Future Reflections                                                                                               Winter 2001

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Literacy Leaps as Blind Students Embrace Technology

by Deborah Hartz Reprinted with permission from the November 2000, issue of English Journal, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Deborah Hartz
Deborah Hartz


Editor’s Note: Deborah Hartz teaches high school English at the Arizona School for the Blind in Tucson. A few years ago, at the National Federation of the National Convention, she was recognized for her outstanding work in promoting Braille literacy through the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest. She has also published stories in Future Reflections and in the NFB Kernel Books series about her experiences as the mother of a blind daughter.

“Mrs. Hartz, I think you are going to be proud of me.” Beth is maneuvering her wheelchair between several student desks and a printer table. She is heading for a computer equipped with voice output to take a test on a book she has finished. Beth is blind and has cerebral palsy. Four years ago she read Braille, as she describes it, “at about a kindergarten level.” She had learned the contractions needed to read Braille, but her reading skills had not yet become automatic. After physical therapy and further Braille instruction, Beth is able to read seventh grade materials independently and eighth and ninth grade materials with the help of a Franklin Language Master – a speaking, electronic dictionary. Beth occasionally has a spasm strong enough to make her hands change lines in her reading material. Her reading speed lags behind her comprehension, and she reads at speeds between ten and forty‑five words per minute, depending on the difficulty of the material.

This is the first week that Beth has been able to browse in a library independently and select the books that she wants to read. Over the weekend, she logged onto several online databases using her home computer and screen reading software, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows. She downloaded the files for several books and accessed the material using her Braille note-taking device. All of this was done independently, thanks to technology.

I teach high school English to blind and low vision students at the Arizona School for the Blind (ASB) in Tucson. Students in my classroom employ a variety of technologies on a daily basis. In this article, I report on the full range of technologies that my students are using. While some of these practices will work well with students who are not visually impaired, other technologies are blindness specific. Some equipment may not be useful in your classroom unless you have a visually impaired student.

Unequal Opportunities: No Chance to Choose

Six years ago, my major concern was access to the printed word for my blind students. My most advanced class that year included four blind juniors and seniors who attended the University of Arizona after graduation from ASB. These students were proficient Braille readers, and yet none of these articulate, bright Braille users was registered to receive Braille books through the mail from our regional cooperating library. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was established as a branch of the Library of Congress in 1931. It operates a network of regional libraries that lends Braille books to blind individuals using the United States Postal Service. There is no postage charged; the books are sent as “Free Matter for the Blind or Physically Handicapped.” My students were receiving only the taped books available through the mail from our State Talking Book Library in Phoenix.

When I questioned these students about their reading habits, three admitted that they read in Braille only those books that others selected for them. Occasionally they had been allowed to make choices among several books, but they had not really ever had the opportunity to browse and self­-select books. This situation shook me. I could not imagine students going off to college who had never had the opportunity to choose their own recreational reading material. Younger students on our campus independently discovered books of interest and or­dered them by calling the toll‑free number of the cooperating library. But to think that several of my intelligent, college‑bound students made it to their senior year without self‑selecting books amazed me.

When it came time for report writing, I was again amazed. I was hired in 1994. The World Book Encyclopedia in Braille, which took up a large por­tion of a wall of the library, had been published in 1964. Anything that took place after John F. Ken­nedy’s assassination did not appear in that encyclo­pedia. Thirty years of history and discoveries were missing. One student told me that his strategy for choosing a report topic was to pick an out‑of‑date subject to ensure that he could find materials in Braille. Of course blind individuals did choose more current topics in 1994, but they found themselves relying heavily on a sighted reader searching print books for relevant material. This material could then be recorded and read to the student, who took notes on it in Braille, or it could be transcribed into Braille for the blind individual to access. There were also periodicals that were produced in accessible formats (flexible record disks, audio cassettes, or Braille). In addition, each year the Library of Congress would decide which current print books would be con­verted to an accessible format to be circulated through its lending

Early Efforts: Building a Classroom Library

A college dictionary in Braille takes up seventy‑two large volumes. As I moved the 4’ x 8’ bookshelf that housed the Braille dictionary into my classroom from the teacher’s workroom six years ago, I pondered the enormity of my task. A classroom is only so big. To build a diverse classroom library that would include standard print, large print, and Braille materials in sufficient quantities to allow for browsing would be a monumental undertaking. And yet, I knew it had to be done. Students read more when they can readily sample books of all types. I tackled the task with enthusiasm, signed students up with the regional li­brary, and ordered my first piece of technology.

The full‑speaking Franklin Language Master Special Edition was that first purchase, and it remains one of the most useful tools in my English classroom. A dictionary and thesaurus is combined in one compact device that measures an inch thick and less than six inches square. This dictionary can be carried around in a backpack. (For a complete description of the Franklin line of products, check out their Web site at http://franklin.com.)

All of my students use this talking dictionary, but it has been most helpful for students who speak a language other than English at home or who have identified, specific learning disabilities. The Special Edition costs about $450 and is well worth the price. What an improvement over that first semester, when I had four blind students moving back and forth to the bookshelf to locate the specific volume that con­tained a vocabulary word. As my classroom library expanded to eight tall bookshelves, a rotating dis­play rack, and other miscellaneous bookholders, the Braille dictionary was again banished to a storage room. The “dictionary bookshelf “ now houses a collection of books for students just beginning the transition from print to Braille.

Current Classroom Design

Technology is infused into all aspects of my cur­riculum. At one end of the room are two stand‑alone computers, one networked computer with Internet access, a printer, and a Kurzweil reading machine (a scanner with optical character recognition that con­verts print into spoken language). A filing cabinet stores my electronic dictionaries, a portable disk drive, a Braille Lite (a laptop computer with a refreshable Braille display – pins that move up and down to form one line of Braille at a time), and all of the necessary cables and connectors.

Eight bookshelves line my walls, providing students with a classroom library of Braille, standard print, and large print books. In addition, a disk box on top of the filing cabinet contains books that have been saved to computer disk as text files. These books can be loaded into the portable note-takers that many of my students use to be accessed via speech. When the books are loaded into the Braille Lite 40, they can be read in Braille using a forty‑cell refreshable Braille display.

Next to the door of my classroom is a desk with a dedicated printer for Braille note-takers and a tape recorder. Though the panel phone above this desk cannot be used to call long distance, it can dial toll‑free numbers. Students use this phone to order Braille books or to make tech support calls. Along the opposite wall, in an alcove between bookshelves, is the desk with a closed circuit television (CCTV) that magnifies the print in a book and displays it on a monitor.

My students now have access to a wealth of information. Scanners and Braille translation soft­ware make the transcription of materials into Braille much easier. Students read newspapers online using the World Wide Web. They save articles to disk and read them at a later time using a Braille ’n Speak, a computer with voice output, or a refreshable Braille display. Using online periodical searches, students can access abstracts of articles on a given topic and determine which branch of our city library carries the magazine. By calling that branch, we can have a fax of the material forwarded to our school for tran­scription into Braille.

Blind students can read their files in Braille, locate the errors in the Braille text, and push a button just above the error to route the cursor to the proper location for making the correction.

The shelves of my classroom library are over­flowing with books. Two closets in the conference room contain further shelving, as do the cupboards that line the fourth wall of my classroom. My current focus has shifted to developing the discipline and skill to handle this glut of information. How can I help students to read better and faster in order to handle the demands of an increasingly complex, information‑dense world? How do I teach the flex­ibility and problem-solving that is necessary in a milieu of ever‑changing technology? How can I teach students to judge the validity of information that they are accessing?

As an English teacher, my concern is to teach students to read and write effectively. I want them to look forward to reading a book. I want them pre­pared for the demands of life and work and college. I want them to know that writing allows communica­tion across time and space and that one well‑written letter or article may change their world.

Technologies for Writing

For writing we compose, revise, and edit on per­sonal computers with the JAWS screen reading soft­ware and a DecTalk Express or Accent SA speech synthesizer. Students who need screen enlargement use a computer with ZoomText Extra enlargement software. Other students use a Braille note-taker (a Braille’n Speak or Braille Lite), Perkin’s Brailler (a manual Braille writer equivalent to a typewriter), or the slate and stylus (a metal frame with an awl‑like tool that produces Braille a dot at a time). Some low vision students write with a black felt tip marker, viewing their enlarged handwriting on the monitor of my closed circuit television.

The Braille ’n Speak is a laptop computer the size of a videocassette that allows a student to use Braille to input data. There is no screen for viewing; speech, print, or Braille are the output media. On this device, a student can compose and edit files with ease. It can be hooked to a printer, and the transla­tion software within it will convert the Braille to print. When it’s connected to an embosser, Braille can be produced.

The Braille Lite 40 is a note-taking device that features a refreshable Braille display. This machine is used extensively during editing. Students write their papers on a Braille ’n Speak or a com­puter and then transfer their files to my Braille Lite, using a portable disk drive. The Braille Lite 40 has cursor routing. Blind students can read their files in Braille, locate the errors in the Braille text, and push a button just above the error to route the cur­sor to the proper location for making the correc­tion. This is a more efficient process for editing than the use of auditory feedback on a Braille ’n Speak or a computer. Unless the student has reason to doubt the spelling of a word, the misspelling is not readily apparent with voice output. It is easier to check the spellings of those nasty homophones on a Braille display.

Our procedures for composing, revising, and editing are similar to those used in other electronic classrooms. However, since it is ineffective to write comments on a blind student’s paper, my responses are written to the student as a text file. Students re­vise their papers on a computer or Braille note-taker, toggling between two files to incorporate sugges­tions into the revised paper. Often assignments or responses to student writing are sent to students via e-mail.

Last year we went beyond the asynchronous mode of e-mail as we tested the use of Old Pueblo, a MOO that operates over the Internet from the University of Arizona. A MOO (Multi‑user dimension, Object Oriented) is a “text‑based, virtual reality site” that allows the “manipulation and interaction with cyber‑objects in addition to just chatting with other people” (Lingua‑MOO Web site). Students met with one another in a cyber world reminiscent of the old text‑based Adventure game. One room of Old Pueblo was a conference room equipped with the tools needed for a group of users to revise and edit a paper together in synchronous time.

Technologies for Reading

On the reading side of the curriculum are the online libraries of books that can be downloaded as text files. These books can be put into hard­ copy Braille using Braille transcription software and an embosser, or they can be accessed on a Braille note-taker. By connecting the note-taker to a portable disk drive, entire books can be trans­ferred and read via speech output or a refreshable Braille display.

I used to drive myself crazy trying to deter­mine whether my students were reading the pages they claimed. I have had students make up entirely new plots for nonexistent books in hopes of snowing me and getting extra points for outside reading. Two years ago, I installed the Accelerated Reader Pro­gram on my DOS computer. JAWS for DOS reads the multiple‑choice tests well, and my blind students take the tests independently. We have quarterly con­tests between teams, with the winning team coming to my house for dinner. This has been a motivator in my classroom. I try to keep students reading a vari­ety of books. My goal is to have students reading more challenging books without becoming frustrated. Recent research in my classroom supports the theory that students who are reading in their “zone of proximal development” will make significant reading progress.

I use the Accelerated Reader TitleFinder CD, which contains a listing of 33,000 books with esti­mated reading levels, as one tool to help to determine the degree of difficulty when students are selecting books. I also use the reading level estimates provided within Microsoft Word. Although the levels that are generated by this program are estimated by a formula that considers the syllables/word and the words/sentences, not the difficulty of vocabulary, they give me an idea as to the relative difficulty of books. Accelerated Reader has recently converted to the ATOS (Advantage‑TASA Open Standard) Readability Formula. The new formula takes into account the length of the book and the average grade level of words, as well as the number of words/sentence and characters/word. (Advantage Learn­ing Systems, Inc.) My TitleFinder CD still uses the Flesch‑Kincaid, the formula used in Microsoft Word. I am looking forward to the switch to a for­mula that attempts to control for the difficulty of vo­cabulary. Even so, the final determination of the difficulty of a book needs to take into consideration the interests, experience base, and word knowledge of the individual student.

New Note-takers Recently, my first‑period class accompanied me to the Learning Resource Center, where we picked up eleven boxes of the new Braille ’n Speak 2000 models. Returning to the classroom, I realized the magnitude of my task. My students needed to re­view their files, transferring important files to a new Braille ’n Speak 2000. Some students had fifty or more files of all sorts – phone directories, cal­endars, math homework, biology notes, reports, stories, games, etc. Once the files were transferred, the Braille ’n Speak could be assigned to another student. In my classroom, I have one portable disk drive by which these files can be transferred easily. One student at a time was able to work with the disk drive. While this student worked relatively in­dependently, I taught the other seven students in the class.

The Chaos of Change One week later shipping boxes still block three of my bookshelves. Blue, fuchsia, and gray Braille ’n Speaks are stacked on any free surface in my classroom so that I can record each serial number as devices are checked in and out. The accessories are driving me to distraction. The Classics and the 640s (two Braille ’n Speak models) use 9‑volt battery chargers and have rectangular ports. The Scholars and 2000s use 12‑volt chargers and have round ports. Students need to return their chargers before I issue new ones. I recheck my records and update them. A new batch of in‑the‑ear earphones arrived with the new devices. Once I issue all of this equipment, class can return to “normal.” I wonder how I ever got involved in such a process during finals’ week.

Why Embrace Technology in the English Classroom?

Given all of this trouble, why do I support the intensive use of technology in my classroom? The equipment is always changing. My room is in such an uproar over the arrival of these new devices that I despair of ever putting it back in order. Learning to use new technology takes time, and that is al­ready at a premium. Some of my high school stu­dents are struggling to write a coherent sentence. Why should I devote a portion of my English classes to technology when the state standards have goals for reading and writing that are above the current performance of many of my students? The answer is that the payoffs are impressive when technology is working well. Several examples of technology that works spring to mind.

On Wednesdays during lunch, a small group of students meets with me to read Shakespeare. We are currently reading Twelfth Night. Up until this week, all of my Shakespeare‑at‑lunch students have been print readers. Three students have tun­nel vision and read small print (10 or 12 point font) but with severely reduced visual fields. The other two students read Large Print or use a CCTV to enlarge the print. However, one student, Amanda, has invited more students to join us. Several are Braille readers.

Technology came to my rescue. Kathy Barry, our transcriptionist, downloaded a copy of Twelfth Night from the Internet and saved it as an ASCII text file. Within the day, I had a disk copy that could be loaded into a Braille Lite and read via the refre­shable Braille display. Kathy also produced hard­ copy Braille for acts four and five. The computer disk was obtained within two class periods. Tech­nology is truly amazing!

Technology motivates students to write and edit, and learn. On the first day of school, I assigned a Braille ’n Speak to Jerry and Shawna, incoming freshmen. Both of these students had been exposed to this equipment in middle school but neither had had a note-taker for personal use. Within a class period, we had reviewed creating and writing files. A day later, these students were editing documents.

Jerry is a technology fanatic. He found the internal Help file and overnight was able to explain every feature of the Braille ’n Speak to Shawna. Phone directories, recipes, files of codes for Play-Station or Nintendo games soon appeared in their directories. They could use the alarm feature to wake up in the morning or the stopwatch to check on their reading speed.

I taught Jerry and Shawna only the features that pertained to reading, writing, and editing. Stu­dents learn from associating with more proficient technology users. This concentration of Braille read­ers and technology users is a major strength of a res­idential school for the blind. Students share their expertise after school hours with each other.

The day before school began this year, Shawna appeared at my classroom door and introduced her­self. She was nervous about making the transition to high school. She wanted an idea of what my English class would be like. She commented that she did not enjoy reading or writing. I asked her about her interests. She mentioned watching the World Wrestling Federation and the Animorphs on television. Shawna left my classroom with the first volume of a Brailled Animorphs’ book under her arm. Her enthusiasm for English skyrocketed the next day when I assigned her a Braille ’n Speak. Within two months, Shawna was regularly staying up past eleven to read or write. Harry Potter, the Animorphs, Stephen King ... her Braille reading speed increased from thirty‑three to seventy words per minute, and her creative stories often exceeded twenty pages in length. She began to declare that she intends to become either an author or a country‑western singer. I believe that technology was a major component in her attitude change.

Note-takers for Less Proficient Braille Readers

Some of my students are learning Braille as their visual acuity or visual fields are decreasing. Often these students are struggling to read the notes that they are taking by hand. Once they are able to write the alphabet in Braille, they can begin to take notes on a Braille ’n Speak. I can show an academic stu­dent who knows the Braille alphabet how to create, write, and read files in a single class period. This stu­dent is then able to take notes and access them. I teach the other Braille ’n Speak features as needed within my regular English classes.

This new order of Braille ’n Speaks has allowed me to outfit an entire Biology class with note-takers. Five of these students still have usable vision, which allows them to take handwritten notes and read them back fairly easily. But for students with progressive eye disorders, it is important to teach skills that compensate for vision loss before the stu­dents need them. Only one of these students com­plained vociferously during the first note-taking session. Her eye condition is progressive, and yet she kept stating that she will never need Braille or a Braille note-taker. It is my hope that she will soon recognize the power of these devices and embrace rather than fight this learning opportunity.

During fourth period, I am in the Learning Resource Center (LRC) computer lab with my junior/senior class working on writing portfolios to be submitted to the Composition Board at the University of Arizona for evaluation. The reluctant Braille ’n Speak user is in this class. She has not yet written an expository piece for her portfolio, and grades for this quarter are due tomorrow. She tells me that she cannot stay after school to work on her paper be­cause she is not a dorm student. Perhaps if I were willing to drive the twenty miles to Marana to take her home, things could be worked out. She is banking on the fact that I probably don’t have time to drive her home tonight. I tell her that by using the Braille ’n Speak she can write her paper at home. The Braille ’n Speak is, after all, a laptop computer.

The Braille versus Technology Debate

Fifteen years ago, as I was training at the University of Arizona to become a teacher of blind and visually impaired children, there was a lot of debate about the impact that technology would have on the education of blind children. At that time, some people within the field predicted that technology would re­place the use of Braille. Blind individuals would be able to type papers on a computer with speech out­put. They could listen to books on tape. Reading ma­chines such as the Kurzweil could be used to access print material. Blind students could record their lectures. Notes could be transcribed on the computer.

There were reasons that some people advocated dropping the use of Braille. Braille was bulky ­– who wants a seventy‑two volume dictionary? Reading Braille was slow. Most college professors choose new books to teach from, and the books have not been put into Braille. Transcribing books would take too long­ – the class might be over before the book was ready. A relatively untrained individual can read a textbook onto an audio tape, whereas the transcription of a book into Braille required a skilled individual.

However, as technology advanced, Braille did not become obsolete. In fact, the use of Braille has become much more important and feasible for the blind student or employee.

Scanners with optical character recognition and translation software make the production of a Braille book much more rapid. Our transcriptionist has produced some thick books within one or two days, if the typeface is clear in the print copy. With the advent of refreshable Braille, books can be saved as text files and read in Braille with no Braille hard copy needed. Blind college students are now able to carry all of their books in a disk box in their backpacks.

Braille is not always slow. Some Braille read­ers can read at speeds of 300‑400 words per minute. Many Braille readers do not improve because they don’t believe it is possible to read fast, and they do not practice reading Braille. Practice is essential. If students are always allowed to choose a medium other than Braille to use, their Braille skills do not improve.

Taped books are not an efficient medium when the goal is locating specific pieces of informa­tion. Tapes are linear. They must be run back and forth through the tape head when searching for specific data. Many Braille users complain that audio books put them to sleep and that reading Braille is a more active process than reading by listening. A sighted reader or a Braille user will pause to think when new concepts appear or when information needs to be processed to be understood. As the tape plows ahead relentlessly, the mind is apt to wander. It is often necessary for a tape user to rewind the tape several times in order to comprehend the ma­terial adequately. A student searching for a specific quotation to use as supporting evidence in a literary analysis might take a great deal of time to locate it on a tape. That same person could search a disk file and locate the quote by searching for a target word or phrase in a fraction of the time, which could be used more productively to improve the

It is vital that blind students become successful Braille users. According to Kirchner, 70 percent of blind individuals of working age are unemployed. Those with literacy skills are able to meet the needs of competitive employment. Students who consider themselves auditory learners must still read and write in either print or Braille.

The Rest of Beth’s Story

Beth turned eighteen last year and began receiving Supplemental Security Income due to her disabili­ties. She saved her money and purchased a fully­ speaking Franklin Language Master Special Edition electronic dictionary, a Braille ’n Speak 2000, and a portable disk drive. She also upgraded her computer and purchased JAWS for Windows so that she can access the Internet when she is at home.

Prior to her investment in technology, Beth “read” using recorded books. Spelling and the con­ventions of writing are often learned serendipitously while reading print or Braille, and taped books do not include the spellings of words or the punctua­tion. Beth had only a limited exposure to spelling, and her papers reflected that limitation.

The Franklin Language Master provides au­dible spellings as well as definitions. When Beth first got her talking dictionary, it would often take four or five attempts before her spelling would be close enough to standard to pull the desired word into the correction list. After a month and a half of using her Language Master consistently, Beth spelled words closely enough to the standard that about 75 per­cent of the time she would retrieve the desired word in her correction list on her first attempt. She was so inspired by her new freedom to learn through the use of technology that she ran down the batteries in her dictionary in two and a half weeks. (The batter­ies in my classroom dictionaries last about three months, and students use my dictionaries six periods per day.)

This year as I reviewed Beth’s writing goals, I noted with satisfaction that she made progress with editing for spelling. Her goal stated that she would have fewer than ten spelling errors per typed, double‑spaced page. Though this goal may not seem rig­orous, it was a major improvement over the forty or fifty errors that might have occurred a year ago. One paper that Beth edited this year had just three errors in nine typed pages. Never would this progress have occurred without the Braille ’n Speak and the elec­tronic dictionary.

Flexibility and Problem Solving Are Necessary

As teachers we need to be flexible. When we expe­rience technical difficulties, we need to remain com­posed and think of other ways to achieve our goals. Developing our students’ abilities to solve problems is crucial to their success in a complex society. One way to begin this process is by verbalizing the choices that we make as we solve problems. Another is to take the time to question the students about the obstacles they encounter and the successes they are making while using technology or completing a task.

An effective method for making this process concrete is to have students keep a learning log as a separate file in their note-takers, where they report daily on things that they learn. They record successes as well as the many frustrating details that seem to impede progress when starting a new project. I have been surprised by the types of things that cause students to get staffed on a project. Keep­ing and reviewing a learning log can minimize these delays. We discuss our logs in class and brainstorm for possible solutions.

Tips for Tired Teachers Overworked? Exhausted by the demands that tech­nology is placing upon you? Have your students read the manuals and the Help files. They can make tech support calls. Students can help each other. It is im­portant that teachers are well grounded in the stan­dard features of a machine, but just knowing what the advanced features are is sufficient. It is only nec­essary that you are able to whet the appetite of a learner. When possible, share the workload with students. They will be better prepared for life, and you will have time to plan lessons, grade papers, or read a novel.

Works Cited

Advantage Learning Systems, Inc. “Accelerated Reader ATOS Summary.” 13 June 2000. <http://advlearn.com/ar/aratossumary.htm>.

Kirchner, Corinne, Emilie Schmeidler, and Alexander Todorov, Looking at Employment through a Lifespan Telescope: Age, Health and Employment Status of People with Serious Visual Impairment, Mississippi State University Rehabilitation, Research and Training Center of Blindness and Low Vision, 1999.

Lingua MOO.Ed. Cynthia Haynes and Jan Holmevik. University of Texas at Dallas. 6 July 2000. <http://lingua.utdallas.edu/>.

Old Pueblo MOO. 20 July 1998. College of Humanities and the Faculty Development Partnership, University of Arizona. 6 July 2000. <http://www.u.arizona.edu/~danika/moo/>.

Web Sites That Provide Information on Technology for the Blind

American Printing House for the Blind. <http://www.aph.org>.

Arkenstone. <http://arkenstone.com>.

Blazie Engineering (producer of the Braille ’n Speak, Braille Lite, the portable disk drive, and many other products).

Computer Resource List (updated in March 2001 by the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind).

Duxbury Systems, Inc.

Franklin Electronic Publishers, Inc.

HumanWare. <http://humanware.com>.

International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (independent evaluation and demonstration of equipment for the blind). <http://www.nfb.org/tech.htm>.

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Web-Braille. <http://www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/webbraille.html>.

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