Assistive Technology Assessment

Ike Presley talks walks us through a range of assistive technology options for choosing the right tool.

In this webcast, Ike Presley talks about the world of assistive technology and walks us through a range of assistive technology options. He shares some of the strategies involved in conducting an assessment as well as in choosing the right assistive technology tool for the learner. Presley also provides guidance regarding how often learners should be reassessed and resources for staying current with assistive technologies.

Ike Presley is a project manager at the American Foundation for the Blind’s National Literacy Center. As a member of the Literacy Team, Presley helps develop resources and materials that can be used by service providers to improve the quality of their service.

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Presented by Ike Presley

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding Assistive Technology Options
  3. Choosing the Right Tools for The Learner
  4. Conducting an Assessment: A Practical Example
  5. Advocating for Assistive Technology Purchases
  6. How Often should Learners be Reassessed?
  7. Resources for Staying Current with Assistive Technologies

CHAPTER 1 — Introduction

PRESLEY: I think the first technology I got introduced to was in the sixth grade. I had a teacher that taught me typing. And that was a major, major thing because I was the kid who was always getting his papers handed back saying, “I can’t read this, write it again,” you know?

Assistive Technology Assessment with Ike Presley.So when I could start typing, it was a big deal. I ended up going to Florida State and that was back then before the ADA and everything, they encouraged all students who had a vision problem to go to that one university because there were a lot of services available there. So I met a lot of other students who were blind or visually impaired during that time period.

And I did not do my undergraduate work in this field, but I, as a client of the blind services in Florida, I was offered a work experience program over in Panama City. So I learned a lot more then, actually working with people who were blind, and I met the teacher of the visually impaired for that school system who was running an adult basic ed class for people who are blind and visually impaired. And so we became real good friends and she was going back to grad school, and I said, “Well I’ll see what’s available,” you know.

So I went into the program and it was interesting that, you know, I had given some thought to it but I wasn’t, like, you know, super dedicated. It wasn’t, like, my life goal to do that, but what happened is, as I started going to the classes, the professors would ask you questions. “Well, okay, you’ve got this blind student and you need to teach him about, you know, X, Y, Z. How would you do it?”

You know, and people would say, “Well, you could do this or this,” and the teacher would say, “But remember, they’re blind, they can’t see it.” And the students would go, “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, me being the shy person that I am, you know, I’d say, “Oh, well, you could do so and so, and so and so, and so and so.” And the other students would go, “Wow. I never thought about it like that.”

I’m going, “Wait a minute. This is just what my brother and I did all of our lives to survive.” So it finally dawned on me that this thing that for so many years of my life I had considered a deficit, I could now turn into an asset.

CHAPTER 2 — Understanding Assistive Technology Options

PRESLEY: I got very interested in the whole idea of assessment because I would go to a school and talk to a teacher and say, “Well, are you using any technology?” And they’d say, “Well, no, but we have some stuff in a closet.” And they would go and open the closet and here might be $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 worth of equipment that had been bought over the years, but it wasn’t the right tool for the job.

You know that old saying, you know? It wasn’t the right match. Mama or an administrator, they were somewhere and they saw this neat new thing and they said, “Well, this is what we’ve got to get for our students who are blind.” Well, it wasn’t the right match. They didn’t realize it. It was just, they thought it would work, you know? And so they got it and then maybe somebody tried it, but it just didn’t meet the needs of the student.

I decided, okay, so now we’ve got to come up with a way, then, to figure out what. We’ve got all these technology tools over here. We’ve got people who have needs. How can we match the tool? How can we come up with the right tool for the job? So the assessment process — the first part —is to figure out, well, what are the tasks that the individual has difficulty accomplishing?

So I also was realizing that people needed a way to get a better handle on what was out there. And one of my strong biases, before you can determine what someone’s AT needs are and what technologies might meet those needs, you need to have a good general overview, knowledge, of what’s available. One of the big things is to know what technology’s out there, so as a way to help people organize that large bank or body of information, I basically have said, well, you can divide them into that there are tools for accessing printed information, you know?

You sighted people, you love that black stuff on the white background, you know. Us guys, we aren’t so hip on it, you know, okay? We like the information, but it’s a hard way to get to it, right? So that’s a big deal. And obviously, if you’re totally blind, that black stuff on the white doesn’t do you any good, right? No matter how big we make it. So that’s one big category.

An open binder beneath a text magnifying device. NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see an open binder beneath a text magnifying device. A camera in the device projects the printed page onto a monitor and we can see the enlarged type on the screen.

PRESLEY: The second one is that the technology provides us with tools for accessing electronic information. So much of what we have today that maybe formally was in print is now only available electronic.

Plus, we have tons of new information that is only available electronically. You know, I guess you can print it out, but, you know, the native format is electronic stuff.

NARRATOR: We see the screen captures of the home pages of three websites: Facebook, Google and LinkedIn. These sites are visited by millions of people each day but the sites and their content can only be accessed electronically.

PRESLEY: The third major area goes back to me personally, and that’s tools for written communication. That’s what my typewriter was. It was a great tool. It was much better than my pen and paper, you know. Well, we have newer tools for that that are even more advanced and offer the user more options.

And then the fourth major category, particularly oriented toward service providers, are tools that allow you to produce materials in alternate formats, whether that be braille, auditory or in large print.

A keyboard with refreshable braille display and a braille notetaker. NARRATOR: We see photographs of two assistant devices that users who are blind or visually impaired can use to produce or access information.

The first is a keyboard that is coupled to a refreshable braille display. And the other is a braille notetaker, a device about the size of a paperback book that allows the user to write in braille and also read braille on the refreshable braille display that is part of the device.

PRESLEY: Once you divide it up there, then most of the things, we can fit it into one of those, or some of them kind of sort of fit into two of them. A lot of the print and electronic, they do overlap at times, you know. Especially if it starts out printing and you turn it into electronic, well, now, which one is it, you know?

That was the idea that got me going on this whole idea of doing AT assessments and helping service providers be able to come up with some of that, that information for themselves.

CHAPTER 3 — Choosing the Right Tools for The Learner

PRESLEY: When you sit down with a student and you introduce them to these technologies and you want to have them try out these technologies to see if these technologies will help them be able to accomplish a certain task, there are certain things that you’re looking for.

In a real broad, general sense, you’re looking first to see, does that individual have the sensory skills to work with that technology to accomplish a task? If it’s a tactile tool, do they have the tactile ability? Can they feel it and work with it? Is it an auditory tool? Can they listen and understand like the synthesized speech that sometimes can be very robotic or whatever?

Or visually, if they’re going to access the information visually, do they have the visual skills? You know, can they see it well enough? Can they work with something enlarged or can they use a device that enlarges for them? Will they be able to take in that sensory information and process it, you know, and then use it to help them accomplish the task? So you’re looking at those areas.

Vision Aids Evaluation checklist. NARRATOR: We see the first page of a checklist titled “Vision Aids Evaluation.” The checklist is used by the evaluator to determine what strategies and technologies would be most beneficial to a blind or visually impaired student, as well as students who are multiply disabled.

Among the areas of evaluation in the 14-page document are: accessing print with or without assistive devices, writing, producing written materials, and computer access.

While observing the student, the evaluator is asked to provide information such as, “The student experienced visual or physical fatigue “after reading without adaptations “for X number of minutes, with adaptations for X number of minutes.”

PRESLEY: Second, you look at, does the person actually have the physical ability? Can they push the buttons, can they pull the levers, can they lift it, you know, can they manipulate it okay? Because many of the particularly students that we work with, many of them have additional disabilities and sometimes it’s a motor disability. So we’ve got these great tools, but their hands don’t work real well, so they won’t be able to do it, so we’ve got to come up with another alternative. So you want to know, do they have that physical ability?

A student who is multiply disabled and visually impaired sits in a wheelchair. NARRATOR: In a photograph, a student who is multiply disabled and visually impaired sits in a wheelchair with head and torso supports.

The student’s right wrist is supported by a blue brace and the right arm is extended onto a desktop which rests on the chair’s arm. In front of the student is a computer monitor with four images on the screen. The student can interact with the images by using a large yellow switch that is within easy reach.

PRESLEY: And then, third, we look at the cognitive ability. You know, we know that cognitive ability varies, you know, just like any other ability in humans, and we certainly don’t want to use technology and devices that have what we call a real steep learning curve with someone who has a reduced cognitive ability. And at the same time, we know if the person has very good cognitive skills, even though I work with them today and they don’t pick it up perfectly, we know because of their cognitive abilities that, hey, with some training and practice time, this person’s going to be able to take this tool and use it to accomplish tasks that are part of their educational program.

CHAPTER 4 — Conducting an Assessment: A Practical Example

PRESLEY: I think many of the students that we deal with who have low vision, too often, one of the major criteria for whether they get service or not is, how are they doing in class? You know, if they’re making As and Bs, most people say, “Hey, he’s getting along fine, don’t worry about it.” Well, my bias is that, hey, if it’s a B student, that if we gave them better tools for doing their work, they could probably become an A student very easily.

So anyway, I’ll give you an example. Let’s take a typical high school student who happens to have low vision. Okay, he’s functioning pretty well academically, but he’s probably a B, C student. He has some difficulty with reading from a visual standpoint, that he reads a little bit slower than other people. It takes him longer to get his work done. His writing, again, is difficult.

You know, doing hand writing of tasks and things like that. So what I might do is go in and we would. With a student like that, the first thing we want to know is, is the eye condition stable or is it degenerative? Because that’s going to guide where we go.

Then the second thing we want to know is, we want to know that the individual has had what we refer to as a clinical low vision evaluation so that we know that student has the best optical systems we could come up with — the best glasses, the best contact lenses, you know, whatever it is, that that’s been worked out. And then in that clinical low vision evaluation also, the doctor, the specialist, will recommend the use of extra optical devices such as handheld magnifiers or stand magnifiers that most everybody is familiar with, you know, and then maybe even some of the electronic magnifiers.

So I’m going to look at, okay, how is he using those tools that he has to accomplish tasks? Okay, well, who wants to sit there with a magnifier and read 20 pages of American history? You’re talking fatigue issues and that type of thing. So we would hope that there are better tools. And, yes, there are.

A real typical thing is that he would be using his vision all day during class and for many things, and it might be that by the time he got home and he had read ten pages of that assignment in print that he was getting visually fatigued. So at that point in time, it might be that he switches over and starts accessing that information auditorily.

A student using a handheld magnifier and a light to read the small print on a map. NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see a student who is visually impaired using a handheld magnifier and a light to read the small print on a map that is spread out on a desk. The next photo shows a young man sitting in front of a computer and monitor. We see that he is wearing headphones which allow him to access the information on the screen via screen reader software.

PRESLEY: We’d have it, you know, as an mp3 file or a digital recording or whatever, that he could then listen to either with a human reader that had recorded, or it could be through synthesized speech. Either way. Some materials are available in one format, some are available in the other, you know. So I would then check him out, okay? I’d be looking to see, okay, can he understand synthesized speech, you know?

You’ve probably heard some of it and some of it’s pretty robotic and weird to understand. Particularly when you need to stop it, instead of just having you just read the whole paragraph from beginning to end, you go, “Wait a minute, what was that?” You need to be able to back up, hear that line again or hear that sentence again, and maybe even “What is that word? I can’t make out what that word is.” So you can stop and make it spell the word to you. Well, when it spells, then you have to be able to distinguish things like B, T, D, D, E, C, V. Letters that sound very similar.

So again, in that assessment process, I’m working to see, does that individual have the auditory skills to identify similar sounding letters? Now they’re going to get, you know, A and F and Z and Q. Those are not too hard. If they’re having trouble with those, then we’ve got some real auditory stuff going on, and then auditory might not be the tool. So we might move that person into braille as another option.

We do have many individuals out there who are what we call dual modality learners. They do some things visually and some things tactilely. And then we’ve got our tri-learners that do it visual, tactile and auditory. And we have tools that let us do all three of those forms of access. And so the assessment process, then, goes through trying to match which of those tools would help that student.

CHAPTER 5 — Advocating for Assistive Technology Purchases

PRESLEY: One of the things I really try to get across to the teachers and stuff, when they go to write that technology report, they are probably going to need a lot of rationale and justification for the technology they’re asking for because many of these technology tools can be very expensive.

It’s not unusual for it to be $1,000 to $5,000 for some of these tools. And you can see a special ed director in a school system saying, “What? You want me to spend $6,000 on this student for a notetaker?” And that’s one piece of technology and that’s the common name of it, is a braille notetaker.

And one of the things I try to get the teachers to do is to quit calling it that because, “Wait a minute, I’m going to spend $6,000 so this kid can take notes?” That doesn’t seem like such a good buy, right? But these braille notetakers are really accessible PDAs. Okay, well, most people know what a PDA does. You know, you can have your contacts, your calendar, your scheduling.

Even the newer ones you can do your email on it, you can browse the Internet. The newer ones, you could have GPS on them. So they’re going, “Oh, okay, well, that’s a tool that then can do five or six things.” You know, it’s almost like a small version of a Swiss army knife, right? You know, for people who are blind or visually impaired.

So I work with them on the understanding that in that report when they ask for one of these $6,000 pieces of equipment, they’re going to then give a lot of rationale and justification. “Hey, I’m asking for this “because it has these six features. “And this feature will allow the student to accomplish this task” in their program, “this feature will allow them to be able to do this, this feature will allow them to be able to be more competitive.”

An example of an accessible notetaker with 20-cell refreshable braille display. NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see an example of an accessible PDA that can be used for a variety of tasks. This notetaker has a 20-cell refreshable braille display and can interface with a number of computer applications.

PRESLEY: One of the big issues for students who are blind or visually impaired in the K-12 environment, in the higher-ed environment and in the employment world is efficiency and speed. Because of having reduced vision or no vision, many times we don’t quite accomplish things as quick as other people do. So any time we can find a tool or a technology that can help us be more efficient — not just faster, but, you know, quicker and getting all the information — efficient with it, it’s a really big deal, okay? So that’s the rationale, that’s the logic you’re using when you write up a report to convince, quote, “the powers that be” with the money purse strings, as they say, right? That that’s why this student needs this.

And then I also work with them real close on some of the tools that maybe will do more than one or two things — to be sure to point that out — but that when it can save staff time. That’s what I really want to get across to the service providers is how you get people outside of our field to understand the importance and the impact that technology can have on a student who’s blind or visually impaired.

CHAPTER 6 — How Often Should Learners Be Reassessed

PRESLEY: How often should you redo an assistive technology evaluation? And, you know, in general, you might say every three years. You know, if no other reason has come up to do it, certainly after three years, you’d want to do it. But a couple of other factors come into it.

One is, you know, have… are there now new tasks that the student needs to do that they’re having difficulty doing? Well, that could instigate another assessment. Now, it might not be a full assessment because it’s kind of maybe oriented toward that one thing, but it would still be a type of assistive technology assessment.

Another thing, the student’s visual condition may change. Or some of their physical condition may change. Or the things that are being asked of them. You know, the typical one is when you go from third to fourth grade, print gets smaller. Well, we may have great technology in place for this kid in first grade and it’s working well, and then when they hit fourth grade and things start getting tiny — comparatively, you know — we’ll need to do a reevaluation to find tools that are going to then help them be able to work in that new environment.

The other one is, you can always do little mini ones when some new technology comes along — you know, that sort of hasn’t been available before, a way of accomplishing this task and we never had a tool that let us do it like this before. So let’s bring in that tool and let’s see if it’s going to work with that individual and their personal skills and abilities. You know, some it will work with and it will be great; others it will just be so-so; others it won’t be useful at all, you know, just like anything else. So that’s what would prompt us to do reevaluations at times.

CHAPTER 7 — Resources for Staying Current with Assistive Technologies

PRESLEY: Most education systems, they require of certified teachers– in fact, in order to renew your certification, you have to earn a certain number of hours of professional development. Sometimes they call it staff development. You know, different organizations have different names for it, but basically it’s where you’re learning new things to keep yourself current.

Well, in a school system, they will have their own staff development programs and teachers have to go to this class and, you know, do this or do this. Well, 99.99999% of the time, it’s stuff that has nothing to do with students who are blind or visually impaired. What are our specialists supposed to do in that case? Well, I’ve worked for years and years and years to try to get administrators, certainly from a state level, to talk to local systems and say, “Okay, I know you cannot financially” and physically provide the type of staff development “that this teacher here needs because of their speciality.”

Accessibility options and functions on iPad. NARRATOR: In a video, we see a group of educators who are learning about the accessibility options and functions that are native to an iPad, as well as easily available apps that can assist their students access information in the classroom.

PRESLEY: So, let’s do it as a state, or as a region, you know, or even as a country, I guess we could, you know. Pool some resources and then offer those types of trainings, okay?

And that does happen. Like, I’ve been brought in. The state of Florida, a couple of years ago, brought me in to do what they call Weekends with the Experts. You know, and I did two-and-a-half day trainings for, like, 100 of their teachers of the visually impaired. So that’s one option.

Other options are that we have conferences — both regional, sometimes state regional, and even national and international conferences– where technology is being displayed and being taught about. And all of them are the same way. There’s the vendor hall and then there are the sessions. And generally, the sessions are presented by practitioners — you know, people who are out there using it.

Sometimes you’ll get a vendor to do a new presentation on their new product or whatever, but you know, we try to encourage as many practitioners to be presenting because that’s where you get to share — “Hey, I’m using this tool and we’re doing this and this with this student and it worked like this.” Now, does that mean you can go do the same thing? No, but you can learn from that. And you can learn both positive and negative, right?

You can learn what might not work, but you can learn what could work. And you see what that teacher’s doing and say, “Well, I know that wouldn’t work with Johnny, “but, you know, I bet if I twisted it a little bit this way, I could make it work with Johnny.” So that’s one of the major ways to keep up with what’s happening in this field.

Another one that is very oriented toward service providers who work with people who are blind or visually impaired is a service that the American Foundation for the Blind offers, and that is an online newsletter or magazine — I’m not sure where it changes from newsletter to magazine — that we have called Access World. And it’s a free monthly periodical that you can go and read on our website, And what the articles are about, they are reviews and evaluations of different types of technology designed for people who are blind or visually impaired.

So we try to say, “This is what we found “that was good about this one. “These are the things we didn’t like. “Here’s what we found good about this one. Here’s the stuff we didn’t like.” And then you go make up your mind. We don’t say you should buy A or B. We just, like, give you the information, you know. And so then, not only consumers but service providers, parents, you know, children of seniors who have vision problems, they can read up on this kind of information to help them make a more informed, you know, conscientious decision about what technologies they might want to explore.

The population of people who are blind or visually impaired is what we refer to as a low-incidence disability. There aren’t that many of them out there. It would not be atypical at all to just have one kid who’s blind in a school system, you know? So that you don’t have a lot of service providers, also. The service providers cannot, you know, they’re in Montana and they can’t come to this cool class we’re doing here tomorrow at Perkins, you know?

In fact, some of my friends in Georgia, they keep seeing all the cool things that Perkins are offering and they keep saying, “Why can’t we get some of that down here?” You know, because they can’t come to Boston? Or should I say Watertown, right? The e-learning stuff is a great opportunity because it gives them access to some information that they can access whenever they want to, either on their work time or their personal time, you know. They can fit it in when they need to, and so they don’t have to incur the expense and the time of traveling.

So that’s another great opportunity and way for people to keep up with what’s going on in the technology field. Plus, also just our whole field in general. You know, sometimes we jokingly refer to it as the blind biz. You know, just what’s going on in the old blind biz, you know? You can learn through these types of online and e-learning opportunities.

Assistive Technology Assessment with Ike Presley.

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