Future Reflections Winter 2013
by Diane Brauner and Ed Summers
From the Editor: Diane Brauner is a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and instructor in orientation and mobility (O&M) in North Carolina. Ed Summers is a blind software engineer and manager of the accessibility team at SAS Institute, the market leader in business analytics software. In this article Diane and Ed describe their project to train teachers on the use of the iPad and other Apple products with blind and visually impaired students.
We met in the spring of 2012 at a conference sponsored by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Visually Impaired (AER). At the conference Ed demonstrated SAS's latest research on accessible charts, maps, and graphs on the iPad. Diane was enthralled with the wealth of information he had to share. She couldn't stop asking questions. Finally another teacher spoke up and said, "Please be quiet and give the rest of us a chance!"
After the presentation, the two of us got together to talk. We found the response to Ed's presentation both troubling and exciting. It revealed how little TVIs know about access technology in general and the access features for the Apple products in particular. It also showed us how eager they are to learn in order to help their students.
More and more, digital technology is replacing hardcopy textbooks in today's classrooms. Some school districts in North Carolina have been almost wholly digital for the past five years. Other districts are hard at work making the transition, using online texts and digital materials wherever possible. We found ourselves wondering how blind students will fit into the digital environment. Must a blind student be expected to use an algebra textbook that comes in thirty-six Braille volumes, while her classmates access their math texts electronically? Unless they are brought fully into the digital age, blind students will be at a severe disadvantage.
At the same time, the adoption of the Common Core state standards is driving many states to conduct end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments completely online. For example, North Carolina is on track to convert to online testing during the 2014-2015 school year. We are concerned about how visually impaired students will be accommodated as this change occurs. Will the tests be accessible? What accommodations will be allowed? Will students be able to use the same accommodations they have used with instructional materials throughout the school year? How will charts, graphs, maps, and other graphics be presented to visually impaired students?
Both of us recognized the potential for digital materials to revolutionize access for blind/visually impaired students. However, in order for these students to benefit from technology, TVIs must become knowledgeable about its use.
Shortly after our first meeting, we developed a training workshop that introduces TVIs to the basic iPad accessibility features that are available for visually impaired students. We conducted that workshop seven times in North Carolina during 2012. The workshop consisted of a full day of hands-on activities. Every participant had access to an iPad during the workshop. SAS provided loaner iPads for teachers who did not own an iPad.
The workshops began by introducing teachers to the iPad and showing them how it can be made accessible by turning on the VoiceOver program. After our basic introduction, we showed the TVIs how to use VoiceOver in the classroom in conjunction with a Braille display or with low-vision aids. They saw how easily Braille readers can use a Braille display to read digital books and classroom handouts. Students with low vision can use the iPad to see a Smartboard at the front of the room, and most of them quickly prefer the iPad over the CCTV or other magnification devices because the iPad allows them to blend in with their peers.
To our amazement, we found that many TVIs did not know that the iPad and other Apple products have built-in accessibility features that are included at no extra cost. They were not aware that these features are available straight out of the box on every single iPad. We also discovered that many visually impaired students are not taught to use technology until they reach middle school, although their sighted classmates get hands-on experience with computers as early as kindergarten. This gap seems to be due to the fact that many TVIs have had limited training in access technology and do not feel comfortable teaching it to their students. TVIs said they found screen readers such as JAWS difficult to master and to teach.
After the training, many of the teachers reported that they were now teaching their students to use the iPad, with impressive results. They felt that the iPad helps mainstreaming work smoothly and easily. By looking at the iPad screen, the classroom teacher can see what the blind student is doing and can give immediate feedback. The teacher can send assignments directly to the student, and the student can send completed work back to the teacher--all without the intervention of a TVI or classroom aide. By using the iPad, students are able to complete homework assignments more quickly than ever before, giving them time to play with friends and take part in extracurricular activities.
Initially, most blind students learn to drive the iPad with a series of taps and finger slides upon the touch screen. This is beneficial for understanding the spatial layout of the iPad. Pairing the iPad with either a Bluetooth keyboard or a refreshable Braille display is also an efficient way for low-vision or blind students to interact with the iPad. One blind student, who also has physical disabilities, was not able to master the finger gestures; however, she successfully uses a refreshable Braille display to drive her iPad.
In North Carolina, many schools provide iPads for all of their students, blind and sighted. Students are allowed to take these iPads home; they are not exclusively for classroom use. Braille displays are readily available through quota funds.
The iPad is an important tool, but it is not the only answer for blind/visually impaired students. It does not yet provide tactile access to graphics, and it does not provide a way for Braille readers to use Smartboards. The SAS accessibility team is working to develop audio and tactile interfaces for digital graphics. Its goal is to develop technology that enables visually impaired students to access the exact same digital math and science textbooks as their sighted peers. Until that technology is commercially available, there is still an important role for hardcopy Braille materials, especially in mathematics and the sciences. These fields rely heavily on diagrams, charts, and pictures to convey concepts and information.
At this point we have trained about one hundred TVIs in North Carolina, and we plan to conduct workshops in Boston, Houston, and San Francisco during 2013. It's exciting to see the change that a day or two of intensive training can make in a teacher's attitude. Many teachers come to us convinced that no totally blind student can use the iPad effectively. By the time they complete our workshop, they have turned around completely. Some of the older teachers, the ones who were the most apprehensive in the beginning, have become our most enthusiastic converts. When they leave our training sessions, they're all about teaching technology!
We believe passionately that blind and visually impaired students should have the same access to technology that has become a matter of course for their sighted peers. We are convinced that they should have the same early exposure that is provided to other children, beginning in kindergarten or even in preschool. With effective use of technology, blind and visually impaired students can compete on terms of equality with their classmates in the mainstream classroom.