Cognitive Expert’s Visit Enlightens ETS Accessibility Team

By David Lariviere

If you speak to Mark Hakkinen and anyone on his Accessibility Standards & Inclusive Technology team at ETS for more than a couple of minutes, one thing will become abundantly clear — they all want to raise the standards and upgrade the technology to remove the barriers faced by those with disabilities. And they want to do it yesterday, not tomorrow.

That’s why an expert in cognitive science — University of Colorado professor Clayton Lewis — spent a week at ETS recently. “We made significant progress during a number of discussions as he has a wide range of interests and expertise on a number of important issues,” says Associate Research Scientist Jason White. Those issues included edtech, specifically in interactive simulations, providing greater access to those with cognitive disabilities, and the ethics and role of AI.

ETS is working with states such as California and Maryland to explore the use of simulations on K–12 science tests while representing the construct of interest as closely as possible, according to Research Developer Cary Supalo. “What we need to develop is a standardized framework to satisfy accessibility requirements, rather than trying to retrofit each simulation individually.”

We’ve had ongoing research for years on how to rethink system technologies to interact with simulations. Clayton will motivate us to pursue those more fervently by validating what we are doing.

~ Mark Hakkinen, Research Scientist at ETS

One of the problems in designing products and services today, says Lewis, is that companies create something that is inaccessible from the start and have to adapt it later. “The development of the accessible version is separate almost all the time. And because they’re made separately, when they update the one for sighted people, the update is often not pushed through to the accessible version at the same time. It’s a frustrating process.”

Lewis also enlightened the ETS team on the challenges of assessing those with learning and cognitive disabilities. “We know a lot about the physical and sensory disabilities, but we don’t have good guidance for the cognitive,” White says. The range of differences among those with autism, ADHD and other behavioral challenges makes those test takers difficult to assess.

Hakkinen viewed Lewis’s visit as a check to see if ETS was headed in the right direction. “We’ve had ongoing research for years on how to rethink system technologies to interact with simulations. Clayton will motivate us to pursue those more fervently by validating what we are doing.”

For Hakkinen and his group, the goal is always to make the test-taking experience as enjoyable as possible no matter what the disability or the impairment is. In 2017, they upgraded the GRE® General Test with state-of-the-art technology, employing a Jobs Access With Speech (JAWS®) screen reader that was unprecedented at the time.

Although ETS is a company that serves the needs of the many, Hakkinen’s team embraces the challenge of serving the unique needs of those with specific disabilities to ensure their opportunity for success as well.