A young toddler is entering in words on Perkins Smart Brailler.

Accessible Instructional Materials in the Digital Classroom

Explore emerging technologies for the digital classroom, including image and video description, as well as multimodal data displays.

In this webcast, Yue Ting Siu provides us with an introduction to current technologies employed to facilitate access to instructional materials. In addition, she engages us in exploration of new and emerging technologies for the digital classroom, including image and video description, and multimodal data displays. Finally, Yue Ting talks about the focus on braille and tactile literacy in the digital age and the issues related to reconciling these priorities with technology.

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Presented by Yue-Ting Siu
Instructor: Yue-Ting Siu, Ph.D.
Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Enabling Better Access with Technology
  3. Designing Content with Accessibility in Mind
  4. Information Accessibility and the STEM Curriculum

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Siu presents a webcast on Accessible Instructional Materials in the Digital Classroom.SIU: The law mandates accessible instructional materials, but when you say, I mean, what are accessible instructional materials? It really is access to information and this is really relevant both in the classroom and outside the classroom — in the community, in the workplace, everywhere. Accessibility is everywhere and information is everywhere.

So with the shift to digital classrooms, it’s really exciting because you’re coming from having to emboss books, maybe blow-up books into large print format, and now it’s more about digital content, so digital talking books, things on the computer, how to access information on the computer. How do you access visual information that’s maybe not just pictures in books anymore, but it’s pictures on websites, or pictures in books, video content, all of that stuff. So that is all information and in the context of the classroom, it’s instructional materials.


CHAPTER 2: Matching Technology to Your Student’s Needs

SIU: For students with visual impairments, there’s a couple layers of accessibility. So in the last ten years, there’s been a greater use of just classroom technologies in general, so going from the chalkboards to the whiteboards to the smartboards. So students with visual impairments have to access not only just the regular classroom technology, but then the digital content as well.

For things such as the smartboard, there’s screen sharing. For the screen sharing, it’s a way that enables a student with low vision, let’s say, to view things at their desktop, so they’re not always having to sit front and center. They can sit wherever they want to and they can access both the classroom technology, such as the smartboard, but then also perhaps use their own screen magnification software to access things.

The student is using the smartboard to play a game of hangman.NARRATOR: We see in a video clip a classroom and three students, two girls and a boy, who are blind or visually impaired. The students are using the smartboard to play a game of hangman. One of the girls uses a monitor to enlarge the writing that her classmate is doing on the smartboard.

SIU: Then you also have the mainstream technologies where there is Voice Over, which is a type of text to speech. Text to speech technology is where there might be text on a screen and the computer can read that text. Then there is also speech to text, where you can then dictate things and it appears on the screen.

There’s braille output through a refreshable braille display, but then there’s also braille input from a six key entry, so there are different types of keyboards available. Sometimes there’s a QWERTY keyboard, which is just the regular standard keyboard. And then other students might prefer a braille keyboard, which allows for actual braille input.

So all those different technologies are available and they can be put together in different ways where you combine the mainstream and specialized technologies. And I know a lot of people have a concern or they’re concerned that technology is killing braille, but technology actually facilitates easier access to braille.

A four-year-old girl who is blind is shown practicing her brailling.NARRATOR: In a video clip a four-year-old girl who is blind is shown practicing her brailling. Using a refreshable braille display, she is following her TVI’s instructions to spell the word ‘daddy’. She then checks the refreshable display to see if her keying was correct.

GIRL: It says daddy.

SIU: So through the refreshable braille displays, through digital talking book libraries, such as Bookshare, it’s now easier than ever for students to get access to braille. They no longer have to wait six to eight weeks for a book to be embossed. They can just download a book through Bookshare. If they have a refreshable braille display, they’ve got access immediately and independently, and that’s really, really crucial; is that students can now independently get their hands on braille without having to rely on somebody else.

So that’s really, really exciting for me to see; to see that students and people can be in charge of their own accessibility and get the braille that they need and the format that they want. There are different formats of braille now and when you access braille using a piece of technology, it’s up to the user what format they want to put that in as long as it’s available in that digital format, so just easier and independent access.

I feel like back before technology was so prevalent, you needed a teacher to sit down with somebody and really take a person step by step and really prepare things on embossed paper, braille, and it was a very intensive process. And even though a teacher is still needed and necessary, that expertise in teaching braille to somebody, it’s still very much needed, but with the technology, what that affords is that the person can have better self-guided tutorials and practice materials between lessons.

A young girl who is visually impaired practices her brailling skills on a Perkins SMART Brailler.NARRATOR: We watch as a young girl who is visually impaired practices her brailling skills on a Perkins SMART Brailler.

The SMART Brailler is among the devices that is increasing the accessibility to and the learning of braille. It’s a portable brailler that has an integrated computer processing unit which allows the student to receive audible, as well as tactile feedback. Lessons can be self-directed or supervised.

TEACHER: G! Great job!


CHAPTER 3: Designing Content with Accessibility in Mind

SIU: In the digital classroom, I think some of the greatest challenges, but also opportunities, in access is that if things are designed very well, then students can get the access to information both independently and immediately.

So, for example, if a website is scripted so that a student can navigate the website using the text to speech technology, then it’s right there. They can go on the computer, they can go on, and the information is there. The images on websites, if they have description, so image description, or if there’s video content and the video has video description, that’s excellent because then students can get that information immediately and independently.

A young girl with Albinism as she accesses her math textbook on an iPad.NARRATOR: In a video clip we are observing a young girl with Albinism as she accesses her math textbook on an iPad. By using the iPad, she is able to enlarge the images and text if necessary, and also utilize any links that are embedded in the content.

SIU: However, when such media is not designed well, those are the infrastructures that can then, when they’re not designed well, be barriers to accessibility. It’s sort of a tease when you see a website and the student knows it’s there but they can’t get to the information.

In that sense, the infrastructure becomes the barrier. Being able to convey spatial information to students who are blind or visually impaired is one of the big challenges of accessing information in the classroom. It’s always been difficult for teachers to support students in this area. What technology can do is just enrich that experience.

So tactile graphics — they should still be taught. Tactile graphics is a raised line drawing and it can be low-tech. It could be something as simple as having felt on a piece of paper and different types of textures on a paper to convey a drawing of some sort. Now with what technology can bring in that landscape of spatial information is adding, maybe, talking tactile graphics. So a student can explore those graphics with their hands and instead of having to sit next to somebody who can explain what they’re touching or having, perhaps, a complicated image with tons and tons of braille labels, maybe now they can just touch a tactile graphic and it speaks to them and it comes to life. And, again, it’s that independent access.

Example of talking tactile graphics, when users touch various buildings depicted on the map, they hear voice describe them.NARRATOR: One example of talking tactile graphics is demonstrated in a video clip. Information on a three-dimensional scale map of the Perkins School for the Blind can be accessed by the user’s touch. As the user touches the various buildings depicted on the map, you hear the voice describe them.

VOICE ON MAP: A large gym, a swimming pool, and indoor track.

SIU: Another way that technology can convey the spatial information is through image descriptions, so having very rich descriptions of, let’s say, data display, so being able to describe a bar chart. Sometimes you need a tactile graphic and students absolutely should have those skills. Other times a description is sufficient, so if you can quickly describe something in a few minutes and get that information, then that might be OK.

Some of the higher tech that is coming down the line now is sonification of data displays, which is really interesting because you can really make it a multimodal learning experience that benefits, not just that student who is blind or visually impaired, but engages the whole classroom when everybody can see and touch and hear things and graphics can really come to life.

So when you sonify, let’s say, a line graph, what’s really neat is you can use pitch to convey the data value. So let’s say you’re along the y-axis and you have a zero value, maybe that pitch is very low. And then as you get higher data values, so maybe you go to like twenty or one hundred, that pitch gets higher. And what’s really neat is that you can have stereo sound too, so if you’re wearing headphones or earphones, you can have an idea of where along the x-axis you are by whether you’re hearing the sound from your left ear or the middle or on your right ear. So it’s kind of conveying spatial information auditorily.

An example of information which has been sonified, higher pitches represent higher slopes.NARRATOR: As an example of information which has been sonified, we watch as a cursor moves over a screen that displays a geographical contour map. The varying distance between the lines on the contour map are a two-dimensional visual representation of the slope of the land depicted. Listen as the cursor moves over the map. Higher pitches represent higher slopes.

SIU: One of my favorite things that has just become available is the ‘Reach for the Stars’ iBook. This is a really nice collaboration between the SAS Institute and Ed Summers, who’s the main accessibility guy there, and the National Braille Press. What they did was they partnered with NASA and they just put together an astronomy book.

It’s just your basic intro to astronomy book. They’ve got a lot of NASA engineers speaking about astronomy and it’s a great primer, but the beauty of this book is that it’s not made just for students who are blind or visually impaired. It’s just an iBook, and it’s free and anybody can download it, but what’s great is that it engages all sorts of learners.

They have a lot of different visualizations of comets or solar systems or bar charts of different types of things related to astronomy. In the book, it shows these beautiful data displays, so bar charts or just maps of different solar systems so everybody can look at the same book. And then it speaks, so it will describe the image.

A page from Reach for the Stars, there is an icon of a speaker, which when clicked, provides narration of the text.NARRATOR: We see a page from the iBook ‘Reach for the Stars’. The title of this section of the book is ‘What is astronomy?’ There is an icon of a speaker, which when clicked, provides narration of the text.

VOICE ON IBOOK: What is astronomy? Astronomy is the study of everything beyond earth’s atmosphere. This includes the moon, planets, comets, sun, stars, and galaxies. Explore the Abell 2744 image, which contains several hundred galaxies. Some galaxies are so far away we can only observe them through gravitational lensing.

SIU: And then what National Braille Press did was they created these tactile overlays, which you can overlay each image and then it becomes a fully accessible experience for everybody in the classroom. So the blind student can feel the tactile representation, so it’s a tactile graphic, and then they can activate different parts of a diagram or an illustration and it will speak what’s under their fingertips. I love this example because it’s just a universally designed book for full access by anyone.

I think 3D printing has been a big buzzword. It’s the new hot technology and everybody is just falling all over themselves to get their hands on a 3D printer, and a lot of people think it’s sort of the magical cure-all for accessible materials because it’s tactile. I think it’s important to kind of take a step back when talking about 3D printing and really go back to considering how best to represent that spatial information.

So there’s a really nice image sorting tool that was developed by Touch Graphics, through the diagram center that helps — it’s meant to serve as a guide for people to decide OK, when do I describe something? When do I create a tactile graphic? And now with 3D printing, when is it more appropriate to 3D print? So 3D printing is just another example of another tool that can be used that both benefits all students, with or without disabilities.

I love 3D printing for modeling, so modeling things where, such as, like let’s say, a cell, so anything that is too small, really, or anything microscopic that a student wouldn’t be able to see under a microscope, or access under a microscope, anything that’s too fragile, anything too rare or, perhaps, too dangerous for a blind student to touch. Those are things that are really great for 3D printing.


CHAPTER 4: Information Accessibility and the STEM Curriculum

SIU: In STEM areas, so science, technology, engineering, and math; our students, those students who are blind or visually impaired; they have been chronically under-represented in these areas and there is no reason why our students shouldn’t be as full members of this community as any other academic community.

And it’s not that our students aren’t able to carry out those sorts of academic endeavors, but this is a chronic area where accessibility really affects what students can get out of this school curriculum. In these STEM areas there is a lot of visual data and these are examples of how technology can really facilitate better access to those data, so such as the sonification, such as the image and video descriptions, now there’s things like ChartML that are providing better access to data online. Our students can better access this information and by so doing, become better members of the STEM community.

A graphic representation of the distribution of various categories of stars.NARRATOR: We are looking at a page from the ‘Reach for the Stars’ iBook. On the page is a graphic representation of the distribution of various categories of stars. The x-axis represents the temperature of the stars, decreasing in value left to right from 32,000 degrees to 2,000 degrees centigrade. The y-axis is the brightness of the star compared to our sun.

At the intersection of the two axes, the value of the y-axis is 1/10,000 of the brightness of our sun. It climbs to 1,000,000 brighter at the top of the y-axis. Listen to the sonification of the distribution of blue giant stars.

[Melodic tones play to represent the points on the graph]

SIU: ChartML is a newer technology coming down the line. It’s a way to code data so that different types of access technologies can access it. So, let’s say when you see an image on a website or a chart on a website, it’s a way for those website developers to script the data so that different people can access it using a number of different technologies.

My hope is that with new ADA guidelines that internet and website accessibility will soon be incorporated into the ADA guidelines. So already, any organization that is receiving federal funding, they are mandated to have accessible websites. Of course we don’t want people to do things just because it’s a mandate. Ideally, you want people to do things because it’s really a best practice and it’s an inclusive community that you want everybody to be participants of.

NARRATOR: More information regarding assistive technology for blind and visually impaired students can be found at the following websites:

For regulations regarding assistive technology and the Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act, visit the Technology and Media Division of the Council for Exceptional Children website at tamcec.org.

For issues when considering assistive technology for students with disabilities, visit the Georgia Project for Assistive Technology website at www.gpat.org.

For information about assistive devices and how they are used, you can visit the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website at nichd.nih.gov.

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