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Norman Coombs, Ph.D., Pioneer of Accessibility Teachings for Equal Access

Dr. Coombs holding his new book, 'Making Online Teaching Accessible'
Dr. Coombs holding his new book, 'Making Online Teaching Accessible'

All will agree that some folks just think more brilliantly than others and accomplish things that many of us can only accomplish in our dreams.  These visionaries come up with terrific ideas and take them to unimaginable places.   And when it comes to doing good works with a brilliant passion, Dr. Norman Coombs take the prize.

Dr. Coombs is one of our first Bookshare members to download and read digital books. You may not recognize him, but know of his strong advocacy and teachings to educators and faculties on the importance of accessibility issues.  Dr. Coombs has created many accessible standards that people with disabilities benefit from today.

Professor Coombs is a well-known educator, author and the CEO of the Equal Access and Software Information (EASI) organization. He is legendary on his accessibility teachings and advocacy and has written a new book, Making Online Teaching Accessible. You can download this book from the Bookshare website.

Published by Jossey-Bass, the book offers teachers, instructional designers, and developers a comprehensive resource to design online courses and deliver accessible content for students with visual and audio disabilities.

This funny and witty professor has made it his lifelong mission to spread the know-how to create accessible information technology to content creators, especially in colleges and universities. He has taught in prestigious universities and is known throughout the world for his contributions to equal access in our society.

Thousands of students flock to his distance learning classes, read his books, and attend his presentations at conferences like CSUN and Accessing Higher Ground.  University professors, K-12 administrators, librarians, and media specialists seek his teachings to keep informed on the latest adaptive technology advancements.   This busy and poignant professor shared a brief view from his extraordinary life about how he came to use accessible text and how it has transformed his world.

About Dr. Norman Coombs

Norman knows first-hand what accessible materials can mean for persons without sight or physically challenged.  At the age of 8, a friendly childhood stick skirmish caused his blindness.  He went through school using braille and relied on his family to read to him. He graduated from college with a doctorate in History, loved knowledge and published several books, including his first on ‘Black Experience in America.’  Norman did not read his own published version of this book until 15 years later when it was converted into an accessible digital format.

Since the 70’s, Norman has influenced policy makers, educators, students and world leaders.  He wrote jargon-free materials to explain how to use standards and formats to organize and deliver relevant information.  He helped educators make information come to life, and be easier to read, comprehend and manipulate for persons with disabilities.  He gave us reading freedom and better opportunities to learn.

During his tenure as a Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a colleague introduced Norman to his first computer and taught him to program.  “This opened a new world to me,” he shared. “I discovered that computers weren’t just for computations; they could help me communicate and deliver contextual information.”

He began to use the computer more and more. His faculty asked him to test the first computer bulletin board and email application.  Norman asked a student who was deaf and had an interpreter to work with him. She sent her essays via email and soon, she and the good professor were communicating one-to-one.  Neither relied on others for translation; they were independent; this was a breakthrough!

After that experience, Norman pursued many academic and artistic passions. He is a world traveler, a sculptor of clay enthralled with the human bone structure, and an avid reader of digital text with an ereader in his shirt pocket at all times.  He refers to his ereader as his ‘gadget’ or ‘gizmo.’  He has downloaded more than 250 digital books that span technology, history, religion and much more. He loves a good mystery book and reads between one and five books a week. (James Patterson and Jeffrey Deaver keep those books coming!)

Some say that Norman is also a pioneer for Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  He advocates for Universal Design in document creation using software system’s markup to structure the content.  This enables adaptive software to communicate these features to the reader.  “Adaptive software can put intelligence into a document and bring consistency,” he said.

When asked about his new book he said, “I told my publisher that I would only write this book if they would make it accessible and contribute it to Bookshare and they did.”  Today, the publisher tells Norman that in the future their ebooks will be made available in digital formats and will be given to Bookshare because of his efforts.  “I am more proud of this fact than the book itself,” he said. Jokingly he adds that he has also read his latest book in digital format hot off the press.

When asked about the benefits of accessible text, he says, “It opens up a world of possibilities.  It promotes independence and is a key to communication.  It levels the learning field, ensures readability, corrects spelling, suggests grammar, talks aloud, helps the writer express meaning and delivers consistency in format and context.  No more giant volumes of braille for me.  No more relying on others to download a book or read it to me.  I don’t need a hand truck to carry 18 volumes of the Bible to church.”

Dr. Norman Coombs, a visionary, today, yesterday and tomorrow. A remarkable educator, Bookshare Member, father, artist and lifelong learner committed to equal access. Because of his teachings and advocacy of accessibility standards and software intelligence, thousands of people with disabilities participate more freely in our digital world. We are thankful for his accomplishments and advocacy of Bookshare.

Making Online Teaching Accessible

Grounded in the theories of learner-centered teaching and successful course design, the book outlines the key legislation, decisions, and guidelines that govern online learning. The book also demystifies assistive technologies and includes step-by-step guidance for creating accessible online content using popular programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat, as well as multimedia tools. The book includes a wealth of helpful tips and suggestions for effectively communicating with disabled students and contains practical advice on purchasing accessible course management systems, developing solutions for inaccessibility issues, and creating training materials for faculty and staff to make online learning truly accessible.

4 Comments

  1. we are the assistive technology act for the state of indiana. we are scheduling a full day training and would like to get some contact information on dr. coombs so we can talk to him about being a guest speaker. could you please provide contact information?

  2. I was a student of Dr. Coombs at RIT in the late 60s. In spite of being a crappy student, I loved Dr. Coombs demanding classes. More important to my life, he was also a clay sculptor who guided me toward a “hands on” look and sensual feel that is directly responsible for my work ending up in a Paris show next month. There is no reason for Dr. C to remember me, but he has been on my mind and I would like to thank this truly inspirational man again.

    Please help me with his contact information.

    Thank you.

    Dean Santner

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