By Diane Brauner
These are the top ten technology related things that will help students with visual impairments and blindness to succeed in the digital classroom.
In order to be efficient, every student should have the appropriate 1:1 device that is set up specifically for that student’s unique needs. The student should be carefully evaluated to determine what device is needed to accomplish the classroom activity/goal and whether more than one device is needed. Remember, it is all about “tools in the toolbox” and different tasks may or may not require different devices or different combinations of magnification, braille display and/or screen reader.
The student must have an email address – even for younger students – in order to share digital materials and information between the student and teachers; even cloud services require an email address when setting up the service. The student must have good Internet access at school and at home. Most schools have or are implementing strong Internet access for students. If Internet is currently not available to your student, consider using a Hot Spot or possibly a device with built-in cellular capabilities. Students with visual impairments/blindness (VIB) will be using their technology to read, write, research, complete assignments and take tests. In recent years, classrooms are moving away from traditional printed textbooks – which the school district typically requested in large print or braille format – to teacher-made or on-line materials. It is critical that students with VIB have access to these digital materials on their devices both at school and to study/complete assignments at home. Most technology has magnification and screen reader options.
In order to become familiar and efficient with technology, the student must have access to the technology throughout the day – not only at school for academic activities, but also at home for leisure activities and for academic activities. On his/her own time, the student can explore the technology and play with apps/software. Older students often become efficient users through social media and texting; not to mention the social benefits of interacting with peers through social media. All academic students are required to independently complete homework at home – including a student with VIB. Students are using digital books and digital assignments, which require access to these materials on the same device or possibly a duplicate device at home.
After receiving a new device/software, the student should be trained on the device by someone who is knowledgeable and comfortable using the device and the necessary accessibility features. Expect this initial training to be multiple sessions, especially for a student who is young or not tech savvy! Training should be on going and technology goals should be incorporated into the student’s IEP. Additional training may be required when the software/apps are updated – as accessibility features, commands, etc. may change. If the TVI is not familiar or comfortable with this technology, look into additional training options.
In order for the technology to be successfully integrated into the classroom, general education teachers, therapists, assistants and family members should be trained on the basic technology, the apps/software needed in his/her class and on basic problem solving. If the student is new to the technology, educators and family members should be kept in the loop as the student learns additional apps/software and commands. General education teachers may need training on ways to make sure digital materials and apps are accessible, how to set up their device to screen share with a low vision student and other specific details for that student.
Many school owned devices are typically updated district-wide by the IT staff. Accessibility features, especially screen readers, often have bugs after a major software update (such as the yearly iOS update). It is critical that devices used by students with VIB be updated ONLY after careful consideration after a major software update. On the flip side, additional app updates may fix broken accessibility features. In which case, these apps (after careful consideration) may need to be updated immediately. TVIs and students should carefully research whether an update is beneficial or detrimental and then have the control over when to or when not to update. Ideally, the student should be involved in this research and the student should be able to independently update his/her device after receiving permission from his/her TVI. If the student is too young or unable to make these decisions, the TVI should have the ability to update or not update on the student’s behalf. TVIs: Check Paths to Technology for information about bugs and fixes, as well as various VI list serves and technology accessibility groups.
Ideally, the student with VIB should have access to the same apps/software as their peers. School districts should be aware of accessibility needs for any district-wide app/software/website/digital textbook and as well as state-wide assessments; accessibility requirements should be incorporated into every district’s vendor contracts. If a district-wide material is not accessible, the TVI and student should share specific details with appropriate people within their district. If the app/software/website is available through mainstream outlets, the TVI and student should let that company know and request that the app/software/website be made accessible. FYI: Be sure to rate apps in the App Store or Google Play Store – comments about accessibility do make a difference! It is also important to let app developers know that you and your students appreciate when their app is accessible!
Students, educators and families should establish expectations on what the student is responsible for in regards to his/her technology. The student should first receive training and demonstrate the ability to be able care and use his/her device appropriately. The student should be responsible for taking care of the device, keeping the device charged, setting up/putting away the device, safely transporting the device, using the device correctly – including Internet activities, etc. Students should know that schools often block inappropriate websites and parents can also activate parental blocks on personally owned technology. Student responsibilities should be age appropriate and consideration should be taken if a student has additional issues that might impact his/her ability to properly take care of/use the device.
There should be a plan to systematically implement how the student will use the technology in the classroom to access all appropriate subjects and complete all appropriate assignments independently. Technology should enable the student to actively participate in his/her classes independently. The student should use the technology to directly interact with classroom teachers and therapists (via email, cloud or other established routines). For young students or students who are slowly integrating the technology, this implementation plan will expand as the student builds foundational technology skills.
Educators and family members should help the student seek out technology mentors – both tech savvy people who use accessibility features and tech savvy people who do not. If appropriate, encourage your student to learn more about accessibility through on-line groups, list serves and YouTube videos. Encourage your student to be part of a Community of Practice by exploring and posting on the Paths to Technology Student Page!
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By Diane Brauner