We were riding in the car, and my daughter suddenly asked if she could go to a movie with her friend. "She's online now," she said, "and wants to know if she should buy me a ticket." At first, I was bewildered. My daughter had been talking to me for the past 10 minutes, so how could she also have been talking to her friend? When I asked her this question, she answered with exasperation: "text message."
Another day, I was sitting in my daughter's room chatting when a question arose that we did not have the answer to. "I'll ask Neil when he gets finished doing his homework," my daughter said. How did she know that her friend six houses down was doing his homework? Is my daughter psychic? Of course not. She just glanced at his "away message" in her instant messaging program.
So I wondered: Are students who are blind using all the same kinds of technology as their sighted counterparts? I rounded up some students—of various ages, from various schools and colleges and degree programs, and with various interests in technology—to see what they had to say. The results may surprise you.
A Day in the Life
Martha Harris, a first-year student at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, is a self-proclaimed lover of gadgets. With her MuVo and iPod Shuffle, she listens to music and books from Audible.com and Bookshare. On her Nokia 6682 mobile phone, equipped with the TALKS screen reader for access, she sends and receives text messages in addition to making and receiving telephone calls. On her BrailleNote, she takes class notes, and on her computer equipped with JAWS for Windows, she is a fan of MSN Messenger for instant messaging, Skype for live conversation, and iTunes for transferring music from CDs and the Internet to her iPod Shuffle. Her favorite tool for transferring music from her computer to her iPod is the program called Anapod Explorer.
Caption: Martha with her dog guide.
Her attitude toward technology is this: "I can do anything I want to do, anything a sighted student can do, except read CAPTCHAs!" (CAPTCHAs are the slightly distorted combinations of letters and numbers that have to be typed into a box before logging into some web sites to prevent automated programs from logging in.)
Let There Be Music
The tools that Annie Donnellon, a third-year vocal performance major at Northern Kentucky University, uses most are her BrailleNote and the Lime Aloud and GoodFeel software from Dancing Dots. Besides reading books and taking notes on her BrailleNote, Annie often transfers documents that her instructors send as attachments to read in braille. On her computer, equipped with JAWS and the Kurzweil 1000, she reads documents that she or someone else has scanned, writes papers, and sends and receives e-mail messages. Rather than attempt to tackle Blackboard (a program through which students and instructors communicate regarding assignments, discussions, examinations, and the like), she asks the instructors to e-mail documents as attachments and then e-mails her work back to them.
Caption: Annie typing on her laptop computer.
With her LG 4500 cell phone, Annie manages all her contacts and uses the talking caller ID. This particular cell phone does not have accessible text messaging.
Annie does not have any type of portable MP3 player for books or music, but uses her Victor Reader Vibe constantly for DAISY books obtained from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and other CDs.
The piece of technology that this talented music student raved about most was her software from Dancing Dots. With this program, she can compose music on her computer's keyboard and then print it out or e-mail it to her instructors. This program makes composing and sending or printing a piece of music as manageable as writing and sending or printing an essay.
Empowered by Technology
Joseph Lee is an 11th grader at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles. He writes to an e-mail list with such knowledge and expertise regarding his BrailleNote mPower that some people have thought that he was a member of the HumanWare staff. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Joseph came to the United States in 2001 and then enrolled as a fifth grader. In 2003, at a summer workshop at the California School for the Blind, he was introduced to assistive technology. His expertise seems to have grown exponentially since then.
On a laptop and desktop computer equipped with JAWS, Joseph writes school papers and does research on the Internet. At the time of the interview, he did not own a cell phone or MP3 player, but seemed familiar with various products and was hoping to get them in the future. He uses Skype frequently and in the same way that others do instant messaging.
The piece of assistive technology that Joseph talked about most—and has assimilated into every aspect of his daily life—is the BrailleNote mPower. He uses mPower to take notes, send and receive e-mail messages, and surf the Internet. He keeps his contacts with KeyList and his calendar with KeyPlan. It is the mPower's alarm that wakes him up each morning. Joseph uses the infrared port at school to print work for his teachers and the wireless capabilities to download books and read them in braille. He said proudly that he has memorized every BrailleNote command for both the BT and QT (braille-style keyboard and qwerty-style keyboard) versions, as well as some commands that relate to hidden Keysoft features. "I have learned, he said, "to use the mPower to its full potential," and he wants eventually to study computer science and become a teacher of assistive technology to help spread the word of such tools.
Nickie Coby, who has just completed her second year at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, uses technology to its full extent in her academic life, but stressed that it plays an extremely vital role for a student who is blind in a social context. With her computer equipped with Window-Eyes and the Kurzweil 1000, she does research, writes papers, accesses textbooks, and so forth, but said that the computer is also an important link to other students.
Caption: Nickie and dog guide Julio sitting outside a coffee shop while she reads from her BrailleNote.
"I can't write a message on a white board on my dorm room door," she explained, "or see what someone else has written on theirs, but I can send an instant message and find out if someone down the hall wants to do something." She uses both MSN and AOL for instant messaging and both the voice and text aspects of Skype. She keeps a blog on LiveJournal and uses FaceBook but finds it complicated to navigate with her screen reader.
When it comes to portable devices, Nickie seems to be totally plugged in. With her Book Port, she reads textbooks that have been scanned with the Kurzweil 1000 and books from Bookshare and Audible.com. With her BrailleNote, she downloads the Pioneer Press or New York Times to read while sitting in a coffee shop. The device with which she is currently enamored is her Motorola Q cell phone outfitted with Mobile Speak Smartphone. With her cell phone, she has a quick way to write something down and takes full advantage of the Calendar and Tasks features. From a student's perspective, the best feature is the ability to send and receive text messages. "I believe it is just as important to have access to a social life as to an academic life," she said, "and it is so cool to be able to text message friends if I'm out getting coffee to see if they can join me."
It is also her awareness of the social environment that makes Nickie glad to be a fluent reader of braille. If she is in a public place, she rarely wears headphones to read. She reads books from Web-Braille or newspapers from Newsline on her BrailleNote mPower, so if there is a conversation nearby that she wants to join, she will not miss it.
Learning the Law
T. J. Meloy is a 24-year-old law student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He uses a BrailleNote mPower to take notes and his laptop with JAWS for research. As a law student, research is a major component of his routine, and he is able to do all that his sighted classmates do online. Westlaw, an online legal research service for legal and law-related materials and services, is particularly easy to navigate, T. J. said, because there is a text-only version of the site. It is also used by his law school for its online interactive system, TWEN (the West Education Network), which is a site where instructors post assignments and students turn them in. The only difficulty that T. J. has found in accessing materials is that publishers often provide his textbooks as PDF files. These files then have to be converted to Word files by the university's disability services office.
Caption: T. J. at his computer with his BrailleNote and other equipment, including a scanner, embosser and CCTV.
T. J. was the only student I spoke with who is fond of FaceBook. Although he does not have time to be on the site as much as other students may, he particularly enjoys checking for posts from his cousin who is stationed in Iraq. T. J.'s cell phone is an LG 8300, which has many accessible features but cannot read text messages. His LG 8300 was too new when we spoke for him to have learned to use the MP3 player, but that is one aspect he is looking forward to. A Maestro PDA with Trekker GPS is another piece of equipment that he was in the process of incorporating into his routine.
Like other students, T. J. emphasized the importance of instant messaging in his social life. He uses AOL instant messenger with JAWS on his laptop to keep in touch with other people. "You can read an away message," he said, "and know that someone doesn't feel like talking. Or you can see if there's a conversation going on that you may want to join." A friend may ask if anyone else wants to go to a certain movie on Saturday night, he cited as example, and that is often how social plans are made.
Back to School
All these students were aged 17 to 24. It occurred to me that many older readers may wonder, as I have, what it would be like to go to school now, rather than 20 or 30 years ago when none of this technology existed. So I spoke with one nontraditional student to get her perspective.
Jan Danner, who just graduated with a master's degree in community counseling from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, is 57. Before she entered graduate school in 2003, she had rarely used a computer, but she learned quickly that it was an essential tool.
Caption: Jan in cap and gown with her dog guide.
With JAWS on her desktop computer, Jan read many of the materials that were scanned for her and e-mailed as attachments. She wrote all her research papers, communicated with classmates and instructors frequently via e-mail, and did some online research.
For her internship, Jan obtained a laptop, so she could have one computer at work and one at home. Otherwise, her relationship with technology has been sparse compared with that of the other students I interviewed for this article. Jan does not have a cell phone, an MP3 player, a Book Port or a GPS device. When I asked about FaceBook, MySpace, or LiveJournal, she did not seem even to recognize the names.
Jan reads all her books on cassettes from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and uses braille to label all her papers and tapes and files. For her calendar and contacts, she uses a Braille 'n Speak 640, but made all class notes and notes from counseling sessions with a miniature tape recorder. Her only prized portable device is a USB thumb drive, which she used to carry documents and reports back and forth between home and campus or home and her internship.
Although her range of technological devices is small, Jan cannot imagine having completed her master's degree without her computer, her tape recorder, and her thumb drive. Since she graduated with an almost perfect GPA, this minimalist approach (reminiscent of what existed 20 years ago) is obviously still possible. Jan admitted, however, that all the methods she used made work take much more time than for sighted students and that she could not have been so successful had she carried a full-time course load.
The Equalizer and the Socializer
In other words, many students who are blind are thriving in programs of every kind all over the country, and many of them are crediting technology as the tool that equalizes the academic opportunities and challenges that characterize a college education. For many, technology is also the tool that connects college students to a successful social life.