Assistive Technology for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Ike Presley and Frances Mary D'Andrea






The last decades of the 20th century were a time of great technological change and achievement, and this reality is especially evident in a visit to our public schools. Someone walking through any school today might see examples of technology in use, such as

  • teachers using interactive white- boards to post class notes that students download onto their laptops;
  • teachers using online digital video clips from daily newspapers to supplement social studies and history textbooks;
  • students using computer-based reading programs to improve their vocabulary, fluency, and writing skills;
  • students creating multimedia projects in which they use their computers to conduct research, write the results, and print a report, as well as to create an electronic slide show to share with classmates.

By 1999, 84 percent of public school teachers in the United States reported having at least one computer in their classroom, and virtually all teachers (99 percent) reported having a computer somewhere in the school that they could use (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2000). Today, desktop computers and other forms of once-revolutionary technology have become so commonplace that we take them for granted, and students going to school now do not know of a time when they did not exist.

In the past, teachers used such familiar tools as lectures and demonstrations, textbooks, worksheets, blackboards, overhead projectors, and movies to present information and concepts to students. Today, technology has become a vital and essential component of modern classrooms, and teachers have combined their traditional methods of presenting information with an ever-widening array of tools such as computers, CD-ROMs, digital video disks (DVDs), Internet access, online videos, and electronic whiteboards.

Tools used by students are also changing and increasing in complexity as they proliferate. The educational materials of the past—textbooks, periodicals, pens, and paper—are used along with a wide range of high-tech tools. Students now employ technology to reinforce instruction; support the development of skills in reading, writing, and math; and help them obtain information from both printed and electronic texts, as well as various forms of video and audio resources. The result of these changes is that both teachers and students now have a toolbox filled with a wider variety and larger number of resources that enable them to be more efficient teachers and learners.


In a broad sense, many typical educational objectives in the classroom have not changed a great deal. But in other ways, new tools have changed the nature of some tasks. Students not only write up a report on a subject, they are also asked to create multimedia presentations complete with video content, slide presentations, music, animation, and photographs or illustrations. In most schools in the United States, the technology tools to create these materials are widely available and there is now an expectation that students will complete high school adept in their use. These skills are referred to variously as "new literacies," "multiple" or "multiliteracies," or "21st century skills" (Anstey & Bull, 2006; Karchmer, Mallette, Kara-Soteriou, & Leu, 2005; Taffe & Gwinn, 2007). The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 2008) has adopted a position statement related to "21st century literacies" that states that

Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

  • develop proficiency with the tools of technology;
  • build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally;
  • design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts;
  • attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

Although students must still develop the literacy skills of reading and writing in order to acquire knowledge independently, teachers are also expected to prepare them to use those skills to access, process, and manipulate information from multiple sources (including electronic, audio, and visual materials); apply critical thinking skills to this information (compare, contrast, synthesize, and judge the veracity of Internet sources); and demonstrate their mastery of the information and concepts through the use of various technology tools (such as presentation software, multimedia software, and interactive web pages). So essential is the role of technology in our lives today that the International Society for Technology in Education has promoted the National Educational Technology Standards for Students, critical skills that students should develop to be prepared for the future. These standards outline "What students should know and be able to do to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital world" and include creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making; digital citizenship; and technology operations and concepts (International Society for Technology in Education [ISTE], 2007).

For teachers, this expectation translates into new ways of teaching and of thinking about what being "literate" means. Further-more, these expectations and high standards apply to all students, including those with disabilities. The literacy skills that students are now learning go beyond the familiar uses of texts and illustrations, and students today must also learn to communicate with and consider viewpoints from an increasingly global society—after all, the Internet has no physical bounds. As futurist Alvin Toffler has said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn" (www.alvintoffler .net/?fa=galleryquotes). To say that students in today's schools must learn to become effective problem-solvers to face the complex challenges of our rapidly changing society is, then, a mild understatement.


All students may find themselves challenged in today's fast-moving and globally competitive environment, but students who are blind or visually impaired have additional challenges. They must learn the same higher levels of information-processing and manipulation skills as their classmates and they must have access to the advanced technologies such as hardware and software that make these "21st century literacies" possible. This access has been made available to individuals with disabilities through a wide range of special devices and software, referred to as assistive technology, which allow them to access information and the general curriculum, as well as through innovative technological tools. Visually impaired students, therefore, must develop expertise in using assistive technology, and they must develop skills in performing other complex tasks.

For educators of students with visual impairments, then, the true goal of teaching the use of assistive technology is to enable students to apply technology appropriately to complete important educational goals. The end is not in the student's learning to use the technology but in what he or she does with it.


The following vignette illustrates how a particular student participates in both traditional and new literacy activities in her school.

Karen sat in her American history class, listening intently as her teacher discussed events that led to the American Civil War. She opened a new file on her accessible PDA (personal digital assistant), and took notes so she could review them later when studying for the upcoming midterm exam.

When the bell rang, Karen gathered her belongings and headed to English class. The class was reading and discussing the book To Kill a Mockingbird. Karen had downloaded an electronic copy of this book from the National Library Service's Web-Braille service so she could read it with the refreshable braille display on her PDA. In class, she switched between the chapter in the book her class was discussing and a file that she had started, which contained her notes from the class. Another file Karen had open contained notes for a project that she and a classmate were completing about the novel. Later in the day, Karen and her partner went to the library to do more research, and while there Karen used one of the library computers to connect to the Internet. The computer had been equipped with screen-reading software that provides synthesized speech output of the text on the screen, so Karen could surf the Web to find additional resources. She printed the information that she found for her partner and also saved an electronic copy of the file on her flash drive. They decided to sift through the new information and incorporate some of it into the PowerPoint slide show that they would present to the class.

When it was time for math, Karen headed down the hall to geometry class. An embossed copy of her braille math book was in the classroom, and she followed along with the exercises as her teacher explained theorems to the class. She also used an interactive electronic tablet with speech capacity in this class; tactile overlays depicted geometric concepts and diagrams that supplemented the class textbook, which allowed Karen to press on various parts of a diagram to hear additional information programmed into the device.

Karen is a successful high school student, keeping up with classmates, making good grades, and making plans to attend college. Because of her skills at accessing print and electronic information, she is an active learner who can gather information herself, not a student who must passively wait for material to be delivered to her in an accessible format by a teacher. In short, she is able to do what her friends and classmates are doing, and to do so in many of the same ways. Although she is blind, the use of technology has allowed her to access information, to produce materials both for others in print and for herself in braille, and to participate in activities that require her to analyze and synthesize information critically from a variety of sources.

The skills and independence displayed by this student were not learned overnight. The stage was set for Karen years ago when she was still very young. First, she received intensive instruction at the early stages of learning, when children are developing basic concepts. She also received daily reading and writing instruction in braille from a certified teacher of students with visual impairments. Equally important, Karen received periodic assessments of her educational needs and achievements. Her teachers monitored her academic progress and adjusted her program based on the results of various assessments of her reading and writing skills.

One of the important assessments Karen received was a comprehensive assistive technology assessment designed to help a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determine how to enable a student to achieve his or her educational goals, particularly those a student is having difficulty achieving, by implementing specific accommodations and devices in the student's educational experience. In Karen's case, she and her educational team, including her parents, realized that some technology solutions would be needed to help her with the demanding academic tasks of a typical high school student. And, because her team recognized that the needs of students change over time, they conducted assessments several times over the years. Based on the foresight of Karen's team members in accessing her needs when she was quite young, various technology solutions were introduced early on and taught to her over time. In this way, she not only became proficient in the use of various kinds of technology well before she needed to use them for class but also developed a predisposition toward using technology in her learning process, so that when new technologies came along, she was open to trying them.

As this scenario makes clear, an assistive technology assessment is not an afterthought, but rather part of the foundation for a student's performance in school. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorized in 2004 requires that the IEP team "consider whether the child needs assistive technology devices and services" (Sec. 614(d)(3)(B)(v)). It is the right of all students with disabilities to receive an assessment in the use of assistive technology.


Assistive Technology for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: A Guide to Assessment is designed for teachers and other service providers who assess students with the purpose of documenting their educational needs and suggesting potential solutions through the use of assistive technology. Although the suggestions and examples provided in this book are generally aimed at K-12 students, many of the principles and issues discussed can also be applied to the assistive technology needs of college students and adults of all ages.

Since it is necessary to have knowledge of the various types of technology available to determine the devices and solutions that may meet an individual's assistive technology needs, Part 1 of this book provides an overview of a wide variety of both high-tech and low-tech assistive technology tools for students who are blind or visually impaired. These tools can be used to access print information and electronic information in different ways—visually, tactilely, and auditorily—to communicate in writing, and to produce materials in alternate formats (that is, in braille, large print, audio, and electronic formats). In general, since specific products change so rapidly, mention of particular products or brands is avoided, and categories or types of technology are discussed.

The information contained in these chapters is designed to clarify for those responsible for assessments the seemingly bewildering world of assistive technology. It will be particularly welcome for teachers of students with visual impairments, but the chapters are also important resources for members of the IEP team, administrators, program coordinators, and others who may find it difficult to keep up with the moving target that technology presents for all of us today. Service providers can use these chapters as a reference to focus on the options that will assist students with a specific type of task or to learn about the particular types of technology their students will be using at any given moment. Others may find this section useful for reviewing their knowledge of specific categories of assistive technologies or to gain information about unfamiliar technologies. Many readers may want to review the entire overview offered in this section to acquire a broad understanding of this exciting and changing field.

Part 2 describes the process of a comprehensive assistive technology assessment and provides a detailed guide that can be used by an assistive technology specialist, a teacher of students with visual impairments, and members of an educational team to capture information about how a student accomplishes essential tasks such as accessing print and electronic information and communicating through writing. These chapters also present information on how to formulate recommendations on the basis of an assessment and write up program and instructional goals. The assessment, while necessarily lengthy, provides the detail needed to make good decisions regarding what might be useful to a particular student in his or her educational environment. The process of completing the assessment includes gathering pertinent background information and considering of the student's current levels of functioning (Chapter 6); assessing the student's assistive technology needs (Chapter 7); devising recommendations based on the evaluation data and writing the final report and recommendations (Chapter 8); and implementing the team's recommendations (Chapter 9). Chapter 7 provides an assessment form that can be used to guide the evaluator, and Chapter 8 provides a simple checklist that can assist in organizing the recommendations for the student. (These forms are also reproduced in full in an appendix to this book.)

As they begin an assessment, practitioners will find it useful to read at a minimum the introductory material in each of these chapters to obtain an overview of the assistive technology assessment process, and then to focus on the detailed guidance offered in each chapter as they reach the corresponding step in the assessment. However, those who have relatively little experience in the area of assistive technology will benefit from reading the entire book before attempting to conduct an assessment for the first time. Others who are knowledgeable in this area may find the book a comprehensive resource whose descriptions ensure that participants in the assessment process do not unintentionally overlook potentially beneficial technologies for students who are blind or visually impaired.

Professionals who are working with braille users may wish to concentrate on the information about tactile and auditory tools and the sections related to assessing the individual's potential for using these tools. However, those working with students with low vision may find that having a better understanding of all types of access tools will be most helpful in determining the "right tools for the job" for these students.

The key concept that all readers should take away from this book is that no single device will fit the needs of any given student. Different students will benefit from using different technologies; the same student may use different technologies for different tasks and at different times in his or her life. Regardless of whether a student is blind or visually impaired, or has some other physical disabilities, or no disabilities at all, it takes a toolbox full of tools for students to achieve their educational and employment objectives. Technology can be the tool that can help students like Karen who are blind or visually impaired become independent and successful learners. But to enable students to use technology efficiently and to the best effect, assessment teams must apply careful thought and planning. By carefully assessing a student's needs, the means of access to information and developing skills for independence are at hand.


Anstey, M., & Bull, G. (2006). Teaching and learning multiliteracies: Changing times, changing literacies. Newark, DE: Inter-national Reading Association.
Hatlen, P. (1996). The core curriculum for blind and visually impaired students including those with additional disabilities. RE:view, 28, 25–32.
International Society for Technology in Education. (2007). National educational technology standards for students: The next generation. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from NavigationMenu/NETS/ForStudents/2007Standards/NETS_for_Students_2007.htm
Karchmer, R. A., Mallette, M. H., Kara-Soteriou, J., & Leu, D. J. (Eds.). (2005). Innovative approaches to literacy education: Using the Internet to support new literacies. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2000, September). Teachers' tools for the 21st century: A report on teachers' use of technology. Statistical Analysis Report (NCES 2000–102). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
National Council of Teachers of English. (2008, February 15). The NCTE definition of 21st-century literacies. Position paper, adopted by NCTE Executive Committee. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from
Taffe, S. W., & Gwinn, C. B. (2007). Integrating literacy and technology. New York: Guilford Press.

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