Providing Students with the Best Possible Training
Many people think that to teach access technology, all they need is to be able to install and use the software and read a hot-key guide. They also enter the field of access technology training for a number of reasons. Some may want to teach blind students to use screen readers, others may need to change professions, and still others may be required to teach access technology by their employers. Although all these individuals may have a potential for training, too often, they find that they have bitten off more than they can chew.
Being a user of a screen reader over a period of years, or a sighted computer user with an understanding of mouse navigation and how Windows works with a mouse, may give you knowledge of how computer applications work in everyday tasks. However, it does not mean that you have a well-rounded knowledge of every aspect of screen reading and how screen readers interface with the programs that others want to learn. It also does not mean that you have the skills necessary to prepare a lesson plan and the ability to communicate those skills effectively to students who want to learn the ins and outs of computing. For example, to train students to use a screen reader effectively, it is imperative that an instructor be able to do the following:
- understand the "language" of the screen reader—the terms it uses to convey visual icons and controls to the user
- understand how the application is accessed with a screen reader
- know the common errors that can be made
- be able to explain the variety of ways in which skills can be attained
- provide an overall understanding of the operating system, application, and screen reader
On many college campuses, a blind student who enters a technology lab intending to take a computer training course for access technology is met by a fellow student or volunteer clutching a keyboard guide for the screen reader and a true desire to help the blind student learn to use computers. However, the instructor has no knowledge of the special configurations necessary for Windows and screen-reading applications to interface properly or of the terminology used by screen readers and little understanding of blindness in general. He or she will provide only the most rudimentary training in the use of computers. In the end, the blind student will be ill prepared to perform any but the most basic tasks on a computer. The worst part of this scenario is that the student won't know how ill prepared he is to meet the world beyond college.
Blind students who are new to computing have no idea of the power that lies at their fingertips. Through the training they receive at most college campuses, they can open Microsoft Word, type a document, and print it; they can read the text within the document and perhaps access e-mail. But there is so much more to accessing the world of computers with screen readers, and every blind computer user has a fundamental right to high-quality training by a skilled professional. Those who teach only keystrokes and basic information may think they are providing a valuable service to their students, but in reality, they are doing a grave disservice to blind people as a whole. They are providing an "out" for colleges that do not have to hire qualified trainers. They are also denying blind students the high-quality training they deserve.
There is also a dearth of qualified instructors in the private sector. Many rehabilitation counselors send their clients to independent service providers who are on lists of "qualified" trainers for state departments of rehabilitation. Many of those on this list have the potential to provide high-quality training, but they make the mistake of trying to fulfill roles that are beyond their abilities.
One may well be skilled in the use of Microsoft Word, Window-Eyes, and various aspects of Hal or JAWS for Windows, but have no knowledge of Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, hardware issues, or a variety of other aspects of computing. Some trainers are eager to please and think they will not be called on again if they are not able to fulfill every request of rehabilitation counselors.
Rather than providing training in the areas they know, working to improve their skills and becoming proficient at one task before moving on to another, they answer every call with a can-do attitude. As a result, a number of trainers work from hot-key guides for the Braille 'n Speak or JAWS for Windows. Rather than provide skillful training in specific applications, they scramble for information, and students receive a one-dimensional view of their computers or note takers as they are forced to learn a series of keystrokes. Although many trainers fear that rehabilitation counselors will turn to others for training, most counselors would like to know that an instructor doesn't feel prepared to teach a particular skill but specializes in other aspects of computing. Just as other professionals specialize in various aspects of their chosen vocations, it is acceptable for access technology trainers to do so.
Tips for the Trainer
Rather than shoot for a top position and teach in a patchwork style, it may be best to start at the beginning, learning a few programs well and teaching them to the best of your ability. A reputation for high-quality training will carry you far, but you must take small steps to reach this ultimate objective. Each student who leaves your class feeling stronger and more capable in accessing computers is another stepping-stone to a reputation as a qualified access technology trainer.
If you know only one screen reader and one application, learn it well. Figure out every nook and cranny of the application, the configurations necessary for it to work at peak efficiency, the hot keys, and the special screen-reading commands for the application. Understand when you are using hot keys for the application and when you are using hot keys for the screen reader. Take the time to learn the fundamentals as well as the advanced features. Know the program inside and out, including potential problems that may be encountered. Then offer yourself as an instructor in that one program.
As you teach students to use this one program, you'll find that you are acquiring skills in communication and presentation. You will even find out more about the application than you originally thought because students may pose questions that may require you to do homework. Never be afraid to say "I don't know, but I may be able to find out." Take advantage of the wealth of resources on the Internet and mailing lists to find the answers to questions and then return to class a bit more knowledgeable and able to give the students the answers to questions they posed in the previous session.
Take some time each day to improve your knowledge of the programs you are teaching and to learn new programs, new skills, and new hardware. As you become proficient in their use, add them to your résumé. Never offer less than your best and always strive to be better. You may be your students' only opportunity to learn the skills needed to succeed in life beyond your classroom. Make the training experience one that will be remembered and appreciated as the students strive to achieve their goals and fulfill their potential.
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