As the heat of summer makes some of us long for the cooler days of fall, students, parents, and teachers might begin to think about how assistive technology (AT) can help students. In this article we'll discuss some activities for parents and students that address these issues. A little overview or background information will help us get started.
One of the first things that parents and students can do is acquire some basic knowledge about AT and the assistance it can provide. Technology supplies a wide variety of tools that can be used to accomplish educational tasks. There is no one super tool, or Swiss Army knife, that will assist students in completing all of the tasks required in today's educational programs. Fully sighted students use vision as a tool for acquiring information to accomplish numerous assignments. Students who have impaired vision or no usable vision will need multiple tools to access the information necessary to complete these assignments. One way to think of this is that the student will need a full set of tools to be successful. Some of the low-tech tools available, such as bold-lined paper, felt-tipped pens, slate and stylus, and the abacus may already be in the student's toolbox. But, there may be some high-tech tools available that parents, students, and teachers are not aware of that would be of great assistance. One resource that you might want to investigate is a book titled Assistive Technology for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: A Guide to Assessment.
The objective is to fill the toolbox with the right tools for the job. No matter how wonderful a piece of technology may be, it may not be the best tool for a particular student to accomplish a particular task. The toolbox will be filled gradually as tools are found that allow the student to accomplish desired tasks. Some tools will be used immediately while others will not be needed until that student reaches higher grades. However, the student will need training on the use of some tools a year or two before being expected to use them independently.
Regardless of age or degree of vision loss, students will need tools that allow them to complete tasks in three broad areas: accessing printed information, accessing electronic information, and producing written communication. Technologies exist that allow students to accomplish these tasks visually, tactilely, and aurally. Some allow the user to access information through more than one sense. For example, specialized scanning systems designed to access printed text using a computer can be configured to display the information in the user's desired font and point size on the computer's monitor while simultaneously providing auditory access through synthesized speech. Another example is an accessible PDA (braille notetaker) with a refreshable braille display that can provide tactile access to electronic information with simultaneous access via synthesized speech. The key is to find the tools that allow the student to accomplish the desired task.
The question becomes how does one know what is the right tool for the job? Unfortunately there is not a simple answer to this question. There are so many great technology tools available that it may be difficult to decide which tools should be in the toolbox. Often parents and students are "wowed" by technologies and think this is the answer. In some cases, I've seen parents insist on the school providing product "X" or product "Y." The school purchases the technology but within six months, it ends up in a closet. This is usually due to the fact that the technology, although wonderful, was not a good match for the student and the tasks that he/she needs to accomplish.
Determining the right tool for the job is a process implemented over time. There are several steps in this process that a parent or a student can initiate to get things started. The process starts with determining the student's primary and secondary learning and literacy media: tactile, visual, auditory. This can be accomplished by requesting that the student's teacher of the visually impaired conduct a learning media assessment. If the student's primary or secondary learning media is visual then the next step is to obtain a clinical low-vision evaluation. The clinical low-vision evaluation will ensure that the student has the best combination of glasses or contact lenses that will allow the student to use his or her remaining vision to its fullest potential. It is important that a student use the prescribed optical system when trying to determine his or her AT needs. Additional information that may be helpful is a medical eye report, a functional vision evaluation, and any psychological or educational evaluations of the student. If the student has any additional disabilities, information about the student's abilities and needs in these areas would be helpful. If reports of these assessments are not in a student's file, then the teacher of the visually impaired student should be contacted to request the assessments.
A general guideline for determining AT needs is the SETT framework. SETT stands for student, environment, task, and tools. We've talked a bit about each of these, but now let's see how they might all work together. Gathering background information from various reports and assessments can give us valuable information about the student and his or her abilities. Determining the environments in which the student will be asked to complete certain tasks (classroom, media center, homework, etc.) will allow us to consider the visual, tactile, and auditory factors that may influence the effectiveness of various technologies. The tasks to be completed will most likely fall into one of the three categories mentioned above. Finally, we'll want to consider the tools that fit the student, work in the necessary environments, and allow the student to accomplish the tasks using his or her primary or secondary learning and literacy media.
The guidelines and suggestions discussed above are the basic components of an assistive technology evaluation. It is this author's opinion that this is the place to start. It may be that some of these issues have already been addressed or it may be that we're starting at the beginning. Regardless of where the student is on this continuum, the basic guidelines must be addressed to provide the student with the opportunity to learn and use technology tools to complete tasks in his or her educational program. The next step is to request an AT evaluation.
It may be that you cannot get in contact with the teacher of the visually impaired during the summer. Most teachers return to work a week or two before students return to school, so try contacting the teacher then to make the above requests.
Now, let's take a look at what students and parents can do over the summer to improve a student's use of AT. I'll make several suggestions that I think will be helpful. Not all of the suggestions will be appropriate for all students, so pick the ones that seem most applicable.
- Read, read, read!!! Probably the best thing that a student can do in the summer is read. The topic doesn't matter. The practice of braille, print, or auditory reading will help students to improve reading speed, vocabulary, and comprehension, which will allow them to take better advantage of the benefits of AT.
- Practice with optical devices. If the student has a near or distance optical device recommended in his or her low-vision evaluation, then have him or her use it as much as possible. This doesn't have to be school work. Use a magnifier to look at bugs, flowers, or any small detail of interest. Use a handheld telescope/monocular to look at signs, pedestrians, cars, etc., while riding in the car.
- Type, type, type!!! If the student has started developing keyboarding skills, then practicing to improve speed and accuracy is a great activity. Good keyboarding skills are essential if one is going to take full advantage of opportunities offered by many forms of AT. Try keeping a daily journal. Typing a little bit every day will be beneficial, even if the student simply lists the activities he or she did that day: "Woke up at 8:30, ate breakfast, walked the dog."
- One other good summer activity is to have students and parents talk about the upcoming school year and answer some basic questions. What classes will the student have? Which ones might present difficulties for accessing printed handouts, information on the board, presentations, etc.? What tools does the student have to help in these situations? You may not know all the answers to these types of questions, but the idea is to start thinking about them and possible solutions. Then talk with the student about how he or she will communicate with teachers and the alternative tools he or she might use. It is a good idea to do some role playing on this topic. A parent can play the role of the teacher and the student can practice explaining his or her needs and ideas in a courteous way that implies independence on the part of the student and a willingness to work with the teacher to ensure a harmonious interaction. In other words, advocate politely but firmly.
Being prepared, proactive, and respectful can increase a student's chances of being successful at integrating AT into his or her K-12 educational program.