Secondary student Zach may not know it yet, but his future is at his fingertips.
The 16-year-old is typing braille on a Braille Sense notetaker, a powerful, portable mini-computer for people who are blind. Students use it to write papers, read articles, send emails and more.
Zach is learning the notetaker’s advanced functions while also improving his braille writing skills – an important “twofer” lesson, says assistive technology teacher Kate Crohan, who is also blind.
“The notetaker literally brings braille to your fingertips,” she says. “It levels the playing field for students who are blind.”
Assistive technology is one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills taught at Perkins. It’s essential, since Perkins students use technology all the time. Many use a notetaker in class, and a computer for online research, and a personal iPhone, which has built-in accessibility, for everything from getting weather reports to texting friends.
The secret, Crohan says, is to use the right device for each task.
“That’s part of the skill of learning assistive technology, to figure out which tool in the toolbox is the best one,” she says. “But anything they’re going to be doing extensively in braille – reading and writing – a notetaker is probably a good thing. It’s imperative that students learn it and keep using it.”
Today, both Crohan and Zach have braille notetakers in front of them. They’re sitting kitty-corner at a table, sharing space with several braille books, an extra charger and a power strip.
Zach is practicing an updated version of braille called Unified English Braille. Some shortcuts, such as abbreviating double letters like “dd,” have been eliminated, and Zach has to get used to the new system. Kate reads aloud from a braille document, asking Zach to type “added” and “addiction.”
Zach thinks for a second, and then enthusiastically pounds on the Braille Sense’s built-in braille keyboard.
Crohan hears the thumping. “Let’s be gentle with the keys,” she says.
Crohan says that learning all the notetaker’s features can be difficult, so she uses a “functional” approach with students. “I like to make it immediately obvious to why it’s a benefit to learn,” she says. “So they’re immediately grabbed by it and want to use it.”
For example, students need to know how to complete homework assignments, Crohan says. “Because that’s what so many of the students are doing with their notetakers. They’re writing homework assignments, reading (lesson) materials and then emailing it to the teacher.”
So she teaches students like Zach how to create new documents, how to properly organize files (“I really insist on it, because it makes life so much easier,” she says), and how to save braille files as Word documents to email to their teacher.
As today’s lesson winds down, Zach types a few final words and then saves the document. He reads the result on the Braille Sense’s refreshable braille display.
Crohan asks him to rename the file, for practice. “Are you with me?” she asks.
Zach says, “Yeah,” and his fingers move a little quicker.
The Expanded Core Curriculum is designed specifically for students with visual impairment. It covers everything from using technology to independent living to socializing with peers – knowledge most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life. The ECC gives students who are blind a toolbox of crucial skills they need to succeed at school, in social situations, at home and on the job.