Back to school 2023-24: NAIT opens first tech centre to support students of all abilities

Centre staff motivated to ‘make someone’s life easier’

NAIT’s Assistive Technologies Centre is part tool chest and part sandbox. The size of a conventional classroom, the new facility is furnished with tables and shelves full of more than 100 pieces of technology organized according to the needs they address.

One table displays a menagerie of mice (the computing kind), each a different shape and style for hands uncomfortable with the common oval-on-a string. Nearby, a cabinet is stocked with devices to aid reading, writing and listening, such as amplification systems and tablets. Beside it, there’s a 3D printer for bespoke items, such as grips for pens or hooks to help carry bags.

assistive technologies made using a 3d printer

Perhaps most importantly, there are experts on hand to help visiting students and staff experiment with tools and software then and there, in a safe and stress-free environment, to see if the tech will aid in learning or teaching in the classroom.

The centre represents a first for the polytechnic and, staff hope, improved experiences for the hundreds of people each year who access support from NAIT for a variety of challenges to abilities.

“Many individuals can access and benefit from the technology here,” says Wendy Marusin, manager of NAIT’s Learning Services, which oversees the centre. “We're about removing barriers.”

Making lives easier

desk full of keyboards and other technologies to help the visually impared

Connecting students with assistive technologies, and making staff aware of equipment available for students, isn’t new at NAIT, Marusin points out. In the same room, in fact, learners used to visit for assessments and recommendations. But that was about all that could be offered.

“There wasn't a place where they could trial and test [equipment] out,” she adds.

When a funding opportunity recently arose through the Alberta government, Marusin and her team used it to transform the space. Much of the responsibility for stocking it fell to accessibility technology specialist Shahveer Ratnagar.

“Assistive technology is anything that can make someone's life easier,” says Ratnagar. “So that could mean hardware or software.”

assistive technologies in a cabinet for reading, writing and listening

His decisions about what exactly to have on hand have been guided by research based on needs known to exist at the polytechnic and in the community. Ratnagar classifies the collections as “broad categories,” knowing that he won't have items to meet every need.

“There are so many more devices [but] we might have a similar one,” he says. That might be the start of the process. After trying a device at the centre, a student might look into purchasing (often with the support of external funding) or borrowing it (the NAIT Library has some items available for loan).

“It can be really daunting to go out and find accessibility equipment,” says Ratnagar. The centre, he hopes, makes it less so.

Motivated by success for all students

desk full of ergonomic mice for computers

Ratnagar and Marusin look forward to seeing the Assistive Technologies Centre grow, allowing students a greater measure of independence throughout their learning experience at NAIT.

“It's evolving,” says Marusin. Those tables and shelves may already be covered in devices and gadgets, but “you're always needing to keep on top of things, and experiment and explore.”

That’s a challenge the team is eager to meet, motivated by the prospect of success for students of all abilities.

“Our role is just to raise awareness of what's available to them,” says Marusin, “and help instruct them on how to use it.

“But then once they have it, they are on their way.”

nait learning centre staff members seated around a table in the assistive technologies centre

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