "An excellent overview of the issues, solutions and possibilities." Much of the content of these training modules was later incorporated into EASI's online courses, described below.


Jim Knox and Krista Kramer coordinated speakers and panels for EASI's first appearance at the EDUCOM conference in 1989. Sessions included "Developing Adaptive Computing Services: An Integrated Approach," which I copresented with EASI Chair Darola Hockley. Norm Coombs and two colleagues from RIT also dazzled the crowd with a presentation on technology access issues for students with disabilities. Krista moderated a panel. In response to interest in the ADA, in the 1991 EDUCOM conference EASI hosted a special interest group (SIG) session and the seminar "Computer Access for People with Disabilities: What Services Must Your Campuses Provide?"

For EDUCOM 92, I coordinated EASI activities and worked with central EDUCOM staff to assure that the conference itself was accessible to individuals with disabilities, a role EASI members have since taken on at many conferences. That year, EASI hosted a SIG meeting, exhibit, and concurrent session, "Adaptive Technology: Empower Faculty and Students with Disabilities."

Over the years, EASI's presentation topics gradually became more specific. For example, in EDUCOM 93, Larry Scadden, program officer for NSF's new Program for Persons with Disabilities, and I copresented "Using Technology to Open Doors to Academics and Career Opportunities in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics to Individuals with Disabilities." In more recent years, access to distance learning, textbooks, and web pages have been of high interest. Talks on universal design, about policies and procedures to institutionalize efforts to make programs and resources accessible to everyone, and on the implications of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act have also attracted the interest of administrators. EDUCOM eventually merged with CAUSE, its sister organization for postsecondary administrative data processing administrators, to form EDUCAUSE. EASI members continue to host exhibits, presentations, and SIGs at EDUCAUSE.

EASI members have presented papers and workshops at hundreds of other national and international conferences of professionals in a wide variety of technology- and disability-related fields that include assistive technology, disabled student services, special education, postsecondary academic computing services, K-12 educational technology, distance learning, and computer engineering. A few of these conferences include Accessing Higher Ground; the American Association for Higher Education Conference; the American Association for Higher Education Working Conference; the Association for Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) annual event; the American Library Association conference; Closing The Gap annual conference; CSUN's conference on Technology for Persons with Disabilities; ED-MEDIA; the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs; the International Conference on Computers and People with Handicaps; the International Conference on Telecomputing; the International Federation of Library Associations conference; the National Education Computing Conference (NECC); the Southwestern Augmentative, Assistive, Adaptive Conference; and the Symposium on Distance Learning. Conference participation has served to facilitate communication between EASI and other professional associations, sometimes establishing a framework for collaborative efforts.

In 1998 EASI established a one-day "mini-conference" as part of California State University-Northridge's annual Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities. It continues to this day, focusing on topics such as web accessibility, legal issues, K-12 issues, access to electronic text, and access to science, engineering and mathematics. EASI also delivered a mini-conference as part of the 2001 Accessing Higher Ground conference in Boulder.


EASI's first two publications, EASI Fixes: Access Guidelines for Software Developers and Computers and Students with Disabilities: New Challenges for Higher Education, were published in September 1989. Computing and Students with Disabilities: New Challenges for Higher Education discussed barrier-free computing issues in postsecondary education, provided an overview of pertinent legislation, and listed resource people and printed materials. The EASI Fixes pamphlet suggested specific design strategies for creating accessible software and was distributed widely to software developers. As EASI is always on the cutting edge, this publication was distributed long before the advent of the Section 508 software standards and includes many of the same general principles.

Since these beginnings, EASI has created a wide variety of publications, including videotapes with accompanying literature. The first product, the twenty-two-minute EASI Street to Science, Engineering and Math: EASI Guide to Adaptive Technology, was produced in October 1995.

A huge milestone for EASI was launching a professional journal, Information Technology and Disabilities (ITD). Its first issue, published in the spring of 1994, was followed by twenty-three issues covering such topics as e-text and access to library resources, accessible computer services management, and access to science equipment. With Tom McNulty as Editor, the ITD electronic journal is devoted to practical and theoretical issues surrounding the development and effective use of new and emerging technologies by people with disabilities. ITD features articles on issues affecting educators at all levels, librarians, adaptive technology trainers, rehabilitation counselors, human resources professionals, and developers of computer hardware and software. The editorial board encourages the submission of feature articles, as well as news of forthcoming publications, research in progress, and upcoming events of interest to professionals concerned with the impact of technology on the lives of people with disabilities. According to Tom, the editorial board works "with authors to make their work as accessible as possible, but there will be articles in ITD which will be comprehensible only to a limited audience."

The signs of the times have always been reflected in EASI publications. In 1993, as campuses wrestled with where to begin accessibility efforts, EASI developed the Adaptive Computing Evaluation Kit for Colleges and Universities. In response to the concerns of libraries, it created Equal Access to Electronic Library Services for Disabled Patrons.

EASI has also encouraged its members to publish articles in other publications such as Library High Tech, the Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability, and the Journal of Special Education Technology. EASI also had a column in EDUCOM Review and the Library High Tech Newsletter.


The EASI discussion list started in 1992 and has supported thousands of members. Networking was especially important then, as people didn't have any idea where to get information and help. In 1993, responding to the interests of libraries, EASI started the axslib-l discussion list for librarians. Norm talked Dick Banks, adaptive technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, into moderating that list by "offering him a job" as moderator, vividly describing the duties, and ending with "By the way, it pays nothing!" One librarian claimed she'd been "praying for something like axslib-l."

A two-hour telecast, Creating a World of Opportunities, was carried on the PBS Adult Learning Channel and the business satellites on May 18, 1995. The program covered the general topic of adaptive computing and included video clips of leading researchers in the field. The telecast was sponsored jointly by the Rochester Institute of Technology and EASI, as an affiliate of AAHE. The National Science Foundation provided partial funding. This event marked the beginning of EASI's strong presence from coast to coast through telecommunications.

EASI got into distance learning to overcome the challenges of getting audiences together for on-site instruction. In 1994, The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and EASI jointly sponsored an online workshop. Norm Coombs and Dick Banks taught ADAPT-IT: Online Workshop on Disability Access to Information Technology. Today's EASI courses include Beginners Barrier-free Web Design, Advanced Barrier-free Web Design, Barrier-free E-learning, Designing Accessible Course Content Using Familiar Software, Barrier-free Information Technology, Barrier-free E-learning, Learning Disabilities and Information Technology, Accessible Internet Multimedia, Train the Trainer, and Business Benefits of Accessible Information Technology. Through a partnership between EASI and the University of Southern Maine, students who complete five courses earn a Certificate in Accessible Information Technology. All of the coursework is delivered online.

Through online offerings, EASI has reached over forty countries and more than five thousand people. These numbers only reflect a portion of EASI's impact on online learning regarding accessible technology. Many courses with content heavily influenced by the that of EASI courses have emerged around the world. For example, beginning in 1995, Norm and I developed and initially cotaught a college-credit online course through the University of Washington. It was the first fully Internet-based course taught at the University of Washington, and, of course, it was designed to be accessible to all potential students. In the early days, instruction on how to use gopher, telnet, and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) formed key content in EASI courses. Although the technical issues have changed, the overarching message on the importance of accessible design has not.

In addition to online courses, EASI sponsors two monthly, hour-long interactive web clinics, on specific accessibility-related topics. Participants can listen to presenters, watch web pages, and ask questions. EASI also offers a program that allows individuals or institutions to purchase an annual membership that provides access to all clinics, reduced pricing on courses, and personalized online consulting.


EASI brings different things to different people. It has filled an important niche. Norm reflects, "EASI specializes in taking the jargon out of explaining how to make information technology accessible for people with disabilities. I have a Ph.D. in history, but when I read the technical information about accessibility, I wondered if I were really an intellectual fraud. I had to read it many times to begin to understand it. EASI recognizes that many working in the field of accessible information technology are not technology types. It removes the information barrier for many otherwise intelligent people. We have had people tell us they had read the technical requirements for accessibility only to conclude they could never do it. After taking one of EASI's online courses, they found it was not very difficult after all."


I thought it would be fun to end this article with comments from individuals who have benefited in specific ways from their association with EASI. I posted a request for comments on the EASI listserv and received an immediate and enthusiastic response. I'm sorry that I don't have space to include them all. Clearly, as documented in the following sample responses, EASI has benefited its associates and their associates for many years, in many different ways, and in many different countries.

Reading the many responses to my question regarding how EASI has benefited others made me reflect on the value of EASI in my own life. With EASI folks, I found a family whose members bring different skills and experiences to the table but share a vision of a world where advanced technologies benefit everyone, not just a privileged few. We saw the potential for technology, if designed accessibly and used wisely, to truly change the lives of people with disabilities. Associating with EASI folks shaped my dissertation topic and gave me confidence and insight to literally define my own position by securing state, federal, private, and corporate funds to create the DO-IT Center at the University of Washington (www.washington.edu/doit). As reported by others, my associations developed through EASI influence what I have done, do now, and will continue to do in this field.

One contributor to my request for testimonials said that his favorite EASI email was from Norm about "the kiss"-the deaf student kissing the blind professor for helping her over the Internet, the moral of the story being "On the Internet, your disability is no barrier to communication and friendship." I checked this story out with Norm, but he claims it was just a hug and (maybe) a head on the shoulder (very briefly, if at all). "No more than THAT!" We'll have to leave resolving these differences for another day-maybe we could discuss the incident more fully on the EASI discussion list.

What more can I say? Since it began, the EASI network has brought together a great group of people interested in making this world a more accessible place. Its members have learned together and then trained thousands of people in assistive technology and accessible technology design through online courses, presentations, and resources; conference presentations and special interest groups; and a professional journal. Under Norm's leadership, EASI will continue to move forward in making this world a better place for all of us and in helping each of us find ways to contribute to a worthy cause. Think big!

Burgstahler, S. (2004). Celebrate EASI? That's easy! Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 10(1).