Volume 36 Number 3 Summer 2017
A magazine for parents and teachers of blind children published by
the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults in partnership
with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Deborah Kent Stein, Editor
Copyright © 2017 American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
For more information
about blindness and children contact:
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, MD 21230 • (410) 659-9314
www.nfb.org/nopbc • [email protected] • [email protected]
Orientation and Mobility for Babies and Toddlers
by Merry-Noel Chamberlain
A New Mobility System for Toddlers?
by Carol Castellano
Braille for the Sighted
by Paul Hostovsky
Braille Is about Touching
by Robert Gardner
The Transition Conversation: Talking about Expectations
by Lydia Schuck
Career Mentoring for College Students: Perspectives from a Participant
by Sophie Kershaw
Guidelines for Collegiate Faculty to Teach Mathematics to Blind and Visually Impaired Students
by Al Maneki
Google in the Classroom: Chromebooks and G Suite
by Amy Mason
Teaching and Learning with Osmo
an interview with Kelly Lauer
To become a Scientist
by Mona Minkara
Live It Live
by Martin Wilde
New Vision on Demand? There's an App for That
by Chancey Fleet
by Jean Bening
ODDS AND ENDS
Are you the parent of a blind or visually impaired child? Don’t know where to turn?
Founded in 1983, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) is a membership organization of parents, educators, and friends of blind children reaching out to give each other vital support, encouragement, and information. We have thousands of members in all fifty states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
The NOPBC offers hope, encouragement, information, and resources for parents of blind or visually impaired children. NOPBC provides emotional support and a network of other families dealing with the same challenges you are facing. We also provide information, training, and resources to empower you to take an active role in guiding your child’s development and education. We can provide information on your child’s rights and on the laws and legislative issues that will enable you and your child to become strong and effective advocates.
Have you ever wondered what your blind or visually impaired child will be capable of when he or she grows up? The answer to that question is that blindness/visual impairment does not have to stop your child from doing anything he or she wants to do. We can connect you with other families and blind adults who can serve as positive mentors and role models. They can teach you the attitudes and techniques that will enable your child to become independent and to succeed in life.
What is different about the NOPBC?
Our status as a division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and most influential organization of blind people in the world, provides many benefits. Our members are well informed about the societal, legislative, and technological issues that affect blind people. We also enjoy the resources, support, and expertise of fifty thousand blind people who can serve as mentors and role models for us and our children. Finally, as our children grow up, they have the Federation to belong to.
No other organization for parents of blind/visually impaired children offers more programs, activities, and training to families, children, and youth. One of our most exciting activities is our annual conference. Every year since it was established, the NOPBC has conducted an annual conference for parents and teachers of blind children as part of the national convention of the NFB. The program has grown to include five exciting days of workshops, training sessions, activities for all family members, including sighted siblings, and countless opportunities to meet blind adults and other families and children from around the country.
What is the mission of the NOPBC?
The purpose of the NOPBC is to:
Most states have an NOPBC affiliate chapter. You can find your state chapter at http://www.nopbc.org. If your state does not have a chapter and you would like to start one, please contact us. We may be able to offer training and other assistance to start a state NOPBC chapter.
What are the programs, activities, publications, and resources of the NOPBC?
by Merry-Noel Chamberlain
From the Editor: When a young child is blind or visually impaired, parents play a crucial role in promoting movement and exploration, or mobility. They also help their child with orientation, a basic understanding of the environment. For new parents unfamiliar with blindness, questions abound. In this article Merry-Noel Chamberlain draws upon her extensive experience as an instructor of orientation and mobility to answer many of the questions she hears from the parents of young children.
If you are the parent of a blind or visually impaired baby or toddler, you probably have a host of questions. How will your baby learn to move around? Will she or he ever be able to crawl or walk safely? How can you help your baby to be an independent traveler? What steps can you take right now, or is it too soon to begin? When is it time for your child to learn to use a long white cane? If your child has some usable vision, will he need a cane someday? I have heard these questions many times from parents who are new to having a child with a visual impairment. I developed this guide as a way to share answers I have provided to parents throughout my years as an instructor of orientation and mobility (O&M).
Parents and other members of the blind child's Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) Team (also known as the Early Intervention Team) often turn to the teacher of the visually impaired, or TVI, for answers to questions about orientation and mobility. However, many TVIs are not certified in O&M, so their answers may not be accurate. It is important to go directly to a certified O&M instructor for answers. A person who is certified in O&M teaches individuals orientation (what is around him or her) and mobility (how to maneuver within that space by using a long white cane).
Two types of O&M certification are available to professionals, which means that there are two distinct philosophies regarding instructional techniques. One certification is called Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS), and the other is National Orientation & Mobility Certification (NOMC). Many COMS instructors do not provide O&M training to young children until they are able to walk. NOMCs, on the other hand, have the philosophy that young children need to be introduced to the cane as early as possible. Due to these differing philosophies, parents and early intervention professionals can become confused regarding when to begin O&M instruction. It is best to communicate with your O&M instructor so you are in agreement as to what is best for your child. This article mainly focuses on the NOMC approach to O&M, as that is my own philosophy and certification background.
This question often pops up when a child has passed the baby stage and has entered the toddler phase. The answer to that question may be surprising. The time to introduce a toddler to the long white cane is now. Don't delay!
You are your child's first teacher, the one who will guide him through the toddler years to childhood and then help with the transition to adulthood. In the beginning, parents teach their children all the basics, such as how to pick up finger foods, play with toys, and listen to stories. Parents are teachers without formal teaching degrees. In no way does this mean that you, as a parent, cannot teach. It just means you have not attended classes to receive a formal certificate. You have been teaching your child already, though perhaps you didn't even know it, and you will be teaching your child for many years to come. According to The Parent Institute (1998), from the day a child is born to the day he graduates from high school, 85 percent of his life is spent outside of the school setting. During that 85 percent of your child's life, you will have ample opportunities to help him perfect his O&M skills.
The infant sections in department stores display racks of nonskid socks for babies from birth to six months of age. How many babies have you met who are walking at six months? Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, babies regularly wear socks with rubber grips. The socks keep the child's feet warm and clean, they are cute with matching outfits, and they help form the foot. We do not wait for the child to walk before putting socks on her feet. The same reasoning holds true when it comes to placing a cane in the blind child's hands.
Some O&M instructors believe a child need not be given a cane until she begins to walk. Just as a baby wears socks before she starts walking, she also can benefit when she is provided with a cane before she takes her first step. If children who are blind or have low vision are not given the tools to help them move forward, they won't do so.
Toddlers with visual impairments wear socks for the same reasons sighted children do. By the same token toddlers with visual impairments need to be introduced to the child-size long white cane.
As I mentioned, some O&M instructors do not begin actual cane instruction until the child is walking. However, some mobility activities can be done before your child takes her first step. The cane is going to be with your child for the rest of her life. If the cane is introduced to her now, it will become a natural part of her, just as she is aware that she needs to wear socks. However, if the cane is not introduced until she is older—perhaps not until middle school—it often will be rejected because the child fears looking different from her peers. The younger your child is when the cane is introduced, the more successful she will be in accepting it as a tool for life and mastering the skills of orientation and mobility.
If you want your child to be an independent traveler—to go where she wants to go without depending on a human guide—the very best thing you can do is to introduce her to the cane at an early age, encourage her to accept the cane as a tool for life, and insist that she use the cane at every walking opportunity outside her home environment. Whew! That's a huge statement based on a deep philosophy that you must hold securely in your heart. Most of the successful blind travelers I have known were introduced to the cane at a very young age. This guide will help you get started.
There are two main types of canes from which to select: canes with golf grip handles and canes with cylinder handles. Considering the very small hands of babies and toddlers, the cane with a cylinder handle is the best. This type of cane is available free of charge from the National Federation of the Blind at https://nfb.org/free-cane-program. The smallest cane available for young children is 25 inches long. (For older toddlers, order a cane that reaches from his toes to his nose.) In addition to the handle being small enough for little fingers to wrap around it, here are two more reasons why this is the best first cane:
1. The cane tip is made of metal, which offers superb auditory feedback.
2. The cane is lightweight and easy for a small child to maneuver.
Before the cane arrives, you have most likely introduced your child to some cause-and-effect activities. Perhaps you placed a toy rattle in your baby's hand. Rattles make wonderful pre-cane devices. As the baby swings the rattle around, it may strike the floor or the side of the crib. The sound lets the child know that something is there. This activity also can be carried out with straws, spoons, or any other cylindrical object.
When the cane arrives, introduce it to your child. The introduction need not be a big deal. When he is lying safely on a blanket with his toys around him, simply place the cane within his reach so he will discover it on his own. If he is not exploring, lay the cane handle in the palm of his hand. He will most likely wrap his fingers around the handle, just as he does around your finger. If he shows interest, it will not last long, as babies have very short attention spans. Don't prolong the activity, and don't get discouraged. At this point, the cane is simply being introduced.
Try to introduce the cane to your baby at least once a day. Odds are, your baby may touch it and try to put it in his mouth or lick it. These are very normal responses.
When your baby begins to sit up on the blanket, continue to introduce him to the cane. Now he may begin to pick it up and move it about. Be careful not to hover too close, for he may swing the cane around in the air. This is his way of exploring with the cane. At this stage there is no right or wrong way for him to use the cane, just as there is no right or wrong way for him to play with most toddler toys. Please do not discipline him or take the cane away if he swings it in the air. A harsh voice or removal of the cane may interfere with positive O&M development. Just be careful that other children are not too close.
Another good time to give the cane to your child is when he is in the high chair. Yes, he will drop it, and you may need to play the drop and pick-up game with him. Think about the great auditory information he gathers from this game. He is learning about echolocation plus cause and effect.
Do not introduce the cane when your child is in a confined area such as the crib or pack-n-play. This can reduce movement of the cane and may cause frustration or actual harm to your child.
When your child begins to stand on her own for a second or two, introduce the cane to her again. At this stage parents of both sighted and blind children generally offer physical support. As your child learns to stand with the cane, you will need to monitor its location carefully, as she may swing it around. Again, attention will be short-lived, so move on to something else as needed. You know your child best, and you can judge when to transition to another activity.
When your child begins cruising around the couch, place the cane on the edge of the couch so she can discover it. She may check it out and then drop it onto the floor. Place the cane at another location on the couch to be discovered again. Repeat as needed. If your child tries to pick the cane off the floor, encourage her to do so. Have fun!
Some parents elect to decorate the cane handle with duct tape or ribbons. Be mindful that toddlers put things into their mouths. Decorating the cane is not necessary at this age. Remember that the majority of the cane needs to be white.
From cruising around the couch, your child may take a step or two toward a familiar voice. Again parents, grandparents, and older siblings provide physical support to help the child build strength and balance. When your child can take a step or two, occasionally have him hold the handle of the cane for support instead of your finger. Do this several times a day.
When you carry your baby or toddler, even around the house, give him opportunities to carry his cane. Try to do this often, as it connects the cane with movement. You can also build this connection by giving the cane to your toddler when he is being pushed in a stroller. Attach the cane to the stroller, using an elastic strap, so it can be retrieved when he drops it.
To encourage movement, place the cane just beyond the toddler's reach and encourage him to crawl to it. Let your child swing the cane around him. This is a way for him to "look around." Naturally, keep fragile items (as well as people and pets) out of harm's way. Your toddler does not mean to smack the cat! He just has not yet learned how to fine-tune his movements. He will perfect his movements as he gets older.
When toddlers play with toys, they sometimes toss them aside. At this stage your toddler considers the cane to be another toy, and he will toss it along with the rest. When this happens, it is important for you to refrain from always picking things up for him. If he wants something badly enough, he will be willing to work for it. He will crawl in search of the toy or cane, and crawling leads to walking.
Use directional terms when you talk to your child.
As your child begins to explore his environment, encourage him to do so with his cane. Put the cane in his hand and let him be the guide. If he taps the cane on the floor, briefly praise the sound he created. Ask him to repeat the sound: ("I love the sound you are making. Can you do that again, please?") Now and then you might comment about the echo from the cane tip.
Some children need assistance with holding and moving the cane. This assistance can be provided in several ways. Gently place your hand over your child's hand as he holds the cane, or simply place the cane in the palm of his hand. When he is holding the cane, sometimes with your hand over his, use your free hand to maneuver the cane. Tap on the floor, wall, or furniture. It is important not to prolong this demonstration, or else your child may pay more attention to the feel of your hand over his than to the tactual and auditory information provided via the cane.
Some children may be resistant to holding the cane or any other object. If this is the case, there are a couple of things you can do.
At this point your child is beginning to take her first steps with support. Parents of blind and sighted children often provide physical support with those early steps. They hold the child's hands or torso as she wobbles forward. It can be a tricky business to provide physical support to a toddler while giving positive reinforcement for using the cane. The best approach is to walk behind your child and hold both her hands. One of her hands will be holding the cane, so you will need to assist her with holding the cane, too. Be careful not to hold so tightly that you cause discomfort to the hand with the cane. As you encourage her to step forward, move the hand holding the cane left and right in front of her. Continue to walk forward, moving the cane tip left and right. With luck, the cane will tap on a different surface. For example, you may move from carpet to linoleum or from bare wood to carpet. Be excited about the different sound. Say how wonderful it is that the cane found the new flooring for her. Carpeted areas will not yield the best auditory results. Kitchen, bathroom, or hardwood floors have better echo options. Perhaps the cane tip will find the fridge or the lower cupboard in the kitchen. Again, be excited: "Wow! Your cane found the fridge!"
When your child begins to hold the cane independently, you can still help her move it from side to side. This is literally going to be back-breaking work for you, but it's well worth it for your child. As she gets stronger at walking, your involvement can decrease. However, still encourage her to use the cane in the house for at least thirty minutes a day.
Take the cane on every walking excursion outside the home environment. This may mean that your child needs two canes, one in the diaper bag and one at home. Just as you grab your wallet, glasses, or purse before you walk out the door, be sure to grab the cane. You are modeling for your child, and at this point it is your responsibility to show her great cane habits. As your child gets older, she will remember the cane herself.
Little by little your child will discover that the cane is a tool. Be patient. The time will come.
As your child becomes an independent walker, insist she walk to and from the car with her cane.
The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) holds a conference each year in July in conjunction with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) National Convention. The conference is a wonderful opportunity for you to meet and learn from other parents of blind children. During the conference a Cane Walk is offered to participants. An instructor will be more than happy to provide you with a private lesson. It is important for you to be a positive role model for your child.
The Cane Walk is an opportunity for children of all ages, including toddlers, and their parents to receive a lesson in O&M from a certified instructor. Lessons can range from introducing the cane to solving advanced problems. If a child needs a cane, he can obtain a free one at the Cane Walk or purchase one during the NFB National Convention.
Parents, too, may obtain free canes at the Cane Walk. This in no way means that the parent is blind. Rather, this cane is used as a teaching cane for parents.
The philosophy behind the teaching cane for parents is quite simple. Children want to be like their parents. When you use a cane, your child is more willing to use a cane, too. You need to know the basics of cane use in order to assist your child. By knowing the basics, you can identify when he is using the cane correctly, and you can compliment him when he is.
You may not need a teaching cane now, but keep this information in mind. More information about how to get in touch with NOPBC is at the end of this article. If possible, make an effort to attend the next NOPBC conference.
If you are reading this article, you have discovered that your child is blind or visually impaired. Now it's time to move to the next step. Contact your child's school district to let officials know that a child with a visual impairment is entering the educational system. A coordinator from the ECSE team will contact you to set up a home visit. From there, a TVI and an O&M instructor may be informed about your child. Many members of the ECSE team will do assessments. You have the right to request special assessments from the TVI and O&M instructor, and your child has a right to receive these services. Remember, some O&M instructors may want to hold off on providing instruction until your child is walking. That cannot stop you from helping your child by following the suggestions in this article. On the other hand, some O&M instructors may wish to begin right away.
If the O&M instructor begins work with your child right away, he or she may suggest many of the ideas in this article. Even with the instructor's help, your toddler will not become an independent traveler overnight. The instructor may simply relay information or provide pointers on how you can assist your child to crawl. Perhaps the O&M instructor will provide literature or recommend that you read Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model by Joe Cutter (2007).
For toddlers who are blind with additional special needs, it is important to note that any of the above suggestions may or may not apply. The only way to know for sure what will work is to try. Each child with additional needs is unique, so instruction needs to be individualized. It is vitally important to consult your child's O&M instructor for assistance.
People do not receive pre-pencils when they learn to write, so why introduce a pre-cane to a child? Specially designed pre-canes can be confusing to a child; they can be heavy and cumbersome. By using the steps above, your child can be introduced to a lightweight tool that grows with your child. As your child grows, a new cane needs to be ordered. Measurement needs to be from the toes to the nose.
When a pre-cane device is introduced to the young child, she first must learn to use the pre-cane device, and then learn to use the long white cane she will use for life. Why add the unnecessary pre-cane step?
If you feel that a pre-cane is necessary, many children, blind and sighted, enjoy push toys such as child-size grocery carts and lawnmowers. These toys make wonderful pre-canes, and they are age- and stage-appropriate. They are lightweight and the perfect size. Like the cane, the push toy or pre-cane explores the surface ahead of your child and informs her whether the path is clear of obstacles so she may venture forward.
Let your child lead the way. He may drag his cane along as he crawls or cruises around the room. At times the cane may need to be moved to another area of the room where he is playing.
Children will maneuver the cane all around them, even waving it in the air. Consider this as a means of looking around. Yes, there are good times and bad times to look around with the cane. A good time is when nobody is nearby.
It may seem natural to stress to your child that the cane tip must be down on the ground. Remember that the toddler is exploring with his cane, and this is a good thing. He is doing exactly what is needed and expected. At times you may want to show him how high a ceiling or doorway is, and the cane can be used to touch the ceiling. If you show something to your toddler in this way, why can't he explore something that is over his head another time? This type of exploration will discontinue as your child gets older. However, from time to time it is interesting to check how low a ceiling is, such as on a field trip to the aquarium tunnel at the zoo. As the toddler matures and O&M skills become more firmly established, having the cane tip in the air will decrease.
Some children with additional disabilities may have particular difficulty with the concept of keeping the cane tip down. Consult your O&M instructor for assistance.
Because you have a toddler, you have most likely childproofed your home. A home need not be overly childproofed because the toddler is blind. Everything that is done for a sighted toddler will also benefit the blind or visually impaired child. For example, when you place a gate across the stairs so the toddler does not fall down them, that is a standard childproofing strategy.
Falls are bound to happen. Toddlers who are sighted will fall. Toddlers who are blind will fall, too. Toddlers learning to walk will wobble and fall down. When this happens, as with any child, you need to evaluate the situation. Is your child hurt? If so, tend to the injury. If not, carry on. Whatever you would do for a sighted toddler, do the same for your blind toddler.
As your child gets older, it may be in her best interest to learn how to fall safely. This may sound silly, but it is true. Some people with physical limitations learn to fall so they can recover with the least amount of physical harm or damage. Depending on your child's physical ability, he may need to learn to fall, too.
You can help your child develop balance skills. Hold his hands as he walks on the bed. Perhaps get a small trampoline with a support bar for him to jump on. Parents can also request a physical therapist (PT) to help their toddler strengthen his ankles and build up his balance skills. A PT may have to evaluate your child in order for you to get this service.
If you are reading this article and your child has low vision, you already may have concerns regarding her safety when she walks independently. Consider the cause of your child's vision loss. Is it a progressive condition, one that is known to get worse? If you do not know the answer, ask the ophthalmologist. If her vision loss is known to be progressive due to a condition such as retinitis pigmentosa, your child needs to use the long white cane. Begin instruction now. If you wait until your child is in middle school and can no longer see well at dusk, her acceptance of the cane may be nil.
Toddlers love games, or anything they think is a game. Games can be very, very simple. Here are some ideas:
In human guide technique, someone (in this case, an individual who is blind) is led to a targeted location by another person. At this age, the child holds the hand of another person. Keep in mind that this is different from when a child holds the hand of a parent, guardian, or teacher, which is typical for many children at this age. Human guide is conducted when there is a specific location to which the blind or visually impaired individual needs to travel. Often the adult believes that your child is unable to travel to the location without assistance. However, it simply may be the case that your child has not yet learned how to travel to that location.
A parent walking hand-in-hand with a preschooler is not considered human guide. This is age- and stage-appropriate.
Your toddler has grown taller and steadier on her feet; now comes the transition to preschool. Many preschools offer opportunities for children to visit ahead of time. Such visits help with the transition for all students, not just those with special needs. Check with the preschool for play dates and open houses, or simply schedule an appointment with the preschool department or teacher to visit the school and classroom.
Use this opportunity to help your child explore the classroom. This is most effective when your child discovers the art center, playhouse area, trucks and building blocks area, etc., herself. When your child makes the discovery herself, mental mapping begins to form. This is an important skill for your child to develop, and she will build upon it for the rest of her life. If she is constantly led to an area via human guide, mental mapping cannot develop easily. She will be dependent on others to take her to a specific location every time, even when that location is within the same room.
In the beginning, a toddler or preschooler is not going to be perfect with the cane, for he is still at the scribbling stage. This is quite normal. Toddlers and preschoolers do not have the physical coordination to walk in step with the cane, and they do not have the dexterity to hold the cane in a pencil grip. Don't worry. Your child will perfect his cane skills soon enough.
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children: http://www.nopbc.org
Connect via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nopbc
Orientation and Mobility for Children: http://www.pdrib.com/pages/omkids.php
Chamberlain, MN. (2017) "The Orientation and Mobility Goal Bank," Future Reflections, 36:2. https://nfb.org/ images/nfb/publications/fr/fr36/2/fr360206.htm
Chamberlain, MN. (2017) "Teachable Moments: How Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children Can Reinforce Lessons in Orientation and Mobility," Future Reflections, 36:1. https://nfb.org/images/ nfb/publications/fr/fr36/1/fr360106.htm
Thorp, MJ. (2007) "The 'Teaching Cane'," Future Reflections, Winter/Spring, 26:1. https://nfb.org/images/nfb/ Publications/fr/fr25/fr07spr10.htm
by Carol Castellano
From the Editor: From time to time leaders in the National Federation of the Blind are invited to review new devices designed to help blind people. On occasion these innovations show great promise. Sometimes, however, despite the best of intentions, they reflect a limited understanding of the needs and abilities of the blind. In the letter below, Carol Castellano responds to the developer of an app and accompanying device meant to improve mobility for blind toddlers. Carol Castellano has served as president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and of Parents of Blind Children-New Jersey (POBNJ). She is the author of four books, including Making It Work and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade.
The device referred to in the letter below is designed as a "wearable mobility device" that "would take the need for dexterity and precision out of the hands of the toddler and build it directly into the design." That, friends, is precisely the problem! The prototype device consists of two metal pipes with roller ball ends. The device is suspended from a waistband or vest. Between the roller balls is a connecting pipe. The roller balls and connecting pipe would roll out in front of the child. The device does not require the child to use his or her hands.
Dear Dr. —,
I am sorry to tell you that our organization cannot support the development and distribution of your mobility system for blind toddlers. We appreciate the intent of the project to create a developmentally appropriate mobility device that encourages free and safe movement. However, we feel that the benefits the device provides, such as next step warning and improvements in gait and speed, do not outweigh its negatives. Following are our main concerns.
It seems that use of this device would delay the acquisition of actual cane skills, such as holding the cane, receiving tactile information directly into the hand and arm, and interpreting and responding to that information. It appears that the device would not encourage the exploration of surfaces and the development of self-directed active discovery. For example, when a child is using a cane, she or he can reach down the shaft to explore and identify objects. The cane promotes an understanding of distance as the child reaches out in all directions, including up. The use of the cane also helps the child become aware of reflected sound. As the proposed device does not allow practice in these areas, it seems that the development of orientation skills could be delayed. Use of the device may develop certain adaptive skills, but not those associated with actual cane use.
Another area of concern is our sense that the device seems to encourage passivity. It does not have to be held, and it puts the child in a kind of bubble. In addition, because an adult must put it on the child and take it off, it creates an artificial barrier to the child's spontaneous movement and shifts ownership of the child's movement to the adult. The level of adult involvement that is required might delay the child's ability to monitor his or her own safety.
It appears from the videos that in order to get close to an object the device touches, the child would have to turn to the side. This is a further concern. Would the child be able to sit down close to an object or person spontaneously? If a child plopped down to a sitting position on the floor opposite another child, would the front bar of the device hit the other child?
An important question that is not addressed in the provided materials is when the child would outgrow the device and be ready for actual cane use. Since the device does not teach most cane skills, we fear that valuable time may be lost through its use.
In conclusion, we feel that children who would make progress in the intended outcomes with this device would also make progress with regular instruction and practice in cane use. The device therefore seems to us unnecessary and possibly harmful, as it could delay the acquisition of critical cane skills.
Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of the above.
Member of the Board
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
by Paul Hostovsky
From the Editor: As coordinator of the Slate Pals program, which matches up K-12 students who want to exchange letters in Braille, I have noticed an interesting trend in recent years. More and more often I receive Slate Pal requests from sighted students who have become fascinated with the Braille code. These kids study Braille in their spare time, become proficient at reading and writing, and want to practice by writing to kids who use Braille on a daily basis.
Paul Hostovsky is a strong proponent of Braille, not only for blind people, but for the sighted as well. In his day job he works as an American Sign Language interpreter. He is also a highly recognized poet whose work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, Atlanta Review, and many other literary journals. He has won a prestigious Pushcart Prize and has been featured on Poetry Daily and The Writer's Almanac. You can read a selection of his poems at paulhostovsky.com.
I'm not blind, but I am an avid Braille reader. I learned Braille years ago while working as a transcriber at the National Braille Press, and I've been reading it with pleasure—physical pleasure—ever since. I love reading with my fingers. I like the idea of touching the words. I know that's just a romantic notion—I mean, Braille readers aren't more "in touch" with the words than print readers—but I like it nonetheless.
I used to worry that people who saw me reading Braille in public—on the subway or in a Starbucks—would think I was pretending to be blind. A sighted person reading Braille is, after all, a weird thing, wouldn't you say? But it doesn't have to be weird. In fact, I have a fantasy: I envision a world where blind and sighted people read Braille, just as deaf people and hearing people use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is taught today in high schools and colleges all over the United States. People think ASL is cool, and they want to learn it. Sign language has made a comeback. Well, Braille is cool, too, and it's high time that Braille made a comeback.
For a long time I was in the closet about my Braille reading. If I ventured out in public with my Braille, I would read it furtively, sort of cloak-and-dagger, Braille-in-coat-pocket. I'd keep the Braille pages inside my jacket or deep inside my knapsack, fingering the dots clandestinely, feeling vaguely illicit about the whole thing. At the Starbucks, for example, I would build a little fort on the table around my Braille magazine—cup of tea, laptop, water bottle, phone. I built ramparts surrounding the treasure of the dots, hiding the Braille so that no one would see me reading it and mistake me for a blind imposter or a blind wannabe.
I am not a blind wannabe, but I do love Braille. It's a beautiful thing—some would say it's a beautiful dying thing. That's why I say it's time for Braille to make a comeback, among blind people as well as sighted people. ASL has made a comeback because beauty and value were finally recognized. It's popular now. It's "in." By some estimates, there are more hearing people who know how to sign than there are deaf people. ASL is cool, but I maintain that Braille is even cooler. (I know both, so I'm qualified to judge!).
Braille isn't a language, true, but it encompasses all languages; it can adapt to and contain any written language on the planet. Blind people who know Braille (10 percent in the United States is the bleak estimate I have heard) are blessed to know it. Most of the 90 percent who don't know Braille wish that they did.
Sighted people, too, are fascinated by Braille. It's a secret code to them, and they feel the urge to crack it. They look at it, touch it, turn it upside down and right side up, baffled by the inscrutable configurations of dots, wondering how it all works.
Actually, the original tactual reading code was invented for the sighted—not for the blind—back before it was even called Braille. It was invented by a retired military man. He called his system "night writing," and he tried to sell it to the French military as a method for passing messages in the dark. The full story is in the beautiful book published by the National Braille Press, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, by Michael Mellor.
Since so many blind people and sighted people would love to know Braille, let's give it to them! Let's start a movement, a "Braille is cool" movement. Let's teach Braille to blind people and sighted people, offering it as an elective, right alongside ASL, touting the joys and benefits of Braille (of which there are many; too many to list here), not only for blind readers but for sighted readers, too.
by Robert Gardner
Reprinted from the Illinois Independent, Summer 2017
From the Editor: When the NOPBC and NFB discontinued the national Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest in 2012, a gap was created in the lives of students and teachers across the country. In this article Robert Gardner explains how states in the Great Lakes region have worked together to keep the contest alive, and he ponders the importance of the contest as a means of developing future leaders.
"How do we get more young people involved?" "We need more youth to keep our organization going!" Whether you're active in your church, Kiwanis, or a local book club, undoubtedly you have heard these sentiments. We in the National Federation of the Blind are no exception. Often we express these concerns in our local chapters and state affiliates.
Hang onto that thought, and let's switch gears. Let's talk about Braille for a moment. Specifically, let's discuss Braille and blind children.
For twenty-nine years the National Federation of the Blind held an annual contest called Braille Readers Are Leaders (BRAL) for students in grades K-12. In 2012 the national contest was discontinued. The following year the NFB of Illinois decided to organize its own statewide contest, known as Illinois Braille Readers Are Leaders, or iBRAL. iBRAL turned out to be a great success, with more than thirty kids taking part that first year.
The Illinois contest was patterned after the former national contest, though the reading period was somewhat shorter. Each contestant was placed in one of five groups according to grade: K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-8, or 9-12. The objective was for a contestant to read the most Braille pages in his or her category. Cash prizes were awarded to the top three readers in each group, and every entrant received a complimentary "goodie bag" of Braille-related gifts. Gifts included such items as slates and styluses, Braille calendars, Braille rulers, and gift certificates from Seedlings and National Braille Press.
In 2015 the iBRAL contest was expanded to include Minnesota. iBRAL became LOL 2, for Land o' Lincoln and Land o' Lakes. Then, for the 2016-17 contest, the NFB of Illinois invited all of the eight states bordering the Great Lakes to get involved. As one might guess, the contest is now called the Great Lakes BRAL Contest for Kids. It isn't an overly imaginative name, but it's certainly descriptive. Here's a question for you: can you name the eight states that touch one or more of the Great Lakes? If not, read on for the answer.
It's easy to see the primary objective of this contest—to promote the reading of Braille at a young age. In particular the contest aims to promote the reading of Braille for recreation. If a child reads Braille for fun, Braille will become a natural part of his or her life at school and at home. Later Braille will be a tool in his or her career. We all know that learning and using Braille at an early age results in greater Braille fluency later in life.
We also see many immediate benefits of our BRAL contest. After the close of the contest one teacher of the visually impaired wrote,
As I was walking into my school building last week, your email came through, and I was excited to share with my students that their prizes were on the way. When I got to Ava's classroom, there she was, opening her treats already! Both Shane and Ava were very excited to get their packages (especially at school in front of their peers!).
They are thrilled with the coupons to select and buy Braille books. Shane has to complete some end-of-the-quarter testing. Then I am going to let him make the call to redeem his free book as a reward. Always have to push those independence skills!
We took a photo of both students with their rewards. The front office is going to feature it on the school web page and maybe get some district recognition, too. It was such a positive experience that we all look forward to doing it again next year. Thanks for all the work you did to make this a reality. I for one appreciate your efforts!
The contest can generate a surprising amount of interest—and a surprising amount of competitiveness—among the kids who take part. One mother wrote at the end of the recent contest, "Attached is Matthew's reading log. I don't think he slept much over the last couple of weeks. I kept finding him awake in the middle of the night reading some more. Thanks!"
After being notified that her daughter was a winner in her grade category, another mother wrote, "Thank you so much! Mariam is thrilled! She worked so hard on doing extra reading. Thank you for the program. It really encouraged her to have some fun reading and not view it just as work."
It's not unusual for some children to read three thousand pages or more during the seven weeks of the contest. In the 2016-17 competition, Anthony Spears, a seventh grader from Illinois, read more pages than any other contestant. Anthony, who goes by L.T., read an amazing 4,015 Braille pages! He wrote to us,
"Thank you for letting me be in the BRAL contest this year. I like the challenge of reading against other students. Thank you for inviting me to the state convention. I will talk to my parents about it. I hope I can come, and it would be a pleasure meeting all of you, too."
Now let's get back to our original question. How can we, the NFB, attract more young people to our organization? The answers to that question are many, complex, and sometimes debatable. But one thing has become apparent to those within the NFB of Illinois who have organized and administered these BRAL contests. The vast majority of children entering the contest have had no previous connection with the National Federation of the Blind. In other words, the BRAL contest is their first exposure to the NFB.
As the Great Lakes BRAL Contest for Kids continues, we see ourselves reaching children on two levels. We are encouraging them to read Braille and to increase their Braille skills. We are also introducing them to an organization, the National Federation of the Blind, that can benefit them in countless ways. Without really planning to do so, we have opened new horizons for blind kids by sparking their interest in a Braille reading contest. If not now, maybe later, maybe when they become adults, these children will remember the National Federation of the Blind.
Were you able to name the eight states bordering the Great Lakes? Going from west to east, they are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
For reference the excerpt above about Matthew was from his mother, Karen Leinart of Illinois. The words about Mariam were written by her mother, Colleen Samura of New York. The wonderful letter about Ava and Shane came from Sherry Kennedy, a TVI in Ohio.
In conclusion, the administrator of the Great Lakes BRAL contest, Deborah Kent Stein, says,
Thanks to all who were involved in the Great Lakes Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest this past year. It was an adventure putting together a coalition of eight states to participate in the contest. But all the work was worth it when you learn that more than 16,000 Braille pages were read by the kids altogether. Congratulations to every one of the contestants!
For further information about the contest, visit www.nfbofillinois.org/great.lakes.bral.contest.
by Lydia Schuck
From the Editor: Lydia Schuck works as a curriculum designer for Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. This job allows her to split the family duties with her husband, who is homeschooling their youngest daughter through high school. The mother of a twenty-four-year-old blind daughter, Anna, Lydia is active in her local NFB chapter in Lansing, Michigan, and in the Michigan NFB affiliate. This is the fifth and final article in a series on transition that Lydia has written for Future Reflections.
Several years ago the National Federation of the Blind used to say that with proper training and equal opportunity, the average blind person can achieve the same things accomplished by sighted people. As an NFB member I heard and believed that statement, yet I did not believe it for my own blind child. I knew she would never achieve the kind of success the NFB talked about.
To begin with, Anna was born fifteen weeks early. In the hours just before she was born, the doctors asked me and my husband, Nathan, whether we wanted them to resuscitate our child at birth; they knew she would not breathe on her own. They listed the big potential problems in this order: blindness, cerebral palsy, and autism. Then they said, "Sign here." One of us signed—I don't recall which. Eventually our daughter was diagnosed with blindness and autism and cerebral palsy.
We signed that paper, saying that the doctors should do what they could to save our child's life. How many people have ever signed such a document? On my worst days, the days when I just don't think I can manage Anna's multiple issues, I ask myself, "What if I had never signed that paper?" Anna's sensory hypersensitivities, caused by her autism, result in extreme anxiety, and her behavior can be offensive when she is anxious. Once in a while, on her worst days, Anna tells me she wishes we hadn't signed that paper.
Today Anna is coming into a life of her own, a life that fits the NFB’s new statement, "You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back." Her biggest issues are more related to her autism than to her blindness, as she is quite adept with Braille and blindness technology. She has started her own small business—but more on that later.
During a pregnancy you have a lot of expectations. Maybe that's why they say you are "expecting." You expect everything to be normal, and you compare every measurement to what is expected.
A trusted friend told me, "Don't ever compare your child to another child." But you have to compare to know if your child is "normal." Isn't it a comparison when doctors tell you whether your baby is low or high on the growth charts, on time or a little delayed in development? All parents want their children at least to be around the middle of the developmental schedules.
I tried not to compare my child with full-term babies, and I adjusted for her early birth. Every time I heard about the chance of disabilities, I said to myself, "Of course, my child will beat the odds. She will be the superstar." Other parents of preemies have told me they thought in the same way.
Anna was a smart little girl, and after a while she became quite talkative. She learned Braille and used her cane. Her legs were a little stiff from the CP, but they were quite functional. She was not willing to eat much, but she had a feeding tube and was developing pretty much as expected.
As a toddler Anna ran around the house pushing her toy shopping cart, learning her way around by slamming into the furniture. She talked and laughed and danced! I felt we had dodged the bullet. Everything would be fine. We were all having fun together—Anna and her sisters, their dad, and me.
As Anna got a little older though, we noticed repetitive behaviors and fantastical stories. The stories were related to specific pieces of music. Anna's voice sounded the same in every story. She spoke in a soothing, soft British accent. The stories were all about who was there, and who else, and who came next, and finally, who else would be coming. There was no plot line. Anna's sisters and their friends could not join in because the storytelling was done in such a formulaic manner.
Anna also developed some behaviors that disrupted the household. She would try on every pair of pants until she found one that "felt right" that day. Then she would try on every pair of socks and every shirt. She would sort through a bowl of odds and ends for hours at a time.
When Anna was seven we stopped using the feeding tube because she had started to eat a few more foods. I still wondered why a child would not eat, not realizing that it was due to autism-related hypersensitivity to textures and smells. At the camp for blind kids, Anna gagged over and over if she smelled Cheerios. One year the camp director didn't buy Cheerios at all, knowing that Anna would be at camp for several weeks.
Anna became angry and frustrated whenever she heard someone hammering in the neighborhood. She was sure the hammering would be followed by the hated sound of an electric saw. Every winter we thought she was making great improvements, only to discover that she was still hypersensitive to sounds in the spring when lawnmower season began.
Finally we sought help from a doctor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who specialized in developmental behavioral pediatrics. Dr. Richard Solomon knew how to connect with kids, including kids who could not see him. He adopted Anna's British accent as soon as she said a few words to him. After watching her repetitive play with a "city in a box," he wrote that it was his "firm opinion that Anna has Asperger syndrome." Asperger syndrome sounds easier to live with than full-blown autism, but really it is just a different form of the same disability.
At the point when we received this lifelong diagnosis, we had to adjust our expectations. We accepted the reality that Anna wasn't being naughty or trying to cause problems in public. Her behaviors were what you might do yourself if you lived inside her body, with its hypersensitivities to sound, textures, tastes, and smells. She couldn't look around and run back to the car or dash into a store to escape something she found intolerable. She was terrified much of the time, and with good reason. We'd been hoping she would grow out of most of her difficult behaviors, but now we knew they probably would not change. At any rate, the cause of the behavior was not going away.
We had a new normal, different from anything we had hoped for. It was different from the "normal" of our other children, and it was different from anything our family and friends thought was ideal. Yet Anna's diagnosis brought us peace. It was all just autism. Autism explained why she wouldn't try new foods, no matter how hungry she was. Now we understood the obsessive storytelling and the odd collections of precious items she called "ranch supplies." It was just autism. We didn't automatically become patient, but at least things made sense. It wasn't easy, in combination with blindness and mild cerebral palsy, but it was just autism.
We reset our expectations, and finally we saw Anna begin to live the life she really wanted. She would never meet the expectations we had for her sisters, but she could reach her own, and we adjusted ours to those standards.
When I see an announcement on Facebook or in a Christmas card about another child or young adult being wonderful, it still stings. I read about my friends' children, some of whom are blind or have other disabilities. Most of them are just ordinary kids, but some of them are actually doing great things. I want to congratulate them and to be happy for them.
Even among friends who have children with disabilities, it can be hard to celebrate. Over and over I hear about a blind young adult who seems to win everything. Sometimes my child is lucky to get through the grocery store without slugging someone or swearing at a mom with a crying baby.
I've come to realize that I've had to lower my expectations, and that it's okay for me to feel a bit jealous about other kids who are reaching typical milestones. I love my kids like crazy, but I am a little wistful for the empty nest years I probably won't get to experience. Although Anna is her own guardian, she doesn't completely understand all the logic of adult decisions. She'll always need some help, and we have found ways to help her keep progressing.
I have listened to what Anna wants as a young adult. She wants friends. When she was sixteen we started a girls' social club, edentransition.org. We reserved a meeting room at the local library once a month and advertised there, on Facebook, and through associations related to autism. Over the past eight years, minus two when I was working out of town, we have met girls from twelve other families. It takes patience, but if your child is not working or in school, this kind of group can be an effective way for her to develop some friendships.
Each time we meet, we make sure that everyone knows all the others. Usually only three or four young women are in attendance. We start with a short social skills activity. Then the participants are free to talk together. Some bring their own crafts, drawing notebooks, or other items. Usually I prepare some kind of craft activity. For instance, we got some grant money from the Michigan Braille Transcribers' Fund and used it to buy colorful craft clay and also some Braille beads from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). We plan to demolish some electronics next month, and we'll save the pieces to make sculptures another time. We meet every month and almost never cancel, even if no one comes. We just send out an announcement and meet again the next month.
Anna's extreme anxiety about the sounds she hears in public prevents her from working in a regular job. She gets SSI as her main source of income. However, one of her longtime interests has led to a real business opportunity. For years she has collected plastic animals and fairy figures, made by companies such as Safari Limited and Schleich. She keeps a standing list of figures she wants to add to her collection, and she started talking to the sales representatives from both companies. She found out that if she ordered merchandise worth one hundred dollars from Safari Limited, she could buy at a wholesale price. Schleich would only deal with owners of brick-and-mortar stores, so they were out. Buying merchandise in large quantities, Anna sells to NFB friends, doctors, family friends, and teachers who want animal models for their students.
Anna has just now reached the point where she sells enough figures to pay herself fifty dollars a month and still keep a few hundred dollars for future purchases and technology repairs. I handle all of the business paperwork, but Anna keeps a record of completed sales so she can pay sales tax to the state once a year.
Anna has a unique strength, perhaps related to her lack of social skills due to her autism. When she calls people, she is not offended if they do not want to buy anything right then. She can be quite charming, especially to people outside the family. Better that than the other way around!
One of the biggest problems for us has been having a very emotionally volatile person living in the household. As Anna reached adulthood, we were able to buy the house across the street from us. Anna has lived alone there for five years. She comes over to use our microwave, and, I suspect, to seek company; after all, she has a microwave of her own. At her house she can listen to music, play the piano, make phone calls, and take naps without interfering with anyone else. Many problems have been alleviated by having just a little more space!
Anna began to put in her own eyedrops when she was in high school. Slowly she developed ways to identify her medication bottles. She is capable of calling in her own prescriptions and picking them up when we take her to town. We expect her to get from the library to the pharmacy in our small downtown area. We intervene if there is a problem with a prescription, but she handles almost all of it herself. She takes a taxi to go to the doctor, and she has even sold some of her products to the cab drivers!
As we think about retirement outside of the area we live in, we've explored the future with Anna. She wants to continue her business, and we know she can manage quite a few of her daily tasks. We are looking to buy a small house that she can rent from us. It will be walking distance from the town square, where almost all of the essentials are within a few blocks.
Not too many years ago the NFB adopted a new slogan: "You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back." This is really true for Anna. With my adjusted expectations, I can help her live the life she wants. There's no sense in trying to make her meet the expectations of a "normal" person, a person without autism. Her blindness really does not hold her back, but autism does. Yet for Anna, meeting her own goals is very satisfying. When I adjust my expectations—that is, when I accept that the life Anna wants is the best life for her—I feel at peace.
Our family's faith is Christian. We value every life, and when a life is measured by reasonable expectations it's easy to see that value. We don't all need to be rich and famous. (Actually no one is rich and famous in our family!) We do need to have faith in achieving the highest goals we can. When those goals include living the lives we want, we will be able to fulfill our own expectations, and we will be able to help our children do the same.
by Sophie Kershaw
From the Editor: Sophie Kershaw serves as communications specialist for the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision (NRTC) at Mississippi State University. Members of the NRTC research team recently completed a five-year grant funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) that evaluated common barriers and facilitators to employment for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
One recent NIDILRR grant project focused on employment outcomes for college students who are blind or visually impaired. The project sought to determine whether working with blind career mentors in the career area of interest to the student makes a difference. Legally blind college students within one year of graduation were paired with legally blind mentors who were employed or recently retired.
A highlight of the project was receiving ongoing feedback from student participants about their experiences before, during, and after their college-to-career transition. The following are insights from one program participant that may serve as a model for future transition success stories.
As a college student, Tracy [not her real name] had never really had a consistent mentor. A few people gave her sound advice, but these relationships were informal and never continuous. Above all, none of Tracy's mentors were blind or visually impaired, which she felt led to some awkward situations.
Tracy's undergraduate academic advisor told her that "networking will get you a job." Tracy attended conferences and attempted to network, with the goal of applying to graduate school. As she was not a very social person, networking didn't come naturally. She was missing the support and perspective of someone who understood the college-to-career transition from the perspective of a blind person.
The NRTC's program was set up to bridge this mentoring gap by pairing a blind student with a blind mentor in the student's career field of interest. Tracy learned about the mentoring project as a way to be paired with a person who understood her unique transition questions, concerns, and needs. Following completion of the project, we caught up with Tracy to find out about her personal experience in the program.
Sophie: What did you expect going into the mentoring program?
Tracy: I expected to get advice on how to get into the professional world, the student-to-work transition, and simply how to be an adult. I didn't expect to be matched with someone in my specific career field.
Sophie: You were paired with a blind mentor in your field of interest. How did the match impact your relationship with your mentor?
Tracy: I was shocked and impressed to have a mentor in a related field. She was able to connect me to others in the field and help me build a network of contacts, including hiring managers. I think it is imperative that your mentor be able to help you in your field, and it was also important to be matched with a mentor who was blind.
Sophie: Your mentor was not located in the same geographic area as you. Did location/distance impact your relationship?
Tracy: It would have been different if we could have met face-to-face, because then we could spend more time together and possibly build a closer friendship. We did spend some time together at a conference, which I think helped.
Sophie: Were your expectations of the mentoring program met or not?
Tracy: My expectations were absolutely met. I feel that my mentor and I were, and still are, a great match. The entire experience has far exceeded my expectations.
Sophie: It sounds like you had a good relationship with your program mentor. Are you still in contact?
Tracy: Yes, even after three or more years, we still talk to each other during a monthly phone call, and I continue receiving helpful career and life advice.
Sophie: What was the most valuable part of having a mentor through our program?
Tracy: I had a lot to figure out about life, in general. My mentor gave me valuable advice on how to simply live life, and that helped me to figure things out.
Sophie: What would you say to a young college student about working with a mentor? A mentor who is blind?
Tracy: Working with a mentor does not show weakness. It's just a way to help guide you through the process of becoming an adult. I feel that some advice would have been different (such as utilizing transportation, visual tools, etc.) if my mentor had been sighted; however, my blind mentor could discuss different options available to me if/when my sight or needs changed.
Sophie: What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a mentor?
Tracy: Listen to what your mentee is saying. Don't necessarily only give them your personal opinion. Be willing to research a problem your mentee is having, and give resources to help guide them in the right direction.
After taking part in the NRTC's mentoring program and making the college-to-career transition herself, Tracy is now ready to begin giving back as a mentor. She was, and is, very grateful for the project and the opportunity to take part in this great experience. Her wish is that there were more programs like the NRTC's mentoring program for everybody, not just people who are blind.
Navigating the job search and lack of work experience are two of the challenges that blind college students face when trying to find employment. Career mentors can help blind college students prepare for the transition ahead by sharing work experiences and discussing specific concerns related to the career field of interest. Participants in the NRTC's mentoring program appreciated working with a mentor who was able to address specific topics related to blindness, such as career exploration, disclosure, accommodation planning, transportation, and using assistive technology at work.
As Tracy described, there is much more to the transition process than simply finding a job. There is personal growth to be had and a lot of life lessons to learn. Program participants also noted that mentors were able to address social, communication, and job skills, as well as self-advocacy, assertiveness, and dealing with negative employer attitudes.
Career mentoring is an ongoing process that should begin as early as possible. There are no age limits to mentoring, and the relationship can be adjusted, depending on individual needs. Blind professionals have shown a lot of interest in guiding students and those making a career change. If you are a student, talk to your vocational rehabilitation counselor or consult local consumer organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind about getting referrals to local professionals in your career field. If a local mentor is not available, consider using your networking skills to find a mentor in another location. CareerConnect, a program through the American Foundation for the Blind, can be a resource. Most participants in the NTRC project indicated that the location of their mentor, local or distant, was not as important as other factors (e.g., being blind and being in the same career field).
The NRTC provides employment and mentoring resources, including the Employment Mentoring Manual and the Resource Sheet for Job Seekers, to help guide the mentoring and job hunting process. You can learn more about participant experiences and outcomes from the project, as well as other research on facilitating employment for persons who are blind or visually impaired, by visiting our website at http://www.blind.msstate.edu. You may also contact us at (662) 325-2001 or [email protected].
Crudden, A., & McBroom, L.W. (1999). "Barriers to Employment: A Survey of Employed Persons Who Are Visually Impaired." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 93(6), 341-350.
Crudden, A., Williams, W., McBroom, L.W., & Moore, J.E. (2002). "Consumer and Employer Strategies for Overcoming Employment Barriers" (Technical Report). Mississippi State, MS: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision.
McBroom, L.W. (1995). "Transition to Work Following Graduation from College: Experiences of Employees with Visual Impairments and Their Employers" (Technical Report). Mississippi State, MS: Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision.
McDonnall, M.C., Zhou, L., & Crudden, A. (2013). "Employer Attitudes towards Persons Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Perspectives and Recommendations from Vocational Rehabilitation Personnel." Journal of Rehabilitation, 79(3), 17-24.
Nagle, K.M. (2001). "Transition to Employment and Community Life for Youths with Visual Impairments: Current Status and Future Directions." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 95(12), 725-738.
O'Mally, J. & Antonelli, K. (2016). "The Effect of Career Mentoring on Employment for College Students Who Are Legally Blind." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 110 (5), 295-307.
O'Mally, J. and Steverson, A. (2017). "Reflections on Developing an Employment Mentoring Program for College Students Who Are Blind." Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 111 (3), 271-276.
by Al Maneki
From the Editor: "I hate math!" a blind college student told me recently. "Last semester I dropped out of pre-calculus, but I have to get through it or I won't be able to graduate. I just don't understand what the professor is talking about, and nobody knows how to explain it to me." Like this young woman, many blind students struggle with math courses—not because they are inherently unable to master the subject matter, but because they do not have proper access to visually presented material. In this article, adapted from http://www.maa.org/node/790342 and updated since 2015, Dr. Al Maneki, a blind mathematician, draws upon a lifetime of experience and suggests ways that college-level math classes can be made fully accessible for blind students. Dr. Maneki's suggestions can easily apply to secondary and even elementary math instruction. Al Maneki serves as senior STEAM advisor (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].
by Dr. Martha Siegel
Professor Emerita, Towson University
A Project NExT online discussion about the availability of aids to blind and visually impaired students in college-level mathematics courses generated discussion with a current Towson University graduate student, Natalie Shaheen. (The Mathematical Association of America's Project NExT, New Experiences in Teaching, is a professional development program for new or recent PhDs in the mathematical sciences.) Ms. Shaheen is a doctoral candidate, and one of her areas of expertise is making STEM subjects accessible to blind students. She has been teaching STEM to blind students for nine years. Though she generally teaches K-12 students, she has advised many college professors on this subject. I found her recommendations insightful and spoke with her about publicizing them. Ms. Shaheen suggested we involve Dr. Al Maneki, who holds a PhD from Illinois Institute of Technology and is a 2007 retiree from the National Security Agency. With more than fifty years as a blind mathematician, Dr. Maneki has a unique perspective on how we might do a better job of educating our blind and visually impaired students in mathematics. The Committee on Undergraduate Programs in Mathematics (CUPM) of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) has added his sage advice to its website.
The news that a sighted mathematics faculty member in a two- or four-year college program will have a blind student is all too often greeted with disbelief, panic, or resentment. The common assumption is that it is impossible for a blind student to learn or comprehend mathematical material, given the supposedly highly visual nature of this subject. This initial reaction immediately creates a barrier to the effective teaching of mathematics to a blind student by a sighted faculty member. It is important for us to overcome the difficulties that these negative stereotypes place in the effective teaching and learning of mathematical subjects.
In this article our aim is to provide a set of guidelines to assist two- and four-year college faculty members to provide meaningful mathematics instruction to blind and visually impaired students. It is generally assumed that the student will encounter less difficulty in learning mathematics if she or he possesses some usable vision. However, this is not necessarily the case. We should not assume that the student can depend upon limited vision for undertaking the study of mathematics or any other discipline. Most successful low-vision students have acquired a variety of skills of blindness in order to work efficiently. They use large print if and when it works for them; they use Braille when needed; they use synthetic speech on a computer or other notetaking device; and they use human readers. These guidelines are directed to faculty members who occasionally find themselves teaching mathematics at all levels to blind students, regardless of visual acuity. We will use the terms blind students, blind and visually impaired students, and students interchangeably.
Students as well as instructors may wish to read these guidelines. Students and instructors must work closely together to achieve the level of communication that will be most beneficial to the student and to make the best use of the instructor's time.
In these guidelines we assume that blind students are adequately trained in the effective use of the tools of blindness, as described above. It is not the responsibility of university faculty members to teach Braille or any other learning or study techniques that blind students need. Instead, it is important for faculty members to think about how mathematics can be communicated without the use of print media. This can indeed be done. In my own experience I have encountered mathematical discussions taking place in situations where pencil and paper pad, or even paper napkins, are not handy. In spare moments, how many of us find ourselves formulating mathematical arguments without writing them down?
I do not mean to imply that mathematics can be done without the aid of written media. I believe that ultimately we cannot understand a mathematical idea until we can write it down. For the blind student or blind mathematician, this usually means writing it in Braille. While we have heard much about auditory modes of learning, I do not believe that mathematics can be done in purely auditory form. However, there is much to be said for the ability to speak mathematical equations aloud while writing them down in the classroom. This combination of writing and speaking will enhance the experience for both blind and sighted students.
The guidelines I present here are primarily the result of my own experiences, both as a blind student and a professional mathematician working in higher education and in the federal government. They are not the result of extensive surveys or field testing by professional educators or psychologists. As they gain a wider circulation, others may want to make additions to, or include different perspectives on, these guidelines. Please submit your comments and ideas to me. Some sighted instructors may believe that these guidelines do not cover their particular situation. If this is the case, please contact me directly so that I may be of further assistance.
I have written these guidelines to correspond with the two primary functions of mathematics education: the delivery of information and inspiration in the classroom and the demonstration of acquired knowledge by solving problems and taking tests. I have included some background information primarily to give sighted faculty members a better understanding of the learning environment in which today's blind or visually impaired student must operate.
Blind students should not be exempted from satisfactorily completing required courses in mathematics and the hard sciences. Exemption from a required course is not a reasonable accommodation. Such exemptions simply deprive blind students and other students with disabilities of a learning experience that has been determined to be beneficial for all other students.
Much of the material included here may be well known to faculty and students. This section may be omitted by such readers.
LaTeX was initially invented as a typesetting language for mathematical notation. It is text-based and non-graphical in nature. LaTeX-based graphics packages even can be used for drawing pictures and creating diagrams. By typing standard text on a keyboard, one can represent all of the mathematical symbols, from the most elementary to the most advanced.
In recent years many books on mathematics have been published using LaTeX as the underlying typesetting or mark-up language. This development has been most beneficial to blind readers, as I will explain in the next section.
The Nemeth Braille Code was developed around 1950 as a method to represent mathematical symbols in Braille. It has been revised several times to improve earlier versions. Because the Braille cell is made up of only six dots, at most sixty-four dot combinations, including the blank or space character, can be produced from a single Braille cell. To allow for the many mathematical characters, the Nemeth Code employs well-defined sequences of Braille characters to represent one mathematical symbol. The Nemeth Code includes special symbols to represent complex structures such as subscripted subscripts, subscripted superscripts, complex fractions, and other nonlinear mathematical notations.
Despite the complexity of the Nemeth Braille Code, it is extremely useful. Books on mathematical subjects, when they exist in Braille at all, are produced using the Nemeth Code. Given the existence of LaTeX-based textbooks along with LaTeX-Nemeth Braille translation software, it is now much simpler to produce a Braille textbook when it is needed. Liberal copyright laws permit the production of books in alternative formats, such as Braille, for students with disabilities. However, publishers still are reluctant to release their LaTeX source code for fear that it will end up in the wrong hands and be abused. All of the math and science articles in Wikipedia are LaTeX-based. As an introductory step we may easily produce an article from Wikipedia in Nemeth Braille.
Currently, LaTeX-Nemeth Braille translation software does not permit the conversion of graphical images into tactile ones. Automated conversions present problems that have yet to be solved. The degree of resolution that the human eye can distinguish is much finer than that which human fingers can interpret. For a complex tactile drawing to be meaningful, it must be much larger than a drawing intended for the human eye. Furthermore, the sense of touch has no direct equivalent to the distinction of colors. The translation of visual graphics into tactile images means the production of line drawings, and this conversion requires human intervention.
University-level recorded textbooks have been available from Learning Ally (http://learningally.org) for decades. If a textbook is not available in Learning Ally's catalog, blind students may request Learning Ally to produce an audio edition of that book. Learning Ally recruits volunteers to record books in its studios, which are located throughout the country.
The selection of audio books on mathematics in Learning Ally's catalog is quite extensive. Historically, producing an audio book has been the quickest and cheapest way to get that book into the hands of blind students. The primary drawback I have found with audio math books is the inconsistency in which equations and formulas are read and the manner in which diagrams are described. Since several volunteers may be used to read a single title, there is not necessarily consistency in how fractions, subscripted variables, and exponents are read. This inconsistency can leave a listener puzzled and bemused about just what a mathematical expression means. For this reason, I do not recommend audio math books. However, when a given textbook is not available in any other formats, the desperate student may have no choice but to borrow the audio version from Learning Ally.
For these reasons I have found it most satisfactory to have textbooks read by a live reader. My reader and I can agree on the manner in which material is to be read. If I still encounter ambiguities, I can stop the reader and get immediate clarification. I can also take Braille notes as the text is being read.
Some courses permit or require the use of graphics-based software or graphing calculators as teaching aids. These tools may pose vexing problems for the blind student, as they are not always nonvisually accessible. If such tools are required in a particular course, faculty and students must cooperate to find acceptable alternatives. It is unwise to list such alternatives in these written guidelines, as the field of nonvisual access is changing rapidly. Various websites, listservs, discussion groups, and blogs are dedicated to nonvisual access. Some of these are listed at the end of these guidelines.
The American Printing House for the Blind (www.aph.org) sells the Orion TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator for six hundred dollars. It is identical to the standard TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator, except that synthetic speech and audio graphing features have been added. I have no experience working with this calculator, and a quick search on Google yielded no results for reviews of this product.
The situation may be even bleaker for the symbolic mathematical tools such as Mathematica, Maple, MyMathLab, and SageMath. Some users may have devised roundabout solutions to achieve a degree of nonvisual access to these packages. Though these languages are text-based, their development environments are not always friendly for the blind user. One common problem area lies in the debugging messages one gets when attempting to compile code written in these languages. For the nonspecialist, the student who needs to complete a one- or two-semester math requirement, the effort to achieve nonvisual access to these tools may be too much to undertake.
For statistical software, a number of blind users have had success with the R Project (https://www.r-project.org/). However, I don't believe that the use of R is for the faint-hearted. It has a steep learning curve, and only people who will be doing serious statistical work should undertake the study of R.
More satisfying at the introductory levels may be the use of Microsoft Excel and the mathematical functions it contains. The developers of the JAWS screen reader have put considerable effort into access to Excel. While graphs generated by Excel may not be reproducible in nonvisual form, the mere ability to read table values may be sufficient to give the blind user a good idea about what the data looks like.
If all else fails, there is always access to the output of software tools through the help of a live reader. Your reader simply executes your instructions and describes the results to you.
Graphs and other pictorial images have always been troublesome for blind students. Without access to tactile diagrams, blind students have been forced to rely on verbal descriptions. Such descriptions may be problematic. Sometimes there are simply no words or phrases that can accurately describe a diagram.
A usable system for tactile graphics should satisfy two functions: a read-only function in which a tactile graph or diagram is drawn for a blind student to examine and a read-write function that allows a blind student to draw a new diagram. A read-write function for tactile graphics would permit both functions simultaneously. This means that the tactile diagram should permit erasures so that an existing drawing may be corrected. A major problem for read-write function tactile graphics arises with the use of scribing tools that press down into the drawing medium, usually a sheet of paper. To feel a raised-line diagram, one must turn the drawing sheet over and examine the drawing on the reverse side.
For quite some time the Sewell Raised-Line Drawing Kit has been marketed as a limited read-write function, right-side-up drawing system. A plastic sheet is used on a board covered with a thin sheet of rubber. When a pointed scribing tool is moved over the mounted plastic sheet, a raised line or curve is created that can be felt right-side up. This drawing kit has primarily been a read-only function system because there was never an easy way to erase and correct tactile diagrams. More recently the SenseSational Blackboard has permitted same-side drawing and reading of graphics using standard paper.
A few years ago a Vermont-based company, E.A.S.Y., LLC, developed an improved drawing board, the inTACT Sketchpad, along with an eraser for corrections. The eraser gives the inTACT Sketchpad true read-write functionality. While there are other tactile graphics boards on the market, the inTACT Sketchpad is the only one having true erasing capabilities. [Disclosure: Since the inception of E.A.S.Y., LLC., I have advised company officials on the design of the company's inTACT product line. The company currently keeps me on retainer.]
Disabled Student Services offices exist on nearly every university campus. Their role is to facilitate the learning experience for all students with disabilities. When it comes to mathematics, DSS personnel may attempt to secure Braille textbooks, but they are not always successful, given the prohibitive cost of producing Braille. They may attempt to provide "note-takers," people who take notes during lectures and somehow reproduce these notes in a usable form for blind students. DSS officers also may negotiate with instructors about test-taking arrangements. While DSS officers can be helpful, they should not interfere with instructor-student communications. In any subject, it is best for students and their instructors to work directly together.
DSS personnel often complain that instructors are much too slow in selecting their textbooks. Instructors with blind students enrolled in their courses should be mindful of the need to announce their textbook selections as early as possible. The blind student needs sufficient time to secure the textbook in an accessible format.
The most frequent criticism from blind students is that sighted math instructors do not verbalize enough of the material that is presented visually during a class lecture. It is all too easy for a teacher to write something down and point at it when referring back to that particular statement or expression. Often the lecturer may believe that a formula or other expression is too complicated to be read aloud or that speaking it will take too much time. There needs to be a balance here. We all recognize that there is only so much time in a lecture period. Yet for the purposes of classroom delivery, I believe the notation can be simplified without loss of preciseness. If the notation is too cumbersome to be spoken in its entirety, enough of it can be spoken to give the listener the gist of what is going on. With this basic explanation, the student can make reasonable sense of the arguments that are being presented. An ideal comfort level exists between not enough speaking and speaking too much. When a blind student understands a style of delivery, he or she can pretty much guess at the items that are not being spoken. This understanding may be acquired by frequent "offline" chats between student and instructor.
As an illustration, many years ago, I took a course in Lisp programming. In Lisp all ordered pairs are set off in parentheses, such as (—, —). Needless to say, Lisp allows for endless sequences of nested parenthetic expressions within these structures of ordered pairs. Once I understood that all ordered pairs are surrounded by parentheses, it was not necessary for the instructor to speak aloud all of the sequences of left and right parentheses.
As the costs of reproducing printed materials have decreased, the quantity of printed classroom handouts has escalated. Gone are the days of mimeographs and ditto sheets. In the past the only recourse for blind students was to have these handouts read by a live reader. Now, if the handouts are produced by LaTeX, students may have them in Braille or read them with synthetic speech on a computer. Mathematical materials translated into synthetic speech may be filled with the same ambiguities that I discussed earlier. These handouts may be enlarged for the student with low vision. If handouts cannot be produced in Braille, then they are best read to the student by a live reader.
When producing Braille notes for personal use, students tend to simplify the Nemeth Code for convenience and speed. The shorthand Nemeth that I write for myself is definitely context-sensitive and filled with inconsistencies. Since I have devised my own shorthand Nemeth, I am the only one who can read and make sense of my notes.
A personalized shorthand Nemeth-Braille system also works for solving problems and completing assignments. A student may also use a Sketchpad to produce diagrams that may be needed in the solution of a particular problem. I did not have this luxury in my student days. A Sketchpad is simple enough for anyone to use. In an office-hour discussion, an instructor may even use the student's Sketchpad to illustrate a point.
No Nemeth editing software exists to help a blind student produce completely accurate Nemeth code. There is no translating software to take a Nemeth-Braille file input and produce LaTeX output. For these reasons the blind student must spend considerable time preparing assignments and examinations for sighted instructors. I found it most efficient to dictate mathematical content to a sighted reader.
A final note on using Braille: Since refreshable Braille notetakers such as the BrailleNote, PAC Mate, and Braille Sense became available, many blind students have opted to take classroom and study notes using these devices. Braille notetakers are very powerful tools with helpful features such as spell checkers, online dictionaries, and word processing editors. The primary drawback is that the Braille display consists of a single line of Braille containing a maximum of forty Braille cells.
Compare this to a standard page of Braille produced by a Braillewriter, a page consisting of forty cells per line and twenty-five lines. As one writes on a Braillewriter, the Braille characters are raised so that it is easy to read what one has written. The complexity of Nemeth Code, with multiple Braille cells representing one math character, means that very little of a mathematical expression is exposed at any given time on a Braille notetaker. This limitation definitely can impede comprehension of the underlying mathematics. Furthermore, when we look at math in Braille, we want to view an entire expression by using the fingers of both hands, where each hand may rest on a separate Braille line. For example, consider the problem of checking nested parenthetical expressions.
Some refreshable Braille notetakers are loaded with full scientific calculators that may be quite useful. In the best of worlds a blind student should possess a refreshable Braille notetaker as well as a standard Braillewriter.
If a student has a firm grasp of LaTeX, it is possible for him to complete problem-solving assignments and submit answers to examinations by writing answers in LaTeX. Using a LaTeX editor, the student compiles LaTeX source code and submits readable mathematics. While this sounds simple enough, as we all know, debugging source code in any language can be time-consuming. Some instructors may accept the LaTeX source code and may be willing to work through it to evaluate a student's work. The difficulty here for the instructor and the student is to determine whether an error in the student's work is due to an incorrect solution or to an error in LaTeX coding.
Some students have had remarkable success by using an editor to type mathematical notation in entirely linear form. With judicious use of parenthesis, square brackets, and curly brackets, it is possible to type complex expressions in linear form. Greek alphabet letters may be spelled out instead of being represented as symbols. LaTeX achieves this by spelling out the Greek letter and preceding it with a backslash symbol. For example, the integral (x)dx may be expressed as integral (a,b)f(x)dx. Since there are no agreed-upon conventions for such linearizing, instructor and student must agree on the conventions that will be used here. The linear text equivalent for ∞ may be represented as \infty, adopting the LaTeX convention. To save space, one may adopt a shorter notation such as (00).
In my pre-technology student days, when Braille math books were nonexistent, classmates or math majors ahead of me read my textbooks and took dictation for my problem assignments and tests. Although there was no money to pay them, my classmates saw this reading time as an opportunity for us to study together and to benefit from the ensuing discussions. As they read, I made Braille notes to help me with problem-solving assignments and test preparation. I worked out problem solutions in Braille, then dictated them to my readers. I completed tests in the same fashion. My instructors were very cooperative in finding unoccupied spaces where I could take tests with a reader. Sometimes we just used the instructor's office. It was understood that my reader would scrupulously write down what I dictated.
Unfortunately, the use of live readers in any subject is no longer in vogue. This is a pity, especially in mathematical subjects. The DSS offices are quite explicit about paying for notetakers, people who will take notes for students in class, but they generally will not pay for readers.
Chelsea Cook, a blind student who graduated with a degree in physics from Virginia Tech in 2015, uses a purely dictation method that she has developed for homework and exams in her higher-level classes. Since there is no widely accepted standard for spoken mathematics, individual students are encouraged to develop their own dictation methods. Obviously, dictation methods of this type are highly context sensitive. They are intended to work only between individual blind students and their live readers.
With the advent of tactile graphics drawing boards, diagrams from textbooks may be drawn to present graphical ideas and constructions to the blind student. Since it is not always easy to render a printed image into a tactile one, images from textbooks must be drawn by hand. A blind student does not need to have every graphic image reproduced. My experience has been that, for the most part, I get a good idea of what is represented pictorially from the accompanying textual description.
If drawing a graph or other line diagram is required in a problem assignment or on a test, the blind student may use a raised-line drawing board rather than giving verbal instructions to a reader/scribe. Tactile graphs can easily be read by a sighted person.
Since I was never exposed to drawing at an early age, my drawings were very crude. However, they were good enough to convince the harshest examiner that I had mastered the concepts they represented.
Mathematical subject matter is not inherently beyond the capabilities of blind or visually impaired students. What is important is the communication channel through which knowledge is transmitted. The most efficient communication channel is one that is worked out directly between instructor and student. Instructors can be most helpful by providing the blind student with out-of-classroom time. When thinking about learning arrangements and the communication channel, remember these watchwords: "keep it simple!" For example, the same methods should be used for both completing homework assignments and taking tests. As I stated in the introduction, if there are matters in these guidelines that I have not covered to fit a particular situation, please get in touch with me.
These guidelines have been written primarily from my own perspective and experience. Others, both faculty and students, may wish to share different ideas and experiences. I envision a website where these guidelines and other articles can be posted and new ideas and resources can be added over time. As we gather the collective mathematical experiences of blind students and their instructors, the reasons for exempting blind students from math requirements will disappear.
I wish to acknowledge the valuable help and encouragement of many people who led me to write these guidelines. Natalie Shaheen from the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute introduced me to Dr. Martha Siegel of Towson University. Dr. Siegel engaged me in lengthy discussions about teaching math to blind and visually impaired students. These guidelines are the result of her generous encouragement. Dr. Michael Boardman of Pacific University in Oregon succeeds Dr. Siegel as chairman of CUPM at the end of January. His help will be valuable in presenting these guidelines to a wider mathematical audience. Dr. Doug Ensley, deputy executive director of the Mathematical Association of America, along with Dr. Siegel and Dr. Boardman, is responsible for including this paper in the MAA's literature collection. Chelsea Cook, a blind graduate in physics from Virginia Tech, reviewed the original draft and pointed me to the paper she has written on this subject.
Blindmath listserv, http://nfbnet.org/mailman/listinfo/blindmath_nfbnet.org
Independence Science, http://www.independencescience.com
National Center for Blind Youth in Science (NCBYS), http://www.blindscience.org
A Selection of Postings from the Blind Math Listserv, http://www.blindscience.org/blindmath-gems-home
Cook, C. (unpublished) "Math 2974: Mathematical Visualization."
To request copies, contact [email protected].
Jackson, A. "The World of Blind Mathematicians." http://www.ams.org/notices/200210/index.html
Maneki, A. (2012) "Blind Mathematicians? Certainly!" Braille Monitor,
— "Can We Erase Our Mistakes? The Need for Enhanced Tactile Graphics." (2012) Braille Monitor, June.
— "NFB Math Survey: A Report of Preliminary Results." (2011) Braille Monitor, October.
— (2013) "The Dawn of the Age of Tactile Fluency: Let the Revolution Begin!" Braille Monitor, November.
— "Handling Math in Braille: A Survey." (2011) Braille Monitor, February.
— (2014) "The Tactile Fluency Revolution: Year Two." Braille Monitor, December.
Maneki, A. and A. Jeans. (unpublished) "A Simple LaTeX Tutorial." To request copies, contact
by Amy Mason
From the Editor: For blind students the proliferation of technology in today's classrooms can be a blessing or a curse, or a bit of both at once. Fortunately the National Federation of the Blind has developed a partnership with Google to ensure that the company's increasingly popular hardware and software will not pose barriers for blind students. In this article Amy Mason provides a detailed description of the Chromebook and G Suite, explaining their accessible features and the areas that are not yet fully accessible. Amy is an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind.
Education changes how we use technology, and technology changes how we educate. One of the clearest examples of this reality is the use of Google in the classroom. Within the past decade, Google products and services have transformed how students and teachers interact. In return, the education market has been responsible for changing and educating Google as well.
When the Google Docs Productivity Suite (now called the G Suite) was introduced into education, it was quickly adopted by a large number of schools at the K-12 and postsecondary levels. In response to early concerns raised by blind and low-vision users, the National Federation of the Blind diligently sought to work with Google toward improvements for those users. Google and the National Federation of the Blind jointly recognized a number of needs and opportunities to improve the G Suite's accessibility. We have been partners ever since, keeping open lines of communication and regularly discussing feedback. Over the past years this collaboration has resulted in significant improvements to the G Suite, Chromebooks, and the ChromeVox screen reader.
Given the major improvements Google has made to the accessibility of its hardware and software, how well will these products meet the needs of your blind child or student? This article is intended to provide you with the information you need as you decide whether to introduce these tools and to help you build a strategy for using them if appropriate.
A few caveats must be considered when a parent or teacher considers including Google's tools in the education of blind students. Whether or not the school is using the Chromebook, or merely using the G Suite on another platform, it is important to remember that this system may be very different from systems that the blind student has been taught in the past. Keyboard shortcuts, command structure, and other basic screen reader interactions in the G Suite differ from some familiar desktop or web navigation patterns. The student will have to spend some time getting up to speed on how to navigate, edit, and read documents. Students who are introduced to lots of new ways of dealing with technology and are taught how to learn software can further develop confidence in their ability to learn new computer-based skills in the future. However, these differences are likely to make the tools challenging to introduce quickly to students who have not been expected to learn this way in the past.
All of our technology tools are in constant states of growth and evolution, and this change happens faster than many of us are used to. This is especially true for Google's products, so students inevitably will see changes in the ways the system works over time. On the plus side, this can mean the addition of new features that improve accessibility. However, it also means that at times the student may find that a feature has changed and no longer works in the accustomed manner.
Technology has provided millions of people with a whole new world of access to information, but it isn't always 100 percent dependable. Issues in the assistive technology, the app, the browser, or the operating system may even cause things to break down from time to time. It's important to teach students to be flexible and adaptable, and to arm them with best practices for troubleshooting, including being conversant with multiple screen readers. Each student will find his or her preferred options. With a variety of tools available, students can choose alternative paths and keep moving forward when things don't go as planned.
Finally, I want to add a note for deaf-blind students and others who rely on refreshable Braille displays when using a computer. Although some G Suite apps currently offer partial Braille support, it is not robust enough to be used as the primary mode of interaction. This limitation also presents major problems for students who are in the process of learning Braille. Google is actively working to improve the quality of its support for refreshable Braille. This is a great time for adventurous Braille users and proponents to try the current implementation and provide Google with feedback.
Despite these caveats, the Chromebook and G Suite offer a lot of advantages. There is a definite learning curve, but in most cases it is worthwhile for students and teachers to get up to speed on their features.
The Chromebook is a laptop-style computer that runs the Chrome Operating System (ChromeOS). Chromebooks are primarily designed to remain connected to the internet. They run cloud-based apps, usually found and used in the browser, instead of traditional desktop software. Users cannot install programs they would traditionally use with Windows or Mac, including third-party screen readers such as JAWS or NVDA). They must use the accessibility features of ChromeOS, including the ChromeVox screen reader, with these tools in the browser.
Chromebook sales now account for more than half of all devices sold to US classrooms. Chromebooks are widely used in both one-to-one device-to-student models and as shared devices across classrooms. *1 It is possible to have multiple user accounts per Chromebook, and settings are saved at the account level. Users can sync settings, bookmarks, browsing histories, apps, Chrome extensions, and more so that any time they sign into their account, on any Chromebook, they will automatically be brought into their customized experience. This is certainly a benefit for blind students, as it is now possible for them to use any Chromebook they are offered and have their accessibility preferences available upon login, without worrying that their own device may be out of commission. Although some local storage is available on the Chromebook, the main intention is to store documents in the cloud, using Google Drive, Google's cloud storage platform. If the user is logged into her account on any device, she can edit her files from anywhere.
*1 See NBC, written by Harriet Taylor. Accessed on 1/18/2017. URL: https://goo.gl/y4xhzj
A wide variety of Chromebook models is available, varying in size, local storage, processing power, and other specifications. Some models are traditional clamshell laptops with both touch and non-touch screens available. Others have rotating hinges, enabling use in tablet mode. Google works with many original equipment manufacturers such as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, and Asus to produce the Chromebook hardware. However, every device runs the same Chrome operating system, which unifies and standardizes the software experience.
The ChromeVox screen reader is built into every Chromebook. ChromeVox can be enabled at any time by pressing the key combination Ctrl + Alt + Z or by navigating to Accessibility settings and checking the appropriate checkbox. The ChromeOS Accessibility team launched the original version of the ChromeVox screen reader, now called ChromeVox Classic, back in 2011. After a few years of collecting user feedback and identifying opportunities for improvement, the team re-envisioned the experience and rebuilt the screen reader from the ground up. The newest version of ChromeVox is the default screen reader on all Chromebook devices as of Chrome version 56. It reached the ChromeOS Stable Channel at the end of January 2017. *2 The benefits and improvements provided by this new version make ChromeVox a far more powerful and intuitive tool. Among the new features are a new ChromeVox panel, new ChromeVox menus, various auditory improvements such as a new set of navigational sounds (also known as "earcons"), simplified keyboard shortcuts, and improvements to Braille access.
*2 To Learn more about ChromeOS channels and to check which channel a given device is on, visit https://goo.gl/8cz6U5 .
ChromeVox features the use of a modifier key that can be pressed in conjunction with other keys to navigate through the interface. The ChromeVox modifier key is the Search key, also referred to as the "ChromeVox" key. For reference, the Search key is unique to Chromebook keyboards and is positioned above Shift, where Caps Lock exists on other keyboards.
The Chromebook keyboard includes a few major differences from a standard Windows keyboard. The Function keys along the top generally act to change laptop settings, and usually they cannot be used as F keys. The Search Key above left Shift replaces the Caps Lock. There are only two modifiers on either side of the spacebar, Control and Alt.
When ChromeVox is enabled for the first time, it usually triggers a tutorial on the most basic features of the screen reader. This tutorial is quite short, but it gives the user a nice overview of the basic commands for getting started. If the tutorial does not load or if the user wishes to return to it at another time, it can be activated with Search + O, T. The tutorial won't teach the user everything, but it gives a good grounding in how ChromeVox works overall.
In an effort to help students learn the Chromebook keyboard layout more quickly, the ChromeOS Accessibility Team added the ChromeVox Learn Mode. It can be opened at any time by pressing Search + O then K, as in "open keyboard." In this mode, the user can type keys to hear what they are. The user also can type various key combinations to hear the corresponding keyboard shortcut. This mode also works when the user is typing on a refreshable Braille display connected to the Chromebook, providing a helpful learning tool for practice in Braille typing. To exit this mode, press Ctrl + W, which is simply the keyboard shortcut to close the current Chrome tab.
The most basic form of navigation is to move in a linear fashion through the page or app, jumping from object to object. To do this, press Search + Right Arrow. Similarly, press Search + Left Arrow to navigate backward by object. There is also a set of keyboard shortcuts for navigating by different levels, such as by group, line, word, and character.
In addition, ChromeVox includes a rich set of jump commands that enable more efficient navigation. To navigate by heading, for example, simply press Search + H, as in "heading." To navigate backward by heading, press Search + Shift + H. The same methodology can be applied for navigating many other types of content, such as buttons (Search + B), links (Search + L), and tables (Search + T).
To see a comprehensive list of available navigational and jump commands, open up the ChromeVox Menus by pressing Search + Period. These menus are among the most useful learning tools available in the screen reader. In this panel, you can access a list of all jump commands as well as ChromeVox speech options, a list of open tabs, a links list, forms list, headings list, ARIA landmarks list, and more. When students are first learning to use a screen reader, it can certainly be overwhelming to memorize the many shortcuts needed to navigate a computer. By teaching students the fundamentals and directing them to reference the ChromeVox Menus frequently, teachers can reduce their cognitive load and make the ramp-up period shorter. Students can also learn which shortcuts are most useful for their specific needs.
Braille access on the Chromebook is a work in progress. It is not yet possible to use the Chromebook entirely from the Braille display. However, with the transition to the new version of ChromeVox, ChromeOS Braille support has undergone recent and rapid improvements. It is now possible to use the Braille display's keyboard to execute jump commands for faster navigation. For the first time Braille users can use Braille as their primary tool for web browsing on this platform.
Chromebooks are compatible with most USB Braille displays. To start using a Braille display, simply plug the display into the Chromebook's USB port. If it wasn't on already, the Braille display will turn on ChromeVox, and within a few seconds the Braille display will show what ChromeVox is speaking. The student can use the navigation keys on the display to move the focus on the Chromebook.
The Chromebook offers support for contracted and uncontracted literary Braille in both American and Unified English Braille formats. It also offers support for 8-dot computer Braille and provides Braille support for several other languages, including Spanish, French, and German. To adjust Braille settings, visit the ChromeVox Options page by pressing Search + O then O, as in "open options."
Braille captions, which provide an on-screen visual representation of text shown on the Braille display, can be especially helpful to sighted parents or teachers of the visually impaired who want to see the written text that corresponds to what ChromeVox is speaking as well as the corresponding Braille on the screen. By viewing the Braille dots in the ChromeVox panel, the teacher can even follow along with everything the student is reading on a connected USB Braille display. This makes for a helpful teaching aid and troubleshooting tool. To enable Braille captions press Search + A then B, as in "access Braille."
There is far more to learn about the ChromeVox screen reader than we can cover here, so we have listed relevant resources toward the end of this article. The ChromeOS Accessibility Team has put a lot of great features and improvements into the ChromeVox redesign, and the NFB Access Technology Team is truly excited about the greater level of access it makes possible. Both teams are eager to hear feedback and questions from users, teachers, parents, and guardians. User feedback will propel the growth of ChromeVox and its Braille support in the future.
There are several ways to zoom and magnify content on a Chromebook. First, the user can increase the size of the browser content by pressing Ctrl + Plus. To decrease the size of browser content, simply press Ctrl + Minus. To reset at any time, press Ctrl + 0. The user also can adjust the screen resolution to enlarge every item on the screen, including the app icons on the shelf, status tray items, and tabs. To do this, press Ctrl + Shift + Plus. To decrease, press Ctrl + Shift + Minus, and to reset, press Ctrl + Shift + 0.
Another option is the built-in screen magnifier, which is available in the Chromebook's accessibility settings. To access this feature, navigate to the status tray menu by clicking on the lower right corner of the screen or by pressing Alt + Shift + S on the keyboard. From here, choose the Settings option, and ChromeOS settings will open in a new tab. The cursor should automatically be placed in the search field, and you can type "accessibility" to access the various options. Yet another option is to navigate to the bottom of the settings page, click on Advanced Settings, and then navigate to Accessibility.
Once you reach the accessibility settings, check the box to enable the screen magnifier. At this point the entire screen will zoom in, and you can use the mouse cursor to pan around the screen. You can press the tab key to jump around clickable items, such as buttons and links, and the visual focus will follow to make for a more efficient experience. With this magnifier enabled, you can hold down Ctrl + Alt and scroll two fingers up and down on the touchpad to adjust the zoom level. Note that you can also use browser zoom or adjust screen resolution in conjunction with using the full screen magnifier to find the zoom level that works best for you.
In accessibility settings there is an option to increase the size of the mouse cursor for better visibility. In addition, Chromebooks have settings to highlight important items on the screen with a colored focus ring. You will find options to highlight the mouse cursor, the text caret, and/or the keyboard focused item. These focus rings appear when the given item is in motion or in use, for example, as you move the mouse cursor on the screen. Once the motion or action stops, the focus ring fades away to reduce distraction. In addition, it has the option to invert the colors of all items on the screen. This option can be helpful for users with light sensitivity. This feature is called "High Contrast." The term is not strictly accurate, as inversion will not actually change the level of contrast available, but instead trade each color with its opposite.
The Chrome and ChromeOS Accessibility Team is working on additional features and functionality for low-vision users. Explore the current feature set to determine how well it will work for your students. Some students may need more specific or different visual supports that are more readily available with a third-party screen magnification program available on other computing platforms. It can be worthwhile to spend some time to determine whether a particular student's needs are fully met by the computing platform he is using. Keep in mind that the G Suite can be reached across computing platforms as long as the student has access to the internet. In addition, as the Chromebook includes both low-vision tools and the built-in screen reader, it is a great device for teaching students to use the two modes in tandem for high efficiency and comfort.
The G Suite is a collection of cloud-based applications created by Google to enable users to work and collaborate while enjoying the benefits of a fully connected environment. The G suite includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Classroom. These apps make it possible for users to work from almost anywhere they desire, simply by logging into their G Suite-enabled account. Every Gmail user already has an account with access to all of the applications discussed in this article with the exception of Google Classroom, which requires an Edu account. Parents, teachers, and students can try out the features within these applications, whether or not their school has chosen to use them. For example, accessing Google Drive is as simple as visiting drive.google.com and signing in to the relevant account.
Students using the G Suite can access their documents from almost anywhere with an internet connection. In addition, the G Suite has been built with collaboration in mind, so that more than one person can review and even actively edit a document concurrently. These features make the G Suite a useful option for the classroom environment, where students may share devices, work on group projects, and access their work from systems other than their own. Even schools that have not begun to use Chromebooks may be using the G Suite with their students on other platforms.
For a blind user to get started with the G Suite, some things should be understood. Traditionally, blind users employ a set of commands in their screen readers to interact with desktop applications. Screen reader users have a second set of commands for interacting with websites, which, for all intents and purposes, are read the way a user would read a static document.
The G Suite applications, however, operate somewhat differently. They are applications, but they run inside the browser. Therefore, users may have to learn some new ways to navigate and interact, and may have to make a few changes in order to interact with the G Suite successfully. First, it is important to note that certain combinations of browser and screen access software will work better than others. At the time of this writing, the recommended experience on desktop platforms can be found using the NVDA screen reader with the Firefox browser on Windows, VoiceOver and Chrome on Mac, or ChromeVox and Chrome on ChromeOS. As mentioned earlier, Braille is not fully implemented across all G Suite applications. Students will need to use speech more heavily than they do in other applications. Until Braille access is farther along, students who rely on Braille as their primary method for interacting with a computer will not be able to use the G Suite for many tasks. A better Braille experience may be had with the iOS app versions of many of these packages, but features and support can vary. Braille users will likely require access to other tools, at least for the near term.
As discussed, G Suite applications are web apps that feature a large number of keyboard shortcuts for efficient navigation. For different screen access solutions, the student will need to use the pass through keys, Focus, or Forms mode to have these keystrokes reach the G Suite app instead of being caught by the screen reader and browser as they usually are on websites. Each screen reader has a different method for doing this:
The first time you use Docs, Sheets, or Slides on Mac or PC, make sure to enable accessibility. To do this on PC, press Ctrl + Alt + Z, and on Mac, Command + Option + Z. Note that this is done automatically in ChromeOS.
Here is one final setup tip, specifically for NVDA users. Many of the commands in the G Suite use Alt + Ctrl + N to move to the "next" element. This command conflicts with the NVDA startup shortcut when it is first installed. In order to use this command, it is necessary to disable or change the NVDA startup shortcuts. We have found that Alt + Ctrl + Backtick, which is located to the left of "1" on the number row, is a good choice. It is not bound to any other programs.
As a blind student is learning the entire G Suite, particularly Docs, Sheets, and Slides, she may find that a few things may work differently from the way she is used to when it comes to moving through files. The student may have to learn some new commands, but she may have access to some functionality not otherwise supported by her screen access package of choice. For instance, across all supported screen readers, by utilizing a shortcut provided by Docs itself, the student can move through documents by heading. To do this, she can hold down Alt + Ctrl and press N then H, as in "next heading" to go forward. To go backward she can hold down Alt + Ctrl and press P then H, as in "previous heading." On the Mac the student can use Command + Ctrl instead of Alt + Ctrl. At first this may seem counterintuitive, as screen readers support moving through webpages by heading already. However, it is important to remember that the Docs canvas is one large edit field. The screen reader's jump commands cannot normally be used in edit fields, because doing so would interfere with a user's ability to type. Therefore Docs has recreated this functionality. This change provides a bit of a trade-off for students. They may have to invest time in learning new commands specifically for Docs and the rest of the G Suite. Once they have learned these commands, however, they can likely walk up to many different types of computers and, with minor tweaks, use these apps, even if they are less familiar with the screen reader they are using.
In order to navigate and learn these programs, it is possible to pull up menus and keyboard shortcuts with the following commands:
Google Drive is the hub of an individual user's activity in G Suite. It's the place for users to keep all of their files together in the cloud. It allows a user to view, organize, and share all sorts of files that she has stored online from almost anywhere with internet access. This includes mobile computing devices such as phones and tablets. Even some Braille notetakers now offer support for accessing files from Google Drive.
Google Drive, like other file management tools, allows for various components of file management and organization. A user can create new files and move, copy, delete, or organize files into folders. It is also possible to review when the file was last created; upload local files to the cloud; or download files in alternative formats such as ePub, Microsoft Office formats, or, as a last resort, accessible PDF for offline consumption and publishing.
Google Drive is the heart of user collaboration and document creation within the G Suite. It has been built so that a user can share a file with others to view, to add comments, or to edit directly. It acts as the gateway to other tools in the G Suite, and it enables users to create new files or return to those they have been working on.
Google Docs is a word processor that focuses on reliability, simplicity, and collaboration. The real power of Docs is the ability for multiple participants to work on a file simultaneously. Multiple coauthors of the document can make changes to different sections of a file at the same time. Good keyboard support makes most actions accessible without the need to resort to the menus, but the menus are there as a reference for students who can't quite remember how to complete a particular task.
After enabling screen reader support for the first time, the Accessibility menu is made available. It includes access to most of the commands available for screen access users. It offers the option to enable or disable screen reader support, Braille support, and collaborator announcements. Toggling screen reader support will sometimes fix focus errors if they occur. So does enabling or disabling Braille support, even if a user is not using a Braille display to read or edit documents. Collaborator announcements can be a great benefit. This mode notifies the student when she is trying to work in the same paragraph as another user, thus helping them avoid working on top of one another. However, when the student is trying to read the document and collaborators are frequently entering and exiting, screen reader announcements may become disruptive. For this reason, judicious use of this option is advised. The student can disable these announcements by navigating to the Accessibility menu, selecting Settings, and choosing to turn off collaborator announcements.
Google Docs also supports speech-to-text input, called Voice Typing. This feature goes beyond basic dictation. It includes a wide variety of voice commands, enabling document editing through voice. To access this functionality, the student can navigate to Tools and choose Voice Typing. Note that this option is only available in the Chrome browser.
Braille support in Docs is presently limited to reading existing text. In some combinations of screen reader and browser, it is possible to input new text from the Braille keyboard. Unfortunately, it is not possible to move or otherwise manipulate the editing cursor from the Braille display, and attempts to do so will often result in confusing and contradictory behavior.
Google Sheets is the G Suite spreadsheet application. It can be used to create and interact with tables of information. Once again, it offers the ability for multiple collaborators to work in a file simultaneously. The traditional functions of calculating data using formulas, sorting and filtering information, and creating graphs and charts are all supported.
At this time, Braille cannot be used for reading or editing content in Google Sheets. That said, Google Sheets enables screen reader users to hear a particular row and column along with the current cell's data. As the student moves through a table of information, he will hear the context. This is the screen reader user's equivalent of locking a particular row or column into view while reviewing a table so he can review the heading under which the information is located. Likewise, he can begin to monitor any cell he expects to change as he makes calculations, so he always knows when that cell changes. Keep in mind that most functionality around screen reader interactions can happen via keyboard shortcuts and through the Accessibility menu.
Another accessibility feature is especially worth noting, as it is currently quite unique. When a graph or chart is created, the software in Sheets attempts, usually with a high level of accuracy, to create an automatic alt tag of that graph. The alt tag showcases the main trends that the graph or chart is attempting to portray. This feature is expected to get better with user feedback.
Google Slides is a presentation application. Like other apps in the G Suite, it has been created to make it possible for students to work on projects alone or collaboratively.
As is true with other presentation software, a blind student may need a little extra time and training to understand how various templates present information to visual users. Students may still benefit from working with a human reader near the completion of their presentations in order to ensure that they look the way the student expects them to appear.
Several commands are available from the Accessibility menu to assist the student in moving focus into and out of the film strip, notes, and other pertinent panels. Google Slides also includes layout descriptions for the suggested layouts. The student can choose the one she wants nonvisually. To access these descriptions, she can navigate to Tools and then choose Explore. Additional information about this functionality can be found at https://goo.gl/LvYZnq.
Note that the student currently can read and enter new text content using a refreshable Braille display, similar to the way it works in Docs. However, it is not possible to use a Braille display to access shapes at the individual slide level.
With Google Forms, it is possible for users—particularly teachers—to create online forms, surveys, and even quizzes, and distribute them to a group of people. When creating a form, the teacher adds a title, then adds however many questions or sections make sense for what he is trying to accomplish. The teacher can choose from a wide variety of question types such as short answer, paragraph, multiple choice, checkboxes, and a linear scale. It is also possible to add relevant images or videos to the form in order to provide further contextual information.
The teacher can also add collaborators who can edit the form questions through the Share options. Once the teacher is ready to distribute the form and collect responses, he can share it with as many people as he wishes via email or a direct link. Once the form is sent via email, recipients are notified and can access it and fill it out through the email message body or by opening the link and accessing it in Google Forms itself.
Form owners and collaborators can view individual responses, either through the Responses section of the Forms interface (which features individual responses as well as a summary view), or by creating a corresponding Google Sheet that automatically imports the responses. This integration with Sheets makes it possible to aggregate, organize, and analyze submissions.
Google Forms has been built with an eye to accessibility. The questions have been created to work well with screen readers and other assistive technology. A wide variety of keyboard shortcuts is available to navigate Google Forms more efficiently. You can pull up the full list by pressing Ctrl + / (Forward Slash).
Just as Google Drive is the center of all of a user's activity in the G Suite, Google Classroom acts as the hub of activity for a class or school. In Google Classroom, teachers have the ability to create virtual "classes" of students, and they can distribute assignments and key materials to all students in a particular class. Students can submit their work through the Google Classroom portal, and teachers can access, grade, make comments in real time, and even add annotations using the mobile app.
Using the Share to Classroom Chrome extension, teachers also can push specific web pages to all computers in the given Google Classroom. This is a great step forward from teachers having to write a web address on the board and rely on a student's ability to see the board and type the web address accurately. Similarly, each student has the ability to share her screen with a teacher, which can be a big help when troubleshooting an issue or collaborating on an assignment.
Google Classroom also includes useful features for parents and guardians, such as the ability to sign up for email summaries of the student's upcoming or missing work. It is important for parents to advocate for teachers to create and distribute accessible content—content that can be accessed via a screen reader and isn't simply a graphic containing pictures of text. If the teacher's content is in an accessible format, Google Classroom provides a seamless way for blind students to access their materials and assignments electronically, using their assistive technology of choice.
The importance of creating accessible student materials cannot be overstated, regardless of the platform the student uses to access those materials. The NFB Access Technology Team has created a guide that can be used by faculty and other school personnel to help explain the major concepts involved in creating accessible materials. The guide is not specific to G Suite applications. The information is highly transferable and can help make materials more accessible for all students in the classroom. The guide can be downloaded from https://nfb.org/blog/atblog/creating-nonvisually-accessible-documents.
Google also published an article about making documents more accessible. This article includes ways to make Google Docs and Google Slides content more accessible for screen reader users and tips for making documents easier to read. It is available at https://goo.gl/ac0NwK.
Here is a handful of resources to help you get started on Chromebooks and G Suite apps. On the Chromebook side, take a look at the Accessibility section of the Chromebook Help Center at https://goo.gl/1lCIiD as well as chromevox.com.
The Chrome and ChromeOS Accessibility Team has launched a Chrome and ChromeOS Accessibility YouTube series at https://goo.gl/Dkomk8, featuring videos about Chromebook low-vision features, ChromeVox, and more.
The Chrome and ChromeOS Accessibility Team is eager to receive feedback about how these features are working for you, your child, or your student. Please consider joining one or both of these Google Groups—Chromebook Accessibility (https://goo.gl/VlCpcB) and ChromeVox Discuss (https://goo.gl/961vCq). Send questions or feedback to [email protected] or chromevox-discuss
To learn more about G Suite accessibility, visit the G Suite Help Center, and more specifically, the G Suite User Guide to Accessibility at https://goo.gl/hVa6CM. The G Suite Accessibility Team has also released a few videos about getting started with various G Suite apps using a Windows screen reader (https://goo.gl/h8gw0v), and hopes to release more in the future.
To learn more about Google accessibility as a whole, visit google.com/accessibility.
Google is very enthusiastic about its work to ensure access for blind users. "NFB is an incredibly important partner to Google, and we're grateful for our productive and frequent collaboration," says Eve Anderson, senior manager of Accessibility Engineering. "We are appreciative of the NFB's feedback which has helped improve the accessibility of our products. We're excited to continue our work together in the years to come."
After reading this article, we hope that you and your students are able to give some of these products a try. Whether or not you are currently using these Google products with your students, we hope that you will share your experiences with both Google and the National Federation of the Blind's Access Technology Team. The NFB knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines a blind child's future, and with your help and the help of partners such as Google, we will continue to improve their education so that they can live the lives they want!
An Interview with Kelly Lauer
From the Editor: Educational games are becoming increasingly popular with students and teachers in today's classrooms. Unfortunately, most of these games are highly graphical, placing blind students at a severe disadvantage. At least one company, Osmo, incorporates hands-on activities into its games for the iPad. In this interview, teacher Kelly Lauer explains how she uses Osmo games with her students at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.
Deborah Kent Stein: Tell me a bit about the Overbrook School. How many students are enrolled?
Kelly Lauer: Overbrook was founded in 1832, so we’ve been around for a long time. We have about two hundred students, ages three to twenty-one. Some are day students, and the rest are residential. I've been teaching technology at the school for the past thirteen years.
DKS: What are the Osmo games? What makes them work so well for blind and low-vision students?
KL: Osmo has created a series of educational games for the iPad. They're unique in that they use manipulatives such as tiles and blocks in addition to the iPad screen. The iPad fits into a base with a reflector that allows the camera to see what's in front of it. The student uses the manipulatives and gets feedback from the iPad.
DKS: When do you introduce these games into the curriculum?
KL: Osmo games are designed for kids ages five to twelve. I like to start students on technology as early as kindergarten. Some of our students continue to benefit from these games even when they go into high school. Games really improve students' language and math skills. Using these games also boosts their confidence and improves their social and communication skills. They learn to play cooperatively, to work as a team.
DKS: Do you have to take any steps to make the games accessible?
KL: It's very easy to add dots or Braille labels to the tiles, and that helps reinforce the students' Braille skills. Moving and connecting the tiles is great for manual dexterity and spatial awareness.
DKS: How accessible is the screen? Do the games work with VoiceOver?
KL: With some of the games there are sound effects that let blind students know when they've scored or when something good or bad is going on. Unfortunately, though, with some of the games students have to get information from somebody who can look at the screen. It's definitely a drawback for the students who can't use the screen even with enlargement. Still, students really benefit from the hands-on elements of these games.
DKS: What are some of the Osmo games you use with your students?
KL: One of our favorites is Osmo Numbers. It's a game where students arrange physical tiles to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It really helps them understand basic mathematical concepts.
Another favorite in our classrooms is Osmo Words. A picture appears on the screen, and students have to arrange the correct letter tiles to spell out the word. If someone quickly describes the picture, the students can engage in spelling words with the tiles.
Osmo Pizza Co. teaches kids some basic business principles. The game comes with a pizza tray, toppings, and play money. Players fill orders, make change, and try to keep their customers happy. The game is great for teaching financial literacy.
DKS: Are there any other skills that students gain through these games?
KL: Some of my students have developed a serious interest in coding through these games. Osmo Coding is a game that teaches kids to code by handling beautifully crafted blocks. They snap the blocks together like LEGOs in front of the iPad. The blocks form digital instructions that guide a character named Awbie on a quest through a digital forest to find delicious strawberries. I now have a couple of students who are interested in becoming app developers. Some of our graduates have careers as programmers, working at companies like Google and Comcast. Early exposure to coding can spark an interest that will lead to jobs later on.
DKS: How can teachers and parents find out more about Osmo games?
KL: The Osmo website gives a lot of information, including videos about many of the games. Visit https://www.playosmo.com to learn more.
by Mona Minkara
From the Editor: For the past ten years the NFB Jernigan Institute has created opportunities for blind middle-school and high-school students to get hands-on experience in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A growing number of blind people are entering the STEM professions, and their success can inspire the next generation. Mona Minkara, who received an NFB National Scholarship in 2013, is earning a postdoctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Minnesota. In this article she shares her story.
My interest in science began when I was young, watching The Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye. My favorite episode of The Magic Schoolbus was the one in which the class took a field trip into the digestive system of one of the students. This episode showed me a world of science to discover beyond the things we can see with the naked eye. It exposed me for the first time to a unique perspective on science.
When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy. I quickly realized that a different perspective on my research would be inevitable. Not only did my visual impairment shift the way I viewed the physical world; it also affected how I perceived plots, figures, and opinions. The physicians did not have a positive prognosis for me, and they conveyed the impression that I would never become a scientist. Nevertheless, I felt driven to defy this prognosis. I was determined to become the scientist I hoped to be, despite whatever obstacles might be in my path.
I learned quickly that the standard methods of scientific education would not meet my needs as a student. In order to succeed I would have to find a way of learning course material that would keep me on par with my sighted classmates. Not until I expressed my desire to go beyond what was expected of me was I finally able to pursue my interests.
When I was in tenth grade, I grew bored with the special education program to which I was assigned in school. I did not want my academic ability to be defined by my blindness. Naturally I was drawn toward another track, one that involved more demanding academic study. Despite the disbelief of my instructors, I dominated the advanced science classes in my high school and fueled my passion to push forward. All of a sudden my dream of pursuing science became a reality.
As an undergraduate I attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. I had been assured that my future was no longer limited by my eyesight but open to the extent of my capabilities as a scholar. My peers at Wellesley extended their support beyond anything I ever could have hoped for. Friends, classmates, and professors read me notes, books, and exams. I had never been taught Braille, and of necessity I depended on auditory access to my materials. I convinced the disability services office on campus that I did not need a tutor but a reader.
During my years at Wellesley I gained confidence in my own capability. I learned that in order to be competitive, I needed additional determination and devotion to my academic studies. Time and patience became my greatest commodities. At the end of my four years at Wellesley, I had received two bachelor’s degrees, one in Middle Eastern studies and one in chemistry.
Graduate school at the University of Florida truly refined my interest in chemistry and laid the foundation for my professional career. With the support and assistance of my advisors and colleagues, I began to distinguish myself as a professional with a unique perspective. Instead of following the track of my sighted peers, I analyzed information in ways that best fit my aptitudes.
I used my alternative methods in my study of urease, an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. My classmates would watch a moving picture of the enzyme in its habitat. Obviously I needed to find another way to analyze the enzyme. I marked each residue, or small group of amino acids, and then tracked the distance each would move over the length of time in the video. Yes, plotting this information is another form of visual representation. But to think differently and to use a less visual method for understanding a chemical process was a large step in the right direction in my journey as a blind chemist.
Through my graduate experience I learned that a view from each lens can contribute to a larger picture that is often missed by those who have accumulated ideas from the same field of thought. My current advisor, Dr. J. Ilja Siepmann of the University of Minnesota, shared my understanding of this viewpoint. He encouraged me to conduct research as his postdoc under the Siepmann Group, where I am currently a fellow.
My research is almost entirely simulated, and my lab may not conform to what most people imagine when they think of chemistry. Instead of a wet lab with chemicals and flasks, I use computer equipment. I emulate experimental procedures using advanced simulation techniques. I still adhere to the rules and laws of the field of chemistry, but in computational chemistry I am limited only by computer power and my ability to discern the information.
In some ways being blind has been a hindrance to me in this work, but my distinctive lens into the field of chemistry has also been a benefit. One of the largest difficulties I still face is not being able to visualize my data on plots or figures. Unfortunately, blind-accessible technology is not yet advanced enough to depict the required minutiae. For this information I still rely on other people. For simpler tasks assistive technology can still be very useful. I send email by using the VoiceOver program that is available on all of my Apple products, ranging from my mobile devices, which I use quite frequently, to the computers that I use to run simulations related to my research. When I use a Windows computer, I use JAWS (Job Access with Speech). Although we have only just begun to tap into the potential of these technologies, I am quite satisfied with both programs.
When I was growing up I was told that Braille would not be any use to me, due to the advancements in audio technology. Though I find VoiceOver very valuable and think it is one of the most user-intuitive applications, I highly recommend that any blind student learn Braille. In fact, I can attest that a person can begin to learn Braille at any age.
In my workplace MagnaLink has a fixed position among the tools on my desk. The MagnaLink is set up in such a way that if I need to read a scientific journal, I can access it with ease while knowing where to line up the paper. Reading abstracts becomes much easier with this technology, as it uses the computer to produce an audio translation. With that said, however, MagnaLink can be a bother when it attempts more difficult tasks.
Orcam is another device at my disposal. The cool facet to this device is that I can read what is in front of me. For everyday reading, the Orcam is useful. For scientific articles, however, the technology cannot read the little details of the figures, plots, captions, and pictures.
On my website I have a tab called "Blind Scientist Tools." Here you may see all of the tools and techniques I have used throughout my career for reading, note-taking, attending lectures and workshops, and more.
Aside from the screen reader programs that I use, I have a team of access assistants who have been immensely helpful in communicating visual information. I can then interpret and manipulate this information for my research. The greatest obstacle I have faced is properly assessing the visual information before I begin to utilize what is being displayed. Access assistants are helpful because they have the ability to record visual information in a clear and concise manner. Their descriptions allow me to think freely about what is being said or what is being portrayed. When I am frustrated or when I simply cannot connect the visual dots inside my head, I ask an access assistant to take my hand and trace a plot or trace the plot with her own finger as I follow. By using this method my research becomes much more dynamic, and the environment of my lab is more collective.
Through the wisdom I have gained from my own experience, I hope to empower blind students who are interested in the sciences and may have encountered similar obstacles. With the proper drive, dreams are possible. The tools are available for blind individuals to find success. I want to give a voice to other blind scientists without diluting my own. The desire to succeed feeds my drive and strengthens my capacity to push beyond—to become more than what is expected of me.
by Martin Wilde
From the Editor: Martin Wilde is a professional audio description writer and voicer based in Chicago. He is also the founder of Arts Access International, LLC. Currently the company is working on ways to improve the live AD accessibility experience through the use of twenty-first century technologies, including WiFi and mobile applications. Please let Martin know your thoughts about any and all of the material in this article. He can be reached at [email protected].
In the summer of 2012, Richard Holloway wrote a very informative piece for this publication about audio description (AD) for movies and other pre-recorded media. AD makes visual programming accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired by describing key visual elements during pauses in the dialog. Through AD, individuals can follow popular movies and television programs independently.
Five years on, I'm happy to report that, although plenty of hurdles remain, media access is becoming easier, and more content is being published with description. Thanks to some key pieces of legislation, people who are blind or have low vision can engage more fully with movies, television, and media on the internet, increasing their enjoyment and social inclusion.
AD can also improve the quality of life beyond pre-recorded media. Our experience of the world and the communities in which we live is not limited to the TV shows and movies we consume. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate fully in society in all facets of our lives, whether in a classroom, attending a performing arts event, taking in a museum exhibit, or going to a local parade or pageant. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and mandates "equal opportunity" to participate in American life. However, people with disabilities regularly lack the information that would allow them an experience at live events equivalent to that of their nondisabled peers. Any event, class, or exhibit may be described, providing a more complete picture to people with vision loss. Although laws call for AD for films and TV programming, as yet no laws require live events to be made accessible. Without such a mandate, the promise of the ADA remains unfulfilled.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free and appropriate public education" equivalent to that of all other students. A student who is not afforded the real-time opportunity to discern the materials being presented in the classroom has a distinct disadvantage when compared with his or her nondisabled classmates. Research has shown that people with disabilities have lower educational outcomes than those without disabilities. One study found that, "Where curricula and teaching methods are rigid and there is a lack of appropriate teaching materials—for example, where information is not delivered in the most appropriate mode—children with disabilities are at increased risk of exclusion." *1 Another found that, "Impairments that affect the capacity to communicate and interact in ways common in mainstream schools can impose particularly high practical and social obstacles to participation in education.” *2 AD should be part of the "appropriate" public education standards suggested by the IDEA.
Beyond education, an April 2015 study of performing and visual arts audiences by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that adults with disabilities are underrepresented. The NEA reported that in 2012, 23.3 percent of US adults with disabilities (i.e., 6.2 million people) attended a live performing arts event, 14 percent below the share of all US adults who attended live concerts, plays, and dance performances (37.3 percent) in the same year. The NEA also found that while adults with disabilities compose nearly 12 percent of the US adult population, they make up just under 7 percent of all adults attending performing arts events or visiting art museums or galleries. The study did not identify how many of those events were accessible, nor did it shed any light on the reasons for the audience discrepancies.
Given what we know about attendance, one reason may be that people with disabilities have never experienced an arts performance, accessible or not, so they don't even consider it as a choice. Another may be that in the past, people have attended arts performances without the benefit of live accessibility services, and are choosing not to have an incomplete and unsatisfactory experience. Across the board, furnishing this community with affordable, routinely available live accessibility services would go a long way toward improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Let's explore how AD works at live events. During a theater performance, a trained audio describer selects pertinent visual content and translates it into audio in real time. He or she describes such elements as costumes, sets, lighting, characters' facial expressions, and movement on stage in the pauses between the lines of dialog. The describer views the performance either from a separate soundproof area or from the audience and speaks into a stenographer's mask or microphone to transmit the information to the patrons in the audience. In museums and exhibits, AD integrates the description of visual elements with the exhibit's posted text. Visual elements include the layout of the facility and the exhibit's components as well as the content. If the exhibit or performance includes touchable objects, the description also guides users' exploration of these items. The description is transmitted to AD users, who listen on headsets, usually provided by the venue.
By providing information about visual content, AD offers a new measure of independence to people with vision loss. Blind patrons no longer have to rely on a spouse or friend to find out what happened on stage to spark a burst of laughter or horrified gasp from the audience. They can walk through a museum exhibit, listening to a description through a headset.
Over the past five years there has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of accessibility services for people across the spectrum of disabilities in the classroom, at live performing arts and cultural events, and museums. In the arts many organizations have sprung up across the country, dedicated to increasing awareness about and availability of such services to the disabled community. One of the most outstanding programs is the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC, chicagoculturalaccess.org). Its mission is to empower Chicago's cultural spaces to become more accessible to visitors with disabilities by providing professional development programs, accessible equipment loans, resources about cultural accessibility and inclusion, and a searchable calendar of accessible events across all institutions and services.
From my direct observations providing AD at scores of live events, accessibility has not yet spurred audience growth. With more described shows available, those interested in cultural events have a wider choice of events to attend and may visit any given venue less frequently. From informal discussions with many in the blind community, I find that other reasons include high ticket prices, inconvenient or limited show times (often a single performance only), transportation challenges, and lack of familiarity with the experience of going to a live show.
Educational and performing arts organizations face significant challenges in providing live AD programs. They have to do the following:
On the other hand, consumers have to:
Organizations that present audio-described events and performances are to be highly commended. However, when it comes to making the arts accessible to people with vision loss, AD is just one part of the whole experience. The most successful organizations I've encountered offer touch tours or sensory seminars that allow patrons to explore the set and examine costumes and props. They offer programs and theater bills in accessible formats (Braille, large print, and electronic versions) to give blind patrons the same information available to others. The best organizations have policies to ensure that all staff and volunteers are trained to provide welcoming customer service for people with vision loss. They recognize that whatever a person's needs and abilities, a visit to the theater is a special evening out. The greeting at the door, the friendly service at the bar, the helpful directions to the correct seats, the accommodation and sensitivity to the presence of service animals—all of these elements add up to a memorable outing.
Responsibility for audience growth and participation also falls on the disabled community. Patrons must become aware of, ask for, and attend more described events and exhibitions. The call for accessibility has been heard—not everywhere, but in a lot of very meaningful places. However, organizations large and small, nonprofit and commercial, have limited resources. Right now they are choosing to invest in accessibility services. Should they fail to see enough of a return, whatever their metric (and new audience growth and increased ticket sales are two big ones), those services may be at risk.
Here's what you can do. Find a show or event you'd like to attend. Call the ticket office and ask about audio-described shows and touch tours. If the organization doesn't offer AD regularly, ask for it to be provided. Many organizations are very willing to work with their patrons, and they will arrange an audio-described performance on demand if they can, often within a two- to three-week time window.
Organize a group outing. Ask about discounts. Ask about customer service for people with low vision, such as touch tours and programs in alternative formats. If the venue doesn't know about or provide such services, explain what you need, giving the staff the opportunity to serve you as a prospective patron.
At first you may need more persistence than you should to get through to the right person. Not everything will come all at once. But only by working together can access get better. And when it gets better for you, it gets better for everyone.
We live in a time of unprecedented access to an almost infinite amount of information in our mobile, connected society. From education to entertainment, information is a basic resource that plays an integral role in almost every human activity. It should be accessible to everyone, anytime and anywhere, giving everyone the same opportunities. In our human community, we are most prosperous when we embrace and support the physical and intellectual talents of all people. I imagine a world where schools and arts and cultural organizations routinely provide access to their live events or course offerings—their information—any time people with disabilities need it, in ways that make it easy to present and consume. As the ways people consume information and experience the world around them are transformed, I believe people of all abilities will leap forward with a surge of educational, civic, entertainment, and economic opportunity.
*1 2011 World Health Organization World Report on Disability, http://www.who.int/disabilities/ world_report/2011/en
*2 2010 EFA Global Education Monitoring Report, http://en.unesco.org/gem-report/report/2010/reaching-marginalized
by Chancey Fleet
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 60, Number 7, July 2017
From the Editor: Most of us who are blind learn an assortment of nonvisual techniques for handling our everyday tasks. Through our creative uses of hearing, touch, and common sense, we often explore realms that challenge society's expectations. Nevertheless, there are times when information from someone who can see is very helpful. Until recently, our only options were to ask for assistance from a sighted family member, friend, or stranger, or to secure help from a volunteer or paid reader. Technology now offers some promising new possibilities, which Chancey Fleet calls visual interpretation. Chancey is a technology educator with the New York City Public Library system.
If you're a blind person with a smartphone or tablet, you can use it to get visual information on demand. This genre of service is relatively new and can go by many names. You might hear it called remote visual assistance or crowdsourced vision. Personally, I prefer the phrase "visual interpretation" because it precisely names the process of turning visual information into something more useful, and because the concept of an interpreter is familiar to people in many walks of life.
Working with a remote visual interpreter can be liberating. You decide what your interpreter can see, when the interaction begins and ends, and whether you need a second (or third, or tenth) opinion. A virtual interpreter can't touch anything in your environment, so you can't be tempted or pressured to abandon a task that is "too visual" to someone else's hands. Remote visual interpretation can be an empowering option when you'd like to limit the extent of your interactions with the public or avoid turning friends and colleagues into de facto describers. It can be a great help when no one is available to give you the information you need.
A variety of apps provide remote visual interpretation. Although they vary in price and functionality, and although there are differences in whose eyes are on the other end of the connection, there are some things you'll want to consider when you use any of them.
Whatever you do, read some online reviews before you buy, or take a friend's headphones for a test drive. People tend to feel deeply about their audio gear, and no one choice is right for everybody.
How it works: Snap a picture or upload one from your camera roll, and a combination of machine vision and crowdsourced web workers will send you a quick description. Typically, your answer arrives within twenty seconds and is short enough to fit on a fortune cookie.
When it shines: For the simple things. TapTapSee is great at identifying products and describing photos in brief. I use it on a daily basis to sort and label mystery items in my home and office, get real-time feedback about the photos I'm taking, and double-check that my pen has ink and my handwriting is legible. TapTapSee descriptions are text-based messages that can be read with magnification, speech, or Braille.
How it works: Take one or more pictures, or upload them from your camera roll. Type or record a question, and listen for text and audio replies to come rolling in from sighted volunteers over the course of twenty minutes or so.
When it shines: For rich detail, diverse opinions, and a nuanced understanding of what different people notice when they look at an image. I use BeSpecular to ask for detailed descriptions of clothing and jewelry, ideas about what to wear with what, guidance in picking the "best" photo from a set, and impressions of photos and objects that are important to me. Once I've heard five or six different takes on the same image and question, I can find the patterns of consensus and divergence among the responses and arrive at my own informed understanding of the image. BeSpecular finds a happy medium between the brevity of TapTapSee and the live connection used by other apps. There's something special about BeSpecular's format of long-form questions and answers. Outside the rhythm of a live conversation, BeSpecular answers feel almost like postcards from a sighted correspondent passing briefly through your life. They're often full of detail, personality, and emotions such as surprise and humor. Once, while delayed on a train at Union Station in Washington, DC, I asked BeSpecular to relieve my boredom by describing the scene outside my window. One respondent sent me an audio reply that explained, in a tone that was equal parts delighted and chagrined, that I had unfortunately sent her the most boring view she had ever seen. It was one train car, an empty John Deere forklift, and a cloudy sky.
How it works: Connect to a sighted volunteer who speaks your language and have a conversation about what he or she sees through the lens of your camera.
When it shines: For exploring, sorting, and troubleshooting. Every time I arrive at a new hotel, I check in with BeMyEyes to take the decaf coffee pods out of play, sort the identical little bottles in the bathroom, and learn the thermostat and media controls. I also use it to find out which food trucks are parked on the streets near my office, decipher mystery messages on computer screens, and grab what I need from my local bodega. Since BeMyEyes is powered by volunteers, I try to make the interaction upbeat and fun and let the person I'm working with decide whether they'd like to bow out of a long task after a certain amount of time. There are just over half a million sighted volunteers and about 35,000 blind users currently registered with the service, so you can call as often as you like without fear of bothering the same person over and over. The system will always connect you to someone for whom it is a reasonable hour, so Americans calling late at night or early in the morning will be connected to wide-awake people in Europe and Australia. Since the volunteer base is so large, you're likely to get through to someone quickly, even when lots of other blind users are connecting.
How to pronounce it: It's a hard I, so pronounce it as "Ira."
How it works: Use your phone's camera or a Google Glass wearable camera to connect with a live agent. Agents can access the view from your camera, your location on Google Maps, the internet at large, and your "Dashboard," which contains any additional information you'd like placed there.
When it shines: For tasks that are long, context-dependent, or complex. An Aira agent can start from any address, use Google Streetview to find a nearby restaurant, glance at online photos to clue you in to whether it's upscale or casual, suggest and explain the best walking directions to get there, read the daily specials when you arrive, and show you where to sign and tip on the check when you're ready to leave. Agents have watched and described completely silent YouTube videos with me so that I could learn origami models, counted heads in my local NFB chapter meeting, described twenty minutes of nothing but socks until I found the perfect sock souvenir, read online guitar tabs for me so I could write them down in my own notation, helped me pick out nail polish, and taken spectacular photos through my camera for my personal and professional social media accounts. Aira agents are great at reading handwriting, diagrams, and product manuals that seem to have as many pictures and icons as words. When I can't read something with OCR (optical character recognition), Aira can almost always help.
Aira agents are paid, trained professionals. Most of them are unflappable, effective describers who are up for any challenge. Since you pay for their time, you should feel comfortable about asking for what you need, being assertive about the type of descriptive language that works for you, and calling whenever the need arises.
Like any new technology, remote visual interpretation solves old problems and creates new ones. To use it well, we need to understand what it requires in terms of power, data, planning, and effective communication. We must employ it with sensitivity to our own privacy and to the legitimate concerns that people sharing space with us may have about cameras. Just as each of us makes different decisions about when and how to use a screen reader, the descriptive track of a movie, or a sighted assistant in daily life, each of us will have our own ideas and preferences about how visual interpreters fit into our lives. Blind and sighted people working together are just beginning to discover how to use language, software, and hardware in ways that employ visual interpretation to our best advantage. Collectively, we still have a lot to learn. The journey is long, but the view is phenomenal.
by Jean Bening
From the Editor: In the National Federation of the Blind we often say that we are all a family. We come from every part of the country and every station in life, but our commitment to building opportunities for blind people brings all of us together. The untimely loss of a member of our close community is a tragedy for us all, and we are united as we mourn and remember.
Our daughter Megan Bening's first contact with the National Federation of the Blind came in 1999 through Slate Pals, a program sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Slate Pals matches pen pals who want to exchange letters in Braille. Megan was in preschool, and her teacher of the visually impaired had seen a post from a father in California who wanted to find a Slate Pal for his young daughter.
Soon Megan was writing Braille letters to her new Slate Pal, Kyra Sweeney. The girls wrote back and forth for months, and then they exchanged phone numbers. Once they had each other's phone number, they preferred to talk rather than to write letters.
At the end of June 2001, Kyra asked Megan if she was going to the National Federation of the Blind convention. Megan had never heard of the NFB, and she asked Kyra what the convention was all about. Megan then asked me if she could please go. Her dad, Allan Bening, and I researched the convention and realized that it was only a week away. There was no way we could make it work that year, but we promised we would attend in 2002.
Fast forward to July 2002, when Megan was eight years old. Kyra and Megan were very excited that they were finally going to meet each other in person. We arrived early in the day, and Kyra's family was not going to arrive until 11 pm. Megan begged to stay up late and go to the lobby so she could be there when Kyra arrived.
The girls had never exchanged pictures of each other or their families, so we had no idea what Kyra or her parents looked like. As people arrived in the lobby, I described them to Megan. Finally a family arrived with a girl who looked to be about Megan's age. Megan and I went over to the family, and Megan asked the girl if she was Kyra. She was, and the girls screamed and hugged in excitement.
Megan was thrilled to be among so many other blind people walking independently all over the hotel. A couple of days into the convention she woke up one morning and announced that she wanted to go to the other tower of the hotel and pick up breakfast for us all—and she wanted to go by herself. The hotel had two towers with a skyway between them.
We asked if she was sure she knew the way to the other tower and down to the first floor, where the breakfast area was located. She said that she was pretty sure she knew the way, and if she got lost she would just ask someone for directions. We agreed to let her go. Unbeknown to Megan, I sneaked out the door after her, camcorder in hand to videotape Megan's mission.
Megan found the skyway and made it across. But when she got to the other tower, she was not sure if she should go left or right. She asked a person passing by, "Excuse me, could you please tell me which way the elevators are?" The gentleman asked where she was headed, and when she said she was going to the breakfast area, he said he was headed that way, too. I followed them to the elevator and sneaked in right after them.
The gentleman asked Megan her name and how old she was. He then introduced himself—it was Dr. Fred Schroeder. They chatted in the elevator and exited on the first floor. Megan thanked Dr. Schroeder for helping her find the elevators. I went over to him and told him I was Megan's mother, and that I was following Megan without her knowledge.
Megan made her breakfast purchase and started back to the room. I took the stairs and got back to the room ahead of her. When Megan entered the room she was very excited that she had accomplished her task! She told us that a very nice man gave her directions at one point, but other than that she had found her way all by herself. She was thrilled at her newfound independence and didn't find out what her sneaky mother had done until five years later.
We attended every NFB convention as a family from 2002 to 2013. After that Megan attended on her own as a counselor for Blind Industries and Services of Maryland and the Colorado Center for the Blind. In the summer of 2016 Megan was working on her internship for an information technology degree, and she was not able to attend convention.
Megan also was involved with the NFB in our home state of Minnesota, serving as secretary of the Minnesota Association of Blind Students in 2016-2017.
One of the things Megan loved most about convention was meeting up with her friends. In fact, Megan made friends everywhere she went. She stayed in touch with friends she made at the Buddy Program at BLIND, Inc.; the Earn and Learn Program at the Colorado Center for the Blind; and the Seeing Eye, where she received her first guide dog, Cori, in 2016.
It was not uncommon for Megan's friends to travel to Minnesota and stay with our family. There were reunions with Buddy Program friends and many Thanksgivings with added guests, friends of Megan's who were attending BLIND, Inc. and were unable to travel home for the holiday. In December two friends she had met at Seeing Eye, Lauren and Megahurtz, came for a week-long visit, along with their guide dogs. Because there were two Megans at Seeing Eye, Megan Bening became known as Megabyte and her friend was called Megahurtz. It was a little crazy having three giddy girls and three guide dogs in the house!
Megan loved to hang out with friends, and she loved to work with a blind friend and teach him technology and daily living skills. She was adventurous and tried not to let anything stand in her way. We told her from the time she was young that she could do just about anything she wanted; we'd learn how to make adaptations.
Megan graduated from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, in December 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in information technology and a minor in psychology. She had decided to continue her education and was working toward her master’s degree in information technology. She was employed as a user experience manager at Minnesota State University/Mankato in their Bureau 507 department. Megan presented some of their projects to B302, a sister company in the Netherlands, and was scheduled to make a presentation in Spain in June 2017. Her dream was to work for Apple or to be a white hat hacker, working for large corporations trying to breach their own computer systems and then working with the corporation to fix the problems.
Sadly, unbelievably, Megan passed away on January 28, 2017, at the age of twenty-two from a spontaneous brain hemorrhage. She was in Rapid City, South Dakota, doing something she loved so much—downhill skiing.
Megan never lost touch with Kyra Sweeney, the young woman she first met as a Slate Pal. She and Kyra visited each other many times over the years, and they reconnected every year at convention. Kyra surprised and honored Megan's family by traveling from out of state to attend Megan's funeral. That friendship truly lasted a lifetime!
Many think that at age twenty-two you are just approaching the prime of your life. In Megan's case, the prime of her life happened throughout her twenty-two years. She traveled the country, skied, and even went skydiving. She had a true zest for life. She had no fear, and she let nothing stand in her way! She is missed so much by her family, her many friends, and her guide dog, Cori.
2017 ISLAND Conference
Independence Science, Learning a New Direction
Independence Science, http://www.independencescience.com
Location: Kurz Purdue Technology Center, West Lafayette, IN
Date: September 15, 2017
This day-long conference will focus on issues pertaining to students with disabilities in the sciences. Presentations will be approximately thirty minutes in length, followed by discussion.
The Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity
Location: Honolulu, Hawai'i
Dates: October 9-11, 2017
The Pacific Rim International Conference, considered one of the most diverse gatherings in the world, encourages and respects voices from all areas related to disability. The theme of this year's conference is "SustainAbility," including stories of persons providing powerful lessons and action plans to meet human needs in a globalized world.
2017 Holman Prizes for Blind Ambition
San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Contact: Will Butler, (415) 855-1642
This fall three exceptional blind individuals will set off on adventures around the world, thanks to a new award, the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. Created by the San Francisco Lighthouse to honor "blind ambition in all its forms," the $25,000 awards will springboard future generations of entrepreneurs, adventurers, and ambassadors in the blind community. With more than two hundred applicants from twenty-seven countries, competition for the prizes was fierce. Each applicant was asked to explain his or her proposal for a dream project in a ninety-second video, and each finalist was asked to submit a formal proposal.
The three winners of the 2017 competition are Ahmet Ustunel of the United States, Penny Melville-Brown of the United Kingdom, and Ojok Simon of Uganda. Ahmet Ustunel will design a kayak that can be operated by a blind person independently. He plans to kayak solo across the Bosphorus, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Penny Melville-Brown will travel the world and produce a televised cooking series called Baking Blind. Ojok Simon seeks to open employment opportunities for blind people in rural Uganda by teaching the art of beekeeping.
US Association of Blind Athletes (USABA)
Two US youth goalball teams traveled to Hungary to take part in the 2017 IBSA World Youth Goalball Championships. The boys' team won 7-3 against Brazil in the gold medal game to win the championship. The US girls' team finished the tournament in fifth place.
Poetry in Braille
National Braille Press
88 St. Stephen St.
Boston, MA 02115
Deadline for Entries: October 31, 2017
National Braille Press is pleased to announce its first Poetry in Braille Contest. Poems can be submitted in any of the following categories: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, or adult. Poems should be written around the theme “The Five Senses.” Entries must be submitted by email to [email protected] or in hard copy Braille to the address above, using UEB or English Braille American Edition. Submissions should not exceed 125 words. A winner in each category will be awarded a prize of $100.
Tactile Art Program
The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults (AAF) invites parents of blind and low-vision children ages two through eight to help their children begin exploring art through the Tactile Art Program. The Action Fund is offering, free of charge, a tactile art kit that provides tools that enable young children to have tactile experiences in many different formats. Through a series of videos at actionfund.org/tactile-art-program, parents and children can get ideas for projects using the items contained in the kit. Once an application for the kit has been completed, parents will receive a link to a pre-use survey. Parents are also encouraged to complete a follow-up survey after using the kit for two months. AAF hopes that all participants will complete these surveys. The information will help the Tactile Art Program grow and improve. Don't hesitate! This is a pilot program, and AAF would love for you to join.
Independence Science is pleased to announce the Taevis Library Bundle, a collection of 11,280 ready-to-print images from the fields of chemistry, biology, computer science, aeronautics, and more. The bundle includes a SwellForm starter kit consisting of a SwellForm machine, two packages of SwellTouch paper, and a pen for creating hand-drawn images. The Taevis files were created in the 1990s at Purdue University for several visually impaired students, and most of the drawings have Braille labels. SwellTouch paper is coated with microcapsules used for creating tactile images. Line art is printed or copied onto the paper using a laser printer or photocopier. When the printed pages of SwellTouch paper are passed through a SwellTouch machine, black areas become raised because they absorb infrared light, expanding the capsules.
The mission of Flying Blind, LLC is to develop and/or market adaptive solutions for persons who are vision-impaired within educational, vocational, community, and residential settings. The company's website and newsletters include notices about gently used equipment that may be purchased well below list price.
Contact: James Alan Boehm, (901) 483-1515
Wondering what to do with that old cane in the closet? Is that drawerful of old canes collecting dust and taking up space? Donate your old canes to Custom Cane's new You Cane Give program. Custom Cane is collecting and refurbishing old canes to send to individuals around the world who are blind or visually impaired. In countries such as Mexico, China, India, and South Africa, few people have access to the proper tools to empower independence and success. Do not let your old canes go to waste! You Cane Give allows you to give your used cane to someone who needs it. Canes in all sizes are needed. You Cane Give was founded a year ago, and so far is shipping canes to contacts in Peru, South Africa, and Nigeria.
First manufactured in the early 1950s, the Perkins Braillewriter was built for durability. The Braillery maintains a vast supply of parts and can restore any damaged Brailler to useful service. A fixed charge includes complete cleaning, replacement of any and all worn parts, and a warranty not only on the repair itself but on the complete machine.
Designed by an elementary-school science teacher, Mystery Science offers a series of challenges for kids in grades K-5. Each lesson begins with a two-minute video presenting a mystery about animals, rocks, weather, or some other aspect of science. Each lesson comes with questions and a list of materials for hands-on exploration. Free memberships are available for teachers, schools, and homeschooling parents that have not tried Mystery Science before.
Music for the Blind
This website provides lessons and courses for a dozen musical instruments. The music instruction is provided in an all-audio format, so students need not know how to read print or Braille music. The site offers lessons on how to play hundreds of songs on piano, guitar, banjo, saxophone, violin, flute, and more.
Sunu Band Sonar SmartWatch
The Sunu Band is the first blind-accessible smartwatch that combines sonar technology with precision haptic feedback to augment spatial awareness and navigation. The watch allows the wearer to feel the environment with vibrations and avoid accidents to the upper body, follow in a line with ease and maintain personal space, and smoothly navigate through crowds. The Sunu Band SmartWatch was tested in partnership with the NFB, Perkins School for the Blind, Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf-Blind, and MIT.
Dozen: The Best of Breath and Shadow
Edited by Chris Kuell
Breath and Shadow, 2016.
Available in paperback and Kindle editions
This anthology gathers the finest poems and essays from the first twelve years of Breath and Shadow, a literary magazine that features the work of writers with disabilities. As editor Chris Kuell, an active member of the NFB, explains in his foreword, these are "pieces that embrace living, inspiration, expiration, mystery, darkness, and imagination, work that may or may not be about disability, but that is informed by the author's experience of disability."
Documents on Automated Braille Production: An Historical Resource
This archive is the singular work of David Holladay, a member of the staff of Duxbury Systems. The project started with an effort to update one page in the Duxbury Systems website, and it has grown to span more than two centuries of developments related to reading and writing for blind people. This is a collection of documents, mostly pdf files, all saved on one server. The documents are arranged chronologically and are related to blindness, Braille, the automation of Braille production, and much more.