Student using technology for digital literacy activities: social media

Digital Literacy for Students with Multiple Disabilities

Fun and practical digital literacy tech activities for students who have multiple disabilities and are visually impaired.

Digital Literacy is defined as the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.  What is digital literacy for students who have multiple disabilities?  Can students who are unable to read and write using traditional methods have digital literacy?  The answer is a resounding YES!  Technology can break down barriers in the classroom and out in the world.

As teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) we are well aware of screen readers, magnification options and other accessibility features that are available now on tablets, computers and smart phones that enable an academic visually impaired or blind student to access and complete assignments.  We are also aware of and incorporate basic cause and effect apps and other basic apps geared for very young students, CVI students, and students who are currently using technology at a very basic level.  However, what about the student who falls somewhere between these two groups?  The student who, after initial instruction and guidance, is able to complete simple tasks independently?  The student who may not be able to read or write but cognitively is ready to move forward?  

Screen readers are powerful tools for students with strong cognitive abilities.  However, screen readers change the gesture set, requiring students (and teachers/families) to learn new gestures. These gestures can be complicated for many students with multiple disabilities.  Another option for some tasks is to use the device’s built-in Intelligent Assistant, such as Siri (iOS), Google Now or Cortana.  With the advancement of artificial intelligence, many tasks can be accomplished with students simply telling the digital assistant what to do!  Many of our students with multiple disabilities have some functional vision.  The strategies listed below are geared for students with multiple disabilities who have some functional vision; however, many of these same strategies will also work with students who are blind.  

First Steps

Learn more about settings for various devices with AbilityNet’s set-by-step directions.

The video below describes how to enlarge the icons and create a black background for Android devices.  Note: The video was made with senior citizens with visual impairments in mind; however, the same principals apply to students with low vision.

Intelligent/Digital Assistant

Learn about Intelligent Assistants: what they can do and how to word your command.  Teacher Hint: “Intelligent Assistant” is a mouthful; encourage students to use the proper name, such as “Siri” or possibly, “digital assistant”.  Learn about the most popular digital assistant commands:

Google Now Commands

Cortana Commands

Siri Commands

Want to see these digital assistants in action?  Do an Internet YouTube search for your digital assistant!  Example:  Search for, “Siri, Youtube”.


Initially choose one or two classroom tasks and find a corresponding app geared for a child.  The first few tasks will depend on your student’s interest and abilities.  The task might be part of the daily circle time activity that includes calendar activities and weather.  The student may simply ask their “digital assistant”, “What is the weather today?”  The student can ask different questions, such as, “Will it rain today?” and “What is the temperature?”  Students can also ask calendar questions – simple questions such as, “What day of the week is it?” to more complex questions like, “What day of the week is Christmas?”  The student may then use a digital assistant to record the weather on the calendar app.  This activity leads to setting an appointment and checking an appointment on the calendar app. 

How to Create a Calendar Event with Siri

The video below shows how to use Siri to set a calendar appointment.

Students can also use Siri to create “To do Lists” using the native Reminders app.  This is a great way to list homework assignments or other list type-tasks.

Students can learn to send a text message to his/her teacher, peer or family member. 

Teacher Hint: During a classroom discussion, have the students text answers to you!  If you want the students to hear each texted answer, turn on your screen reader, so that each text is read aloud as you receive it.  This provides students with opportunities to listen for their answer and peer answers; it may also encourage students to text their answer quickly!  Or, you can also model using the digital assistant, by asking the digital assistant to read aloud the student’s text.  

Steps to send an text message with Siri:

Have the student learn to ask the digital assistant to read an assignment aloud.  Using a digital assistant is a great foundation skill for dictation to “write” a longer story or to answer questions on a digital assignment.  Use the digital assistant to email the document back to his/her teacher.

Raise Expectations

When students are not able to write in the traditional manner (with paper/pencil or keyboarding skills with a device), it is time to be creative!  The goal for older students especially is to be able to share ideas and to learn the content.  The physical ability to read and write are a means to accomplish those goals.  

Cody is visually impaired, traumatic brain injury high school student who is not able to read or write in a traditional way; however, he can dictate stories and can answer multiple choice questions using modified techniques. Check out two of Cody’s post on Paths to Technology: Learning Life Skills Through Technology and how he is able to answer questions using iBooks, in Cody’s O&M Adventures post.

The video below shows apps that are age appropriate.  Note this video was created about technology apps used by a senior citizen who is visually impaired: however the same principals apply to students with disabilities.

Think outside the box on ways to use features on tech to enable every student to complete academic tasks and functional daily living skills as independently as possible.  Please share how you incorporate tech into daily activities and any strategies on how you modify the activities!

Collage of digital literacy for students with multiple disabilities

By Diane Brauner

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