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Blind and Low Vision Masterclass Series: Assistive Technology

This 6 lectures provide an overview of assistive technology for students who are blind or have low vision.
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Topic 1 – Assistive Technology Trials and Recommendations

Suppliers of Assistive Technology such as electronic braille displays and electronic magnifiers work closely with educators, allied health professionals, paediatric OTs and of course the families of people with disabilities when recommending solutions for classroom use. Assistive Technology needs to be fitted to the person, but also needs to fit the environment – and the personality – of the person using it. This is obviously true for motorised wheelchairs, but less obvious for vision aid technology. Aids that work well at home may not work so well in the rough and tumble of a school classroom. Will devices be carried between school and home, as well as between classrooms? How will a braille device be supported by classroom teachers? Will a student embrace a technology that works well for their level of vision, but makes them stand out as different from their peers? This lecture uses case studies to demonstrate how a range of technology options are trialled with students, and how a recommendation can be arrived at collectively. This process includes parents, teachers, teacher aides, allied health, and IT support. Suppliers of AT do not make medical or functional assessments and cannot make diagnoses, or intervene in decisions about expanded curriculum, reasonable adjustment and so on. But they are an important contributor to the collective decisions about integrating AT into people’s lives.

Topic 2 – Writing systems – alternative input options

A great deal of discussion around digital accessibility has been around output options – for example, larger screens, magnification software, braille displays, text-to-speech output. This lecture will touch on the output side of the equation, but will focus mainly on the input side – how do we get data into our computers and iPads, and how do we control our devices if we can’t use a mouse or use a finger to select options on a touch screen? Imagine you were blind; how would you write a text message?

A number of input methods will be discussed, including Dragon Naturally Speaking (voice dictation), Siri (for iPad and iPhone), Dragon Mousegrid for people with upper limb disorders, eye tracking software, braille keyboards, handwriting recognition, and of course, touch typing with QWERTY keyboards, some of which are Bluetooth and can drive iPads and iPhones.

There will also be some discussion of the special issues facing deafblind people – in particular Auslan speakers - many of whom have deteriorating vision (Ushers Syndrome) and most of whom are functionally non-verbal and hence cannot use Siri or dictation software.

Topic 3 – Assistive Tech in the classroom – acceptance and inclusion

Almost all assistive technology (AT) is “different looking” and what may be a novelty at early Primary School may become alienating at Secondary School where pressures to conform to norms of appearance (and not to appear too studious) can often lead to rejection of, or at least under-utilisation of, AT.

For example, teachers often battle to get their students to use their screen magnification software, rather than lean into their laptop screens; earbuds and headphones for audio loops get lost or forgotten; portable electronic devices such as MP3 eBook players are not charged up; zoom cameras fitted to laptops for whiteboard viewing are not used unless prompted.

Another indicator of how well AT will be used by students is how it is introduced to all the stakeholders – the student themselves, their classroom teachers, Assistant Principals, HOSES, and teacher aides. It is also important to include parents from the very beginning, and they will often be part of the drive to give their children the AT they need – often funded by NDIS. Having everybody on the same page from the very beginning makes the difference between AT that is supported and encouraged - compared to AT that sits in a cupboard or is perceived to be a suspicious mystery to teachers.

This lecture will discuss some real-life examples that I have been involved with at early Primary [HM Carmichael College], and early Secondary [PF St Aidan’s] in mainstream schools.

Topic 4 – Visual processing challenges and adaptation of Vision Technologies

It is empirically obvious that electronic magnifiers with contrast enhancement are a great benefit to people with vision impairment; for over 35 years the basic design has not changed - a sliding platform under a camera connected to a display screen. People who could only slowly spell out letters with a powerful magnifying glass can read at virtually normal reading speeds with the larger electronic magnifiers (often called CCTVs).

But many vision-impaired people struggle to read accurately or fluently at any magnification. I have observed a number of factors at play for these people; some are habituated to reading at a certain font size and cannot process large print – this is typically only an issue for the very elderly; some get nauseated by the movement of print in their peripheral vision; some need to be trained to use little chinks of sharp vision by turning their head slightly – this process is called eccentric viewing. Many struggle with unfamiliar vocabulary and cannot “read ahead”.

In this lecture, we will also discuss visual processing of words that have been truncated by magnification (too big to fit in the field of view) and how some vision conditions obliterate vital details in letter shapes – serifs and strokes, the cross strokes in e versus o and c, the difficulty with downstroke letters clumped together especially m and h and n, and issues related to inversion of b and d.

This lecture will also examine some of the issues around dyslexia and cortical vision impairment (CVI) that are not ocular conditions but are essentially visual processing conditions.

Topic 5 – Adjusting the AT instructive method to suit the individual

The manner in which AT is supplied to people is just as important as the AT itself. Even if the AT has been carefully selected as the best fit for a particular person’s disability and circumstances, if it is just posted to them, in many cases it will be a failure. A lot of frustration and expense can be saved if 30 minutes to 1 hour is spent in face-to-face instruction, or if that is not “COVID-safe”, via Facetime, Zoom or even telephone.

The quality and effectiveness of this face-to-face instruction depends on the communication and listening skills of the trainer, and their experience with a wide range of individuals. Many people will have anxieties about new technology, are resistant to change, perhaps resentful of solutions being imposed on them; they need to be led gently with a carefully delivered positive learning experience. Other people will try to drive the training and almost bully the trainer, bringing incorrect assumptions about the AT, and often dismissive of useful suggestions. Some will have mental conditions, anger issues, low self-esteem, poor communication or even English as a Second Language. These layers have to be dealt with intelligently and nimbly by the AT trainer. And often there are additional people to manage – family members who also “know best”.

This lecture runs through some typical scenarios, supplying AT to people in their homes, workplaces and schools. Combinations of disabilities are also discussed; for example, Cerebral Palsy, Intellectual Impairment, soft muscle tone, speech and vision impairment can all occur in the one individual, adding additional layers of complexity to the training process.

Topic 6 - Bi-Modal approaches – auditory and visual reading

Students often “read” best in either auditory or visual modes. Many students who struggle to read fluently in a visual mode (perhaps owing to dyslexia) can process information with high comprehension if it is read out loud to them. However, pure audio rendition of information is linear; the whole page cannot be perceived at once, it must be listened to from beginning to end, and to make this manageable, documents should be correctly constructed with headings and bookmarks that can be navigated with ease, ideally conforming to the DAISY standards.

Bi-modal reading software combines an enhanced visual representation of text in a document, combined with a synchronised highlight that tracks as the text is read out loud by a synthesised voice. Often the font and background are adjusted to improve visual tracking. Line and word spacing can also be adjusted, as can the voice gender and speaking rate. Bi-modal approaches enable whole-of-page perception for easier navigation, and reduce reading fatigue, but care needs to be taken with the tracking highlight to avoid distraction.

This lecture will illustrate bi-modal software that is built-in to Microsoft WORD, and Edge browser – called Immersive Reader, Zoomtext Document reader and App Reader, Zoomtext colour controls, TextHelp ReachDeck browser add-on, and TextHelp Read&Write “personal accessibility” software, as well as the Clearview Speech desktop electronic magnifier and transportable electronic magnifiers such as the Magnilink TAB and Cloverbook Pro.

Learn more about Peter and the series in a podcast we recorded recently: NextSense Institute Podcast Number 101

Session 1 and Session 5 will contribute 2 PD points towards COMS recertification with ACVREP/OMAA.