Braille Monitor                                                 February 2012

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Ensuring that Blind Children Can Swim in the Mainstream Demands Concerted Action

by Eric Vasiliauskas

Dr. Eric VasiliauskasFrom the Editor: Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas (his friends call him Dr. V.) is a medical doctor with two blind children. His name is familiar to regular readers of the Monitor. Dr. V is intelligent, motivated, enthusiastic, and unequivocally dedicated to seeing that his blind sons have every chance to live and to thrive in the world they will inherent. Much of this passion he shares for other blind children so they will not be sidelined and told they must wait, wait, wait.

Sometimes Dr. V writes to talk about his children's accomplishments, sometimes to share techniques, and sometimes to warn us about trends in education that threaten much of what we want for all blind children. This article is a warning and a wakeup call. The days when a blind child was prepared to compete with his sighted classmates armed only with a slate, a Brailler, and his textbooks in Braille are over. Today active participation requires technology--not just technology for the blind but technology used by the sighted. Eric warns that, while we embrace this concept philosophically, we are too often unprepared to deal with the practical problems it presents. The same is true with the textbooks of the twenty-first century--a hardcopy Braille or large-print book is not enough. Here is what Dr. V has to say:

I have learned that, iPads are being piloted not only in the high school, but also in every school in our district. At my younger son's elementary school the whole fifth-grade class will be using iPads this school year. One of the other elementary schools in our district chose to pilot iPads at the kindergarten level. The whole district is getting wired to phase in the electronic era. This is no longer some futuristic possibility--the e-wave is here and will likely roll into your district before you know it. How many TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired) and parents are ready to assure that their blind K-12 students have equal exposure to all that the iPad has to offer? How many know how to link Braille notetakers to iPads? With this reality in mind I share the following thoughts:

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education joint statements, existing accessibility laws include requirements to ensure that e-based and web-based education is accessible to all. Therefore not only are e-based and web-based instructional materials and tools mandated to be blind-student friendly, but e-content must, to the greatest extent possible, be equivalent to the content provided in the educational experience of print-reading students.

The laws and regulations seem quite clear, and specifics have been well-defined in the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice Joint Frequently Asked Questions document. Yet surprisingly few individuals in school districts, the blindness education field, and textbook publishers appear to be aware of the regulations, and fewer still appear to be in compliance. Mechanisms to inform all those that need to know and to encourage and enforce compliance are lacking.

I know that some teachers and parents have started to address the issues. As a parent of two blind students mainstreamed in an academically high-performing school district, I would like to describe what I perceive to be some of the main issues on this topic. I will start with a thought-provoking theoretical scenario and then move on to try to define specific areas of concern that not only warrant attention but need to be addressed. I am hoping that those of you who have interest, motivation, connections, and clout will take these issues to heart and also take the lead in tackling them head-on locally (in your school districts and VI programs), at the state level, and nationally.

Imagine a large-scale study spanning a decade or so which divides all sighted students in the U.S. into two groups: Study group one would have full access to the entire content of current textbooks (or iPad-based e-textbooks if you prefer); the other half of the students, study group two, would be given access to only the main-body text and some side text. Study group one would have access to detailed maps for social science and well-done graphics of all sorts for both science and math (e-based graphics might even be interactive). The millions of students in study group two would have limited access to all non-text visuals and would have exposure to only a limited number of makeshift maps and diagrams (deemed to be the most important ones) created by someone in the school district.

What would the results of such a study be? Who would score better on tests? Who would rank higher in their classes? Would higher education and job opportunities be affected? Answer: There would be outrage over how unfair this type of study would be, well before it ever got off the ground; such an experiment could never happen because it would be considered unethical. Yet this illustrates the position some blind students are in today and the position many will be in very soon if we don't act.

I am a huge fan of technology and e-text with its potential to enhance the learning experience of all, but the scope of the accessibility issues that need to be addressed in emerging electronic education and technology is broad and is not getting urgent attention. These issues should be addressed thoughtfully and preemptively rather than reactively. These are not esoteric concerns; they have now become concrete academic issues. It would not be a stretch to take the position that this may even be an equal-rights issue.

1. E-textbooks for blind students are not an educationally equivalent experience to the standard print textbooks that sighted students are using. The most glaring example of this is that, in current e-textbooks for blind students, the pictures, charts, and diagrams are frequently omitted. It is critical to understand that in state-adopted textbooks, beyond the main body of text, most pages contain additional diagrams, illustrations, graphs, pictures, charts, and links to suggested webpages. These charts and other visuals may make up a quarter to a half of the content on a given textbook page; much of this information is not really supplemental but represents the key points of what the students are expected to learn and understand. Not only is the graphic content not described fully in e-textbooks, but the presence or absence of the graphics may not even be noted, so blind students may not be aware that they are missing vital information presented to sighted students. As an aside, some of the California state-produced embossed textbooks omit figures, diagrams, charts, and even maps. When their absence is noted, the omission is signified by the words, "See teacher for this section." Given the reluctance of children to ask questions for fear of standing out, one must wonder how often the question is asked and adequately addressed.

The e-files sometimes provided to students are a wonderful supplement; when adequately constructed, they are easily searchable and portable and give students ongoing access to glossaries and textbook dictionaries. E-text affords students the opportunity to look up specifics in other chapters easily when they don't have the embossed volume readily available. Unlike sighted students who have the whole book in the classroom and at home, hardcopy Braille readers have real-time access to only one or a few volumes at a time in class, and unlike their sighted peers, who have a full textbook for home use, many (if not most) don't have a full embossed copy of their textbooks for home use. Yes, this is a real problem for many reasons: some teachers teach chapters out of sequence; when studying for exams, students may need access to other chapters, and the textbook glossaries and indexes are in separate volumes to which blind students do not have ready access.

Part of the reluctance of  TVIs to use e-textbooks is the argument that they are not completely cleaned up--not all are fully transcriber-proofed--having extra symbols and markers that students must ignore. While the formatting of e-textbooks for blind students is a problem, more and more TVIs and students realize that the e-textbooks are readable and usable. In some of the poorer electronic textbooks for blind students that I have seen, the book is presented as a folder. The files have been formatted as rich text files, some of which are readable in their downloaded form on a Braille notetaker, while others are not. The file names within the folders are page numbers, not chapter titles. This does not appear to have been well thought out. Imagine the problem when turning the page of a book using a notetaker means closing a file, returning to the file list, traversing that list to find the next file, and then waiting while it is opened. Such a design makes turning a page a major ordeal and prevents the book from being searched for words or phrases.

A further problem with e-textbooks that is shared with embossed textbooks is that the supplemental or illustrative side text and comments in elementary, middle school, and high school textbooks is often inserted between paragraphs of the main text. This is often done arbitrarily so that it breaks up the main text and interrupts the flow intended by the author. Older students may be able to adapt to this practice, but it is confusing for children in the early grades, especially fourth grade and under, who are trying to follow along in passages that are being read in class.

The unfortunate reality is that publisher-quality books don't necessarily provide the blind or visually impaired reader a literary experience equal to that of students using the print version. Bookshare is truly an amazing resource. For the last few years most of our school district's summer reading books have been available for immediate download; the few that were not yet available were quickly processed by the Bookshare staff and posted within a few weeks. The Bookshare staff and volunteers are a phenomenal group of individuals. That said, some problems may not be obvious to all. My elder son finished one of his ninth-grade summer reading books, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The text was fine, but the print version of this book has a number of visuals in the form of diagrams, puzzles, formulas, pictures, and symbols that are an important part of this novel. Some of the symbols were transcribed incorrectly; in most cases these significant components were omitted altogether. The context of the visuals was not described and not even referred to--it just wasn't there in the downloadable version.

My son could tell that something was missing based on the context and requested that we go to our local library to check out the print version of the book. We did and described each graphic. He contacted Bookshare to report this problem. The response he received was: "This is a publisher-quality book, and unfortunately we cannot edit publisher-quality books." This novel is a summer reading book, not only locally, but elsewhere, and, as such, it is part of the academic curriculum. An increasing number of academic literary books are including graphics that are an integral part of the stories. I am an optimist and hope that this can be appropriately addressed. Hopefully the publisher-quality textbooks that Bookshare produces will soon be closer to the true print-equivalent experience for our students.

As e-textbooks are further refined, students will still need access to high-quality transcriber-produced and embossed textbooks for diagrams, charts, maps, and other graphically-displayed components. It is just not acceptable that such information is omitted, because students need hands-on experience to understand graphic layouts. I understand, based on current law, that omission of pertinent graphically displayed content in state-adopted textbooks is not only patently unfair to blind students, but does not meet the legal requirements set forth by the laws of this country. Those that produce and distribute textbooks for blind students should pay attention to this legal requirement, for they may be held accountable for assuring compliance with the law.

2. New-generation e-textbooks will bring about a shift to an entirely new dimension. In their current form e-books for use on Braille notetakers are basically just the straight-forward text found on book pages. Graphics, charts, tables, maps, etc. are currently not adequately described and are too frequently omitted. As state-adopted textbooks are provided electronically on devices such as the iPad, e-textbooks will no longer be two dimensional--straight text with pictures and graphics. Instead students will find specific words, concepts, references, and pictures that will hyperlink to other pages or websites that discuss those issues in more depth. These links will likely include links to non-accessible videos, still pictures, and documents coded in the portable document format (PDF), a highly popular format for text and pictures that may or may not be accessible, depending on how it was created.

Since many students use Braille notetakers to access materials, access to PDFs must somehow be made a priority for those who develop notetakers. The ability to use hyperlinks will make textbooks multi-dimensional. A student will not just read but will be given information through sounds, pictures, and other forms which have traditionally been limited to entertainment but are now a part of education. To my knowledge no clear plan is in place to address this shift to the next dimension. Who is responsible and accountable for assuring that blind students will have equal access in their educational experience when these books replace print on paper?

3. The move towards electronic and web-based teaching experiences is no longer theoretical but is actively occurring in classrooms and curricula all over the country. This is happening at all grade levels--in some districts more rapidly than others--but the shift is definitely in progress. While this has the potential to level the playing field for blind students, the reality is that many teachers’ webpages are inaccessible. These are used to give assignments, let students share their work and ideas, and track their progress and current grades. Many web-based school calendar programs are similarly inaccessible. Many publishers’ webpages are not fully and independently accessible. Equally important, publishers’ websites used by many state-adopted textbooks that students are instructed to use (to learn more about concepts, access study guides, and take pre-tests) contain links to materials that are not fully and independently accessible. Based on the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education new accessible technology guidelines, these conditions are illegal, yet they are widespread, as commonplace as exceeding the speed limit. It appears that few school district personnel are even aware of the requirement to provide accessibility, and those who do have few clues about how to become compliant.

According to the guidelines accessibility is mandated by the law--whether or not any blind students are in that class or school--just as wheelchair accessibility is now required irrespective of whether or not wheelchair users attend the school. Given that many districts are now in the early stages of trying to comply with the declarations of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, now is the ideal time to make districts aware of the problems that must be addressed in serving blind children.

4. Teachers of the visually impaired don't get enough training to be proficient in all the necessary technologies the blind or visually impaired students need to succeed optimally and reach their full potential. Education of our future TVIs in the various blind and low-vision technologies needs to move well beyond mere exposure; students in TVI training programs should demonstrate functional ability to use screen-reading software, OCR products for the blind, and the various note-taking and reading devices available. Districts will likely have a preference of screen reader, notetaker, and OCR package, but proficiency in their use is a must.

TVIs must also be responsible for teaching their blind and visually impaired students to use iPads and wirelessly link them to Braille displays so that students can access their curricula. TVIs need to be able to teach students to create and format Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files and to use documents written in the portable document format independently. The reality is that very few sighted TVIs are truly proficient with these technologies. A lack of proficiency can lead to everything from the inability to teach the needed skill to teaching it in a way that makes the student believe the process of coupling and using these devices is confusing and inefficient. One wonders how actively and adequately TVI teacher-preparation programs are addressing these new technologies and their integration with assistive technology for the blind.

5. In addition to raising expectations for teaching programs, alternate solutions should seriously be considered. School districts should consider partnering with national organizations of the blind such as the NFB and with state schools for the blind. The California School for the Blind has a phenomenal technology program that runs regional in-service training for TVIs and has campus-based week-long programs for young blind and visually impaired students in the summer and occasionally at other times. Such opportunities are significantly underused. Their online tools for teachers and technology users (the students) should be better used, and online teaching content should be developed further with all these factors in mind.

An additional strategy would be for all local VI programs to hire at least one proficient blind TVI. In general, blind teachers will be the most proficient with the various blind technologies and their functional application, because they use these tools daily. I realize that some sighted TVIs are capable of doing it all, and I applaud them, but, based on my interaction with families and TVIs from around the country, many lack proficiency with technology for the blind. Having a blind person on staff who uses this technology, not just to teach but as a part of daily routine, is likely to provide not only an efficient and enthusiastic teacher, but a role model for students and teachers who need to see that a future full of possibility is just around the corner.

6. While infants and toddlers are being exposed to iPads and iPhones (this is not an exaggeration; I see this in my office regularly), equivalent exposure for blind kids typically begins later, in elementary school and beyond. In fact at our son's high school orientation this week, the principal described how his elementary-school-age children and even his five-year-old have iPads and use them to access Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and Rocket Math (www.rocketmath.net). He gave examples of the way these programs have helped to boost his own young children's academic performance. How many blind children have this type of access? If we believe in equal expectations, why don't our students have equal access?

If we do not insist on an immediate educational awakening and paradigm shift in the Blind/VI educational arena, very few kids at the elementary and middle school level will be anywhere near as proficient as their sighted peers in technology. While I have observed a slow shift in the exposure at an earlier age to technology, the gap between sighted kids and blind kids continues to create a situation in which blind children fall through the cracks. Arguably the exposure of sighted kids to iPads and iPhones and child-oriented computer programs will increase this gap unless we address the issue. Blind children need computer games they can play and the hardware to play them. They need early access to screen readers at home, age-appropriate electronic games they can play, and access to the latest and greatest technologies that become available to their sighted peers.

7. Last, the concept of “blind-accessible” when dealing with technology for young children needs to be defined. There is a big difference between something that is technically accessible and something that is usable. Real equality demands a product or service that is not just accessible, not just usable, but efficiently usable and accessible. We hear this concern from employed blind people who must be efficient, but it applies as well to our children. Childhood is the time when they will form many of their attitudes about blindness and the alternative techniques blind people use. Experience will determine whether they come to regard alternative techniques as slow and inefficient, or whether these techniques represent the best in creative and innovative solutions paving the way for blind people to be as productive as their friends, classmates, and eventually their coworkers.

The problems and obstacles that lie ahead have been described and appreciated by many educators, parents, students, leaders in industry, and members of the blind community. Yet, as I look around, I can't quite figure out who is really taking the lead. Many well-meaning and strong advocates are aware of the problem, but no clear team leader has emerged. My goal is to encourage the people whose lives are most affected to assume this leadership role. Some of you may be familiar with these famous lines from the poem, “Invictus”:

I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.

We all have a vested interest in this area. The web-based, electronic-based educational fleet of ships has set sail--for both charted and uncharted waters. Many exceptional and experienced sailors and captains are involved, but all are steering their own ships with their own goals in mind. For the voyage to be fruitful, a more coordinated course needs to be charted. We need a mission and fleet admiral to oversee the voyage and to take responsibility for addressing the obstacles that we will encounter along the way. A team approach is needed locally and at the state and national levels. I can see no greater priority.

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