How to Embrace Assistive Technology with Limited Funding

In the middle of the night on November 14th, 2016, I started a website called Veronica With Four Eyes and published my first ten posts about free and low cost resources for vision impairment and assistive technology. Two years and 299 posts later, I have been able to show teachers, students, parents, and more how even the simplest assistive technology accommodations can be life changing and can help tremendously with student success. For my 300th post and two year anniversary of starting Veronica With Four Eyes, today I will be sharing how to embrace assistive technology with limited funding.

Look at everyday objects in a new light

I was in office hours with one of my professors when I realized that I couldn't tell that a tangent graph had a curve- I thought it had been a straight line all along. When I told my professor this, they asked me if there was anything they could do to make it clearer, and I started looking around the room. I stumbled across a box of thumbtacks and some cork board, and immediately thought of how they could put the paper graph on top of the cork board and put the thumbtacks on top of the lines so I could feel the different curves. This was much easier and faster than getting traditional tactile images made, and I was able to learn the material more easily.

Not all assistive technology solutions involve specialty materials or things created specifically for disability. Sometimes, the most simple solutions can be the most effective. Look around your room and see what can be used to improve accessibility or make tasks easier.

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Embrace universal design

When I was in a geography class, my teacher would enlarge maps and similar images for all students, not just me. My teacher discovered that after they started using the enlarged images for everyone, class grades went up and two students discovered they needed glasses or a new prescription. The principle of universal accessibility and universal design is something that stuck with me because I was so grateful to have a teacher who understood how helpful large print can be.

By making materials accessible from the start, people can spend less money and time trying to figure out how to make something accessible later on. Having clear high-resolution images can benefit all students, especially those with vision impairments, just like having captions turned on during a movie can help people understand dialogue and how having a ramp can make it easier for people to walk or use mobility aids to enter a building. By using free tools such as the Microsoft accessibility checker, teachers and students can ensure that everyone has equal access to their assignments.

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Invest in versatile items that can be used for years to come

When it comes to purchasing technology that can be expensive, look for items that can be adapted to fit the user's needs over time, not just a device that can be used for one year. One of the tools that has helped me tremendously in high school and college is the iPad, because there are so many useful apps available and I can use the device regardless of my vision level. It's important for students to develop technology skills that can help them as they transition, and by intentionally choosing devices and tools that can grow with them, students will be able to be successful as they advance in their studies and enter the workplace.

For schools and families with limited funding, there are several options available for getting assistive technology devices for free or at a reduced cost. Schools can use DonorsChoose, a nonprofit platform that allows teachers to post projects and have people contribute money to fund them. People preparing for transition to school or the workplace can set up a vocational rehabilitation case with their state, which can assist with getting items for free or at a discounted cost for people that need them to succeed in the classroom or workplace. Other more broad options include applying for grants, buying refurbished technology, and waiting for items to go on sale.

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Don't underestimate free and low cost apps

App developers understand that funding for education is limited, and this is even more true for funding in special education. Because of this, there is a whole world of free apps designed to support students and teachers, as well as several low cost apps that cost only a dollar or two. For example, I needed an OCR scanning app that would scan documents into a PDF, and I found that the free Microsoft Office Lens was the perfect tool to do this. While I did need to invest in an iPad or Android phone, the devices have paid for themselves as I have found ways to do tasks that previously would have been very hard or expensive to accomplish.

My website is filled with lots of free and low cost app reviews, so it's hard to list all of them below. Instead, I will be linking to my "app" post tag so users can find posts more easily.

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Listen to what the user needs

I recently had a conversation with a former teacher where we were talking about how I used to sit weirdly in my chair to see the computer, and how I always looked at people who walked up to me like I had no idea who they were. We now know that I was doing these things because I had trouble seeing the computer screen and that my vision is double and blurry, but no one would expect a young child to communicate that information efficiently. People just assumed that I was disrespecting my teacher or giving staff members a hard time.

By being proactive about student needs, any teacher or parent can learn to incorporate assistive technology and accessibility. For example, when my middle school math teacher realized that I had worse vision than they thought, they sat down and outlined all of the graphs with markers so they would have better contrast. When my elementary school art teacher noticed that I had trouble with drawing items since I had a poor visual reference, they let me try feeling different objects to see if that would help. And when my high school technology teacher noticed that I consistently would click the wrong button when working on assignments, they helped me learn how to use the screen magnification software that was built into the computer. Sometimes, a few minutes can make all of the difference in understanding things.

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Take advantage of free websites on assistive technology- and share them

My interest in assistive technology was born after several people told me it didn't exist. Let me explain further- after I attended an assistive technology event at my future college, I came back and told my teachers what I had learned, and they told me that there wasn't much technology out there for people with low vision like me. This inspired me to research all sorts of different tips, tools, and tricks, and also inspired me to develop several of my own. The pivotal moment came when a teacher walked into a classroom on the last day of my senior year, asked for me by name, and then requested that I share with them all of the technology I had used so that they could help other students in the future. It was from that moment on that I knew I wanted to start my website, and that I wanted to help as many students as possible.

Since then, several other websites have started that provide free resources on assistive technology and vision impairment to anyone with an internet connection. I wish I had many of these resources while I was in school, but I jokingly tell people that my website would be less exciting if I had access to all of my accommodations and assistive technology. Read the posts on these websites and share them whenever you can so that people can continue to develop these resources in the future.

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Support policies and legislation that impacts the future of assistive technology

Assistive technology is a growing field that will only continue to expand as more people are identified with disabilities and with the increasing aging population. Many big technology companies are starting to incorporate accessibility into their projects and there is lots of research being done to show how technology can continue to improve. While it is possible to have great resources with limited funding, it's critical that we invest in the future of assistive technology so that more people can have access to it all around the world.

People who benefit from assistive technology and other disability resources need to be vocal in their support of these resources whenever possible, which includes supporting policies and legislation that can affect them directly. I wrote a policy that calls for states to develop an informational website that has resources on how to pursue higher education and gainful employment for students with vision impairments, and I've been thrilled to see how many states have responded to this policy and are working towards implementing it. The Cogswell-Macy Act is a proposed legislation that would increase funding and accountability for students with sensory impairments in US public schools. Bookshare is another initiative that receives federal funding to make print media accessible for people with vision impairments, with a special emphasis on K-12 students. And there are many other bills and policies that can have a real benefit for people with vision impairments as well. It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time to call your local representatives and express your support for policies and legislation that can help thousands of people in the future.

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Final thoughts

Assistive technology does not have to be expensive to be effective, and one of the best things that people can do is continue to raise awareness of how important it is, and share free resources whenever they can.

I am profoundly grateful that I have been able to write 300 posts over the last two years for Veronica With Four Eyes, and for all of the experiences I have had as a result. Some of these experiences have felt surreal, like when I made international news for talking about the use of intense strobe lights in a children's movie. Other experiences have felt empowering, like when I met Joe Biden and he thanked me for being such a strong advocate for people with vision impairments. My favorite experiences of all though are when people send me notes or walk up to me and say how my writing has made a difference in their lives, like when I was being interviewed by my university and a woman who recognized me came over, gave me a hug, and thanked me for helping her realize that she can live an amazing life after being diagnosed with low vision. I love being able to write Veronica With Four Eyes, and I can't wait to show you all of the cool things I have in store for the next year.

 

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