American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2021 SKILLS
by Treva Olivero
From the Editor: This article is based on a workshop held at the NOPBC Conference during the 2020 NFB National Convention. Treva Olivero is a teacher of blind students and serves as president of the Northern Central Chapter of the NFB of Louisiana.
Typing, sometimes called keyboarding, is an essential skill. Everyone who uses a computer for work or for school needs to know how to type. In this workshop I'm going to talk about why typing is so important, and I'm going to review some typing programs that are available to teach blind students.
I am not a speed demon when it comes to typing. Some people out there can type more than two hundred words a minute, but that's not me! However, even if you're not a fast typist, typing can help you be more efficient. When you know the layout of the keyboard and understand where to place your fingers, you don't have to hunt and peck. Touch typing, as it is called, is intended to work nonvisually, whether the typist is blind or fully sighted.
You may be thinking: My blind child has a Braille device. Why does she need to learn to type?
Even if your child has a Braille device such as the Braillenote Touch, typing is essential. The computer is the mainstream device that your child will need in order to be productive in school and in the workplace. When I meet a new blind student, parents often tell me, "My child needs to learn to use a screen reader." The first question I ask is, "Does your child know how to type?" In order to use a screen reader such as JAWS effectively, you have to be able to type accurately. Braille is important, too, and it definitely has its uses in technology. But I believe that typing is as important as Braille.
Typing allows blind students to use mainstream devices. They can use a laptop or desktop computer, or they can connect a keyboard to a tablet. When I use my iPhone and type in text messages, my keyboarding skills help me use the screen, even without a Braille display.
In touch typing, the typist always begins by placing the hands on the row of keys known as the home keys. Every keyboard I've encountered has built-in tactile indicators on the F and J keys on the home row. Those markers are there to help typists—sighted and blind—position their hands correctly. The keyboard doesn't require any special adaptations for a blind typist. In fact, I highly discourage the use of large-print key caps or Braille stickers on the keys. With practice, you'll remember where all of the keys are located.
To type efficiently you have to have the correct posture. You need to sit up straight. Any typing instructor will strongly discourage a person with low vision from leaning forward to try to look down at the keys. The whole idea behind touch typing is for a person to type strictly by touch, learning where the keys are through practice.
Several software programs work very well for teaching typing on laptop and desktop computers. Some other programs out there may not work as well for blind and low-vision students.
When you teach typing, make sure the touch pad on your computer is turned off or cover it with something such as a piece of cardboard. Adults can usually remember to keep their wrist up so they don't touch the touch pad by accident, but kids may not get the hang of that right away. Turning off the touch pad prevents kids from writing text or giving commands on the computer accidentally.
A great thing about a lot of typing programs is that students can use them independently. With so many schools operating online, now is a great time for students to work on typing skills.
You can start teaching the keyboard to children as young as three years old. Sighted kids start learning to use a mouse when they're in preschool and kindergarten. Blind kids need to start learning to type at the same time sighted kids are learning to use a mouse.
I recommend that children achieve an accuracy level of 90 percent before they move on to the next level. I try to get them to 20 words per minute before they move on. However, I feel that accuracy is more important than speed. Whatever typing program you use, practice is essential.
One program I'm very excited about is called Ballyland. It's designed for children to use with a laptop or desktop computer. Ballyland is produced by Sonokids, and it teaches basic knowledge of the keyboard. It doesn't necessarily help kids learn proper finger placement, but it's great if you want to get your child started on the computer. To reinforce learning, each key makes a distinct sound. The punctuation marks make animal sounds, and the letters make very recognizable sounds from around the house.
The Ballyland manual suggests ways to use the program in order to teach various aspects of typing. The program also includes keyboard commands for blind teachers. I've used it with JAWS, but it's actually a self-voicing program, which means it has its own built-in voices. If a computer is running a screen reader, Ballyland turns off the screen reader voice. If you have a young blind child or a blind child with some additional disabilities, this program can be a great introduction to the keyboard.
My favorite program to teach typing to older children and adults is called TypeAbility, by YesAccessible. It uses the JAWS screen reader, and it's very easy to use. Once I get them started, many of my students learn very independently with this program. The program is a lot of fun. It gives great feedback to the kids; for instance, when they do well it will say, "Fan-tabulous!" It's well-known for its built-in jokes!
TypeAbility builds upon things the student already knows. For instance, it starts by teaching the function keys. The function keys are then used to operate the program. Instructions might say, "Press f-1 twice to hear a joke."
TypeAbility includes ninety-eight lessons. It's very good about teaching proper finger placement. Teachers can customize features such as dictation tasks.
One downside of TypeAbility is that it's not clear what happens when a student doesn't finish a lesson. Another disadvantage is that it's only for the PC. There isn't yet a version for the Mac.
Another program I like is called Typio Online by Accessibyte. You can purchase a 365-day license, but there's a two-week free trial. I haven't investigated this program fully, but I like the idea that it can be used with a tablet, a PC, or a Mac. Another plus is that the student simply logs into a website rather than downloading a program onto the computer. Typio gives great audio feedback, and it has good sounds. The program was created by teachers and meant for teaching children. In Explore mode, the student can type on the keyboard, and it will announce the name of each key.
Talking Typer is a program from APH (American Printing House for the Blind). This program is free if you use Quota Funds, which provide materials from APH to school districts. Talking Typer works with the computer and also with the tablet. A free beta version is available at [email protected]
Talking Typer is self-voicing, meaning that it does not work with JAWS. You have to turn off your screen reader before you can get the program to start. You can control the speed of the speech that gives the instructions. Talking Typer is very, very repetitive! It's not super exciting, but it teaches students to type! One feature is called Hurry Scurry, which helps students build up typing speed.
The last program I want to discuss is called Typing Club. A lot of schools use it. Go to typingclub.com and sign up for free. A teacher can set up a profile for a student who is blind or has low vision.
Typing Club is a free program that was designed originally for sighted students. Later the company made the program accessible for blind students, too. Typing Club is accessed from the web, so the student uses a browser. I find that it works best with Chrome. It works well with JAWS, but it is self-voicing. The program recommends that you turn JAWS off, but JAWS may help students work more independently.
Typing Club gives some audio feedback, but it's not very exciting. One nice thing about the program is that it includes 684 lessons. There's a lot of opportunity for students to practice!
Now, does anyone have any questions?
Diane: I'm teaching an eighth grader who uses a BrailleNote Touch. Should I teach typing on a laptop?
Treva: Absolutely! The BrailleNote Touch is a wonderful device, but for success in college and beyond, your student will need access to mainstream programs. Blindness technology tends to be behind when it comes to accessing recent versions of programs, even those that are most widely used. If your student knows how to type and use a laptop, the screen reader is likely to provide access, even if the blindness technology is not up-to-date. The BrailleNote is kind of a sheltered place; it's comfortable and easy. With a laptop and screen reader your student will be able to use programs and websites in the mainstream environment.
Jane: When do you suggest students switch from Brailling to typing their assignments? My daughter is in third grade, but she does not use a computer yet.
Treva: Students should start submitting assignments on the computer when they're comfortable with the screen reader and with Word. They need to be able to open, edit, and save a document. Even after they learn the position of all of the letters, they have to learn to use the screen reading program to open, save, and close a document.
Brittany: When is it best to start teaching typing?
Treva: As young as possible! With the Ballyland program children can start to learn at three and up. They may not yet have the motor skills, but they can start to develop keyboard awareness. I've seen students who don't start typing until sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, and they still become successful typists. So don't worry if you didn't start earlier! Just start now!
Casey: I think it's safe to point out that we start sighted kids typing in first and second grade.
Treva: Yes. When sighted kids start, your child should start, too.
Alex: Will learning to type confuse students who are also learning the Braille code?
Treva: I don't think so.
Casey: I teach both Braille and typing to my students. They're two different skills. Students can distinguish clearly between the Braille code and typing on the computer. The skills are separate enough that students don't get confused. They get equally excited about learning both. They think it's fun when you teach them something in Braille and then you say, "Now we're going to learn to write that on the computer."
Treva: If you don't make a big deal out of the fact that they're learning two different ways to write, they won't think it's anything unusual. Just encourage them to learn, and you'll see the results.