Begin with a Technology Assessment
Many types of simple and highly complex assistive technology for students with visual impairments are available to help them access printed materials and perform writing tasks. Assistive technology can be as simple as enlarging a work sheet on a photocopier or as complex as using computers with voice recognition that can print materials in Braille. The first step in helping students should be a technology assessment to determine adaptations needed to access printed materials, produce written communication and needed input devices such as a keyboard or mouse.
Simple Low Tech Adaptations
Students with mild visual impairments may function adequately with enlarged reading materials that have been either created on a photocopier or published with large print. Enlarging materials not only makes it easier to read the print but to scan and find details on a page. Directed lighting on reading materials, set-up to avoid glare and use of prescribed glasses, contact lenses or a magnifier may also enhance abilities to use large print materials. Use of bold lined paper, writing guides and low vision pens can make it easier to perform writing tasks–providing another simple form of assistive technology for students who are visually impaired.
Closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) enable users to view a screen with color contrast and print size options. Reading materials are placed under the screen on a sliding surface that glides as the student reads.The color contrast options can be very helpful since many students find that white letters on a black background are easier to read than the traditional colors and they can choose other color combination options such as yellow and blue.
The sliding board can also be locked into place before the student performs writing tasks that are viewed on the screen. A CCTV may be a desktop model such as the Merlin family, Acrobat family or Amigo models. A portable hand-held electronic magnifier such as the “Pebble” provides greater flexibility to read at any time since it is small enough to store in a backpack. A hand-held scanner can also be used in conjunction with a large video screen at the desk. In addition, teachers can set up a camera aimed at the blackboard to enable students to view contents on their desk top screens.
Highly sophisticated assistive technology includes computer screens can be magnified by simply enlarging the font size or using magnification software programs such as “Zoom Text”. The “WebEyes” software enlarges web pages on Internet Explorer up to 144 point font and even forms and boxes are increased in size. Screen magnifiers are available that can be attached to computer desktop monitors, laptops or televisions.
Students also need to be able to view distant images - for instance, during field trips such as a visit to an art museum. The hand held VisAble video Telescope looks like a small camcorder that is held in the palm and allows the user to view enlarged images. The “Jordy” consists of a head-mounted display with a video camera that is pointed by head movement.
Auditory-based assistive technology for students with visual impairments include simply tape recording a lesson to review later, use of a talking calculator, software programs such as “Jaws” that convert text to voice or Braille and voice recognition computer systems such as the Kurzweil 1000 that converts text on the computer or from scanned pages to speech. As the reading demands increase for older students, the use of recorded books and speech recognition systems may take on greater importance to save time and energy.
Teachers, occupational therapists and other professionals need to work as a team to determine a student’s needs for assistive technologies. Some considerations that impact success are the student’s attitude toward appearing “different”, physical and/or cognitive disabilities that necessitate special adaptations, cost and availability of support staff who understand how to use the equipment. Many of the technologies described in this article are widely used by students and adults in work and home settings. However, students who attend schools that specialize in services for the visually impaired may have opportunities to use more advanced technologies such as computerized pens - and have an engineer on the teaching team.