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Using Blackboard Ally with low vision

How to use the free built-in blackboard ally tool to get digital materials in accessible formats for students with print disabilities.

This semester, I noticed a new tool within my online classes called Blackboard Ally that could transform the way that I access materials as a student with low vision that fluctuates frequently. I’ve been using Blackboard Ally for about a week and a half now, and while it may not be completely perfect, it has helped me tremendously with saving time so that I can focus on my classwork, and not on dealing with technology. Here is how I am using Blackboard Ally with low vision, and how students can use the tool with their favorite assistive technology.

What is Blackboard Ally?

Blackboard Ally is a tool for instructors and students that is incorporated into the Blackboard learning management system. With Blackboard Ally, instructors and institutions can get insights on course content accessibility and the use of accessible materials in their classes, which is definitely a valuable resource since accessibility can benefit a wide range of students. However, Blackboard Ally can help students with disabilities or other access needs tremendously by allowing them to download course materials in different accessible formats to use with assistive technology- no converting files with software or waiting for materials to be given in an accessible format. While the formats may not always be 100% perfectly formatted, they are an invaluable resource for students with print disabilities and visual impairment.

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How to access Blackboard Ally

To access Blackboard Ally as a student, follow these instructions:

  1. Go to the document you wish to download in an accessible format. This can be an assignment, digital reading, textbook, or any other file
  2. Select the Blackboard Ally icon, which looks like a capital letter A
  3. Choose the accessible format you wish to download- you can download the same assignment in multiple formats if needed, i.e. PDF and audio
  4. Select the Download button
  5. Use the file with desired assistive technology

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Reading within the web browser with HTML

HTML is used to create documents to view on the internet, or documents that can open in a web browser. This is great for using web browser extensions to access content, and it’s simple to zoom in on a page or cast to a larger screen. I typically access HTML documents with large print or have the text displayed in a simplified view using an extension such as Pocket or Microsoft Immersive Reader. This is also an easy view for me to use on my iPad or Android phone and works well with the screen reading tools I have on those devices.

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Using a tagged PDF

PDF documents can take many different forms, but their main feature is that they cannot have content edited or altered by default. Tagged PDFs are specifically designed with accessibility in mind, as they are structured so that screen reader users can easily navigate a document, though these documents can be used by anyone who needs a PDF copy of their content. I prefer to import PDF copies of worksheets or assignments into a program like Notability so I can annotate them or add my answers on my iPad, which is much easier for me than writing assignments by hand.

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Listening to assignments with audio

MP3 files are some of the most common audio formats, and can be played on many different devices. With the audio format on Blackboard Ally, I can have my assignment or reading read out loud by a synthesized voice and either listen to the text or follow along with another format. One of my friends likes to download MP3 files so they can listen to them later using their tablet or similar portable device, which is helpful for when they need to do reading for a class but don’t want to look at a screen.

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Reading materials in EPUB

EPUB documents are for eBooks that can be read across a variety of apps and devices. They were developed to be used for eReaders so that digital books could keep the same organizational structures such as chapters and page numbers as their physical counterparts. One of my favorite ways to use EPUB files that I download for my classes is to add them to my Nook eReader so that I can read on a display in large print without glare or backlight from a computer. This is especially helpful for documents that contain lots of text, like research papers or scholarly articles.

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Accessing reading with Beeline Reader

Beeline Reader is a tool that adds color gradients to digital text to help students read more easily and focus on lines. Assignments opened in Beeline Reader will open in a new tab in the web browser, and users can choose between different color gradients so that they can scan text more easily without their eyes darting off the page. There is also a dark mode available, which is great for users who have trouble focusing their eyes at night.

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Using electronic Braille

Braille Formatted Files, also known as electronic Braille, are digital forms of contracted or uncontracted Braille that can be printed on an embosser or read with a Braille reader or refreshable Braille display. Users can also get accessible books in this format. Since I am not a Braille reader, I have not personally tested this feature, though I have received positive feedback from other users who have worked with it- however, they did note that there were minor formatting issues and that they preferred to get materials from their college assistive technology office whenever possible.

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Final thoughts

Blackboard Ally is a fantastic tool for students who use assistive technology, as well as students who may be wondering if they can benefit from accessing materials in a modified format. I hope that this post on using Blackboard Ally with low vision is helpful for others!

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated February 2024; original post published September 2020.

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