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How to embrace assistive technology with limited funding

Tips for how to embrace assistive technology with limited funding or financial resources.

I started Veronica With Four Eyes two years and about three hundred posts ago today to introduce people to various low-cost assistive technology solutions I have come up with over the years, as specialized assistive technology was not in the budget while I was attending public school in Virginia. Here are my favorite tips for how to embrace assistive technology with limited funding and financial resources.

Look at everyday objects in a new light

I was in office hours with one of my professors when I realized that I couldn’t tell that a tangent graph had a curve- I thought it had been a straight line all along. When I told my professor this, they asked me if there was anything they could do to make it clearer. I started looking around the room and stumbled across a box of thumbtacks and some cork board. I immediately thought of how they could put the paper graph on top of the cork board and put the thumbtacks on top of the lines so I could feel the different curves. This was much easier and faster than getting traditional tactile images made, and I was able to learn the material more easily.

Not all assistive technology solutions involve specialty materials or things created specifically for disability. Sometimes, the most simple solutions can be the most effective. Look around your room and see what can be used to improve accessibility or make tasks easier.

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Embrace universal design

When I was in a geography class, my teacher would enlarge maps and similar images for all students, not just me. My teacher discovered that after they started using the enlarged images for everyone, class grades went up and two students discovered they needed glasses or a new prescription. The principle of universal accessibility and universal design is something that stuck with me because I was so grateful to have a teacher who understood how helpful large print can be.

By making materials accessible from the start, people don’t have to figure out how to make something accessible later on. Having clear high-resolution images can benefit all students, especially those with low vision. It’s like how having captions turned on during a movie can help people understand dialogue and how having a ramp can make it easier for people to walk or use mobility aids to enter a building. By using free tools such as the Microsoft accessibility checker, teachers and students can ensure that everyone has equal access to their assignments.

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Invest in versatile items that can be used for years to come

When it comes to purchasing expensive technology, look for items that can adapt to the user’s needs over time. One of the tools that has helped me tremendously in high school and college is the iPad, because there are so many useful apps available and I can use the device regardless of how much usable vision I have on a given day. It’s important for students to develop technology skills that can help them as they transition. By intentionally choosing devices and tools that can grow with them, students will be able to be successful as they advance in their studies and enter the workplace.

For schools and families with limited funding, there are several options available for getting assistive technology devices for free or at a discount. Schools can use DonorsChoose, a nonprofit platform that allows teachers to post projects and have people contribute money to fund them. People preparing for transition to school or the workplace can set up a vocational rehabilitation case with their state, which can assist with getting items for free or at a discounted cost for people that need them to succeed in the classroom or workplace. Other more broad options include applying for grants, buying refurbished technology, and waiting for items to go on sale.

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Don’t underestimate free and low costs apps

App developers understand that funding for education is limited. This is even more true for funding in special education. Because of this, there is a whole world of free apps to support students and teachers. There are also several low cost apps that cost only a dollar or two. For example, I needed an OCR scanning app that would scan documents into a PDF. I found that the free Microsoft Office Lens was the perfect tool to do this. While I did need to invest in an iPad or Android phone, the devices have paid for themselves. I have found ways to do tasks that previously would have been very hard or expensive to accomplish.

My website is filled with lots of free and low cost app reviews. I’m linking to my “app” tag so readers can find all of my app posts in one place. One of my most popular posts is on reimagining the use of a teleprompter application for enlarging text as an alternative to screen magnification tools.

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Listen to what the user needs

I was talking to a former teacher recently about how I sat weirdly in my chair to see the computer. I also looked at people who walked up to me like I had no idea who they were. We now know that I had trouble seeing the computer screen and that my vision is double and blurry. No one would expect a young child to communicate that information efficiently. People just assumed that I was disrespecting my teacher or giving staff members a hard time.

By being proactive about student needs, any teacher or parent can learn to incorporate assistive technology and accessibility. When my math teacher realized that I had very poor eyesight, they outlined all of the graphs with markers. When my art teacher noticed that I had trouble drawing items due to poor visual references, they let me try feeling different objects instead. And when my technology teacher noticed that I consistently would click the wrong button when working on assignments, they helped me learn how to use screen magnification software. Sometimes, a few minutes can make all of the difference in understanding things.

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Take advantage of free websites on assistive technology – and share them

My interest in assistive technology was born after several people told me it didn’t exist.

Let me explain further.

After I attended an assistive technology event at my future college, I told my teachers what I learned. They told me that there wasn’t much technology out there for people with low vision like me. This inspired me to research all sorts of different tips, tools, and tricks. It also inspired me to develop several of my own.

The pivotal moment came when a teacher walked into a classroom on the last day of my senior year. They asked for me by name and requested that I share with them all of the technology I had used. This way, they could help other students in the future. That was the moment that I would decide to create my website and help other students.

Since then, several other websites have started that provide free resources on assistive technology and vision loss. I wish I had many of these resources while I was in school, since they have so much great information. Instead, I jokingly tell people that my website would be less exciting if I had access to assistive technology. Read the posts on these websites and share them so that people can continue to develop these resources.

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Support policies and legislation that impacts the future of assistive technology

Assistive technology is a growing field that will only continue to expand with the growing aging population. Many technology companies are starting to incorporate accessibility into their projects. People are also investing in research to see how accessibility can improve. While it is possible to have great resources with limited funding, it’s critical that we invest in the future of assistive technology. People who benefit from assistive technology need to be vocal in their support of these resources whenever possible. This includes supporting policies and legislation that can affect them directly.

I wrote a policy that calls for states to develop an informational website with resources on how to pursue higher education and gainful employment for students with vision impairments. I’ve been thrilled to see how many states have responded to this policy and are working towards implementing it.

The Cogswell-Macy Act is a proposed legislation that would increase funding and accountability for students with sensory impairments in US public schools.

Bookshare is another initiative that receives federal funding to make print media accessible. It is for people with print disabilities, with a special emphasis on K-12 students.

There are many other bills and policies that can have a real benefit for people with visual impairments as well. It costs nothing but a few minutes of time to call your local representatives and express support for policies and legislation that can help thousands.

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Final thoughts

Assistive technology does not have to be expensive to be effective. One of the best things that people can do is continue to raise awareness of how important it is, and share free resources whenever possible.

I am profoundly grateful that I have been able to write hundreds of posts over the last two years for Veronica With Four Eyes, and the amazing experiences I’ve had as a result. Some of these experiences have felt surreal, like when I made international news for talking about the use of intense strobe lights in a children’s movie. Other experiences have felt empowering, like meeting Vice President Joe Biden and getting to talk to him about low vision, as well as meeting with other politicians. However, my favorite interactions are with everyday readers, including a recent experience where a reader recognized me on my college campus and came to express their gratitude for my posts after their parent had been diagnosed with low vision.

Thank you for reading and letting me share what I have learned about low vision and assistive technology with all of you. I can’t wait to share even more.

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated October 2023; original post published November 2018.

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