How Important is Tech to Students with Visual Impairments?

Academic students carry a variety of courses each semester and the student's TVI supports each and every subject. The daily focus is on understanding and completing the next assignment or test with the long term goal of  learning the material in order to pass the high-stakes assessments. So where does learning - and teaching - tech fall into the curriculum? Technology is the common denominator in every subject and between every student. In our 21st Century - paperless - classrooms, all students must be proficient in technology in order to successful.

Why is Tech Important?

A quick web search about the importance of tech in the classroom instantly pulled up 65,500,000 articles. Here are a few of the most common reasons tech is important in the classroom:

  • Engages students and creates active learners
  • Encourages individual learning and growth for students of all learning styles at their own pace
  • Facilitates peer collaboration
  • Prepares students for the real world
  • Access to the most up-to-date information
  • Makes learning fun!

Note: These reasons are for all students not specifically for students with a visual impairment. However, the benefits of tech are even more pronounced for students who are visually impaired. Let's dive a little deeper into how using tech impacts a student with visual impairments.

  • Active Learners: Students with visual impairments need hands-on engagement. Traditional lectures - with or without visuals - at the front of the room are more challenging to keep a visually impaired student's attention and may not be the student's optimal learning style.
  • Individual Pace: Students with visual impairments will have strengthens and weaknesses just like any student and may have gaps in concepts or may benefit from additional instruction. A proficient screen reader may zip through the reading assignment at 600 words per minute but may need additional time to work through a math assignment which is more visual in nature. 
  • Peer Collaboration: Tech equalizes the playing field, enabling students with visual impairments to instantly do research, take notes, and fully participate in a group, and tech enables the student to choose any role in the project.
  • Real World: Strong tech skills open opportunities in a variety of professions that may not have been available without tech.
  • Up-to-Date Info: We live in the Information age - have a question? Google it! When was the last time you pulled out an encyclopedia volume to do research? Traditional braille materials takes time and resources to produce.
  • Fun Factor: Gamification - creating game apps to teach skills, is fun! Subjects have branched out to incorporate coding and STEM activities into subjects like math and science. New interactive teaching styles and resources are creating environments in which students are excited about learning.

Tech Instruction for Students

While tech is being incorporated into every subject, the responsibility for teaching tech is evolving. The majority of students entering kindergarten have already mastered basic tech skills as they navigate to and interact with apps on family smart phones or tablets. Parents or family members are the student's first tech instructor. Elementary schools have a designated computer teacher who provides direct instruction and who supports the tech used within the classrooms. Elementary students typically have a dedicated computer class elective, one or more times a week. In addition to that, the classroom teacher also embeds tech into her classroom. Depending on the school, students may have 1:1 tech or may have access to devices on the tech cart; and most students have access to some form of tech at home. Most middle schools continue to offer a computer class and most students have the skills to increase their own tech skills through Internet searches, YouTube, social media and friends/family/mentors. Let's face it - students are often more tech savvy than adults! High school computer classes are often more geared to teach computer science, coding languages, or computer certifications such as courses/certifications offered by Microsoft. 

Tech Instruction for Students with Visual Impairments

Assistive technology (AT) for students with visual impairments have evolved rapidly and continue to evolve rapidly. Mainstream tablets and smart phones have built-in screen readers and magnification options. Computers have native screen readers or screen reader software. Braille displays can be paired with devices. Braille Notetakers continue to be another option. Magnification devices and software are available. More educational apps are being created that are accessibility and some app developers are creating apps specifically to teach unique screen reader skills.

Traditionally, the Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) has been responsible for keeping current on assistive tech and teaching the assistive tech to the student with a visual impairment. However, tech changes and advances so frequently, that - for a variety of reasons - many TVIs are able to keep up with the tech and do not have time to teach additional tech skills. (The Paths to Technology website was specifically created to help TVIs stay current on rapidly-changing tech.) Traditional computer teachers are typically not familiar with assistive tech and all the gestures/commands that go along with AT, not to mention the unique needs and learning styles of students with visual impairments. The increased need for students with visual impairments to have proficient tech skills drove the need to create and train educators specifically on AT for students with visual impairments. This recent position is called CATIS (Certified Technology Instructional Specialist for People with Visual Impairments). A CATIS certified instructor is 'a highly trained expert who specializes in working with individuals who are visually impaired or who have functional visual limitations, and empowers them to achieve their goals for education, employment, avocation and independence through the use of assistive technology. CATIS engage a comprehensive approach to vision rehabilitation addressing visual, physical, cognitive, and pyscho-social aspects related to training and integration of existing and emerging technologies. Methods and strategies include the use of visual techniques, non-visual techniques (auditory and tactual), strategies and problem-solving skills through the use of various AT devices and solutions.'

The first CATIS certified professionals are already making an impact as they share their knowledge and passion for AT. As the number of CATIS increase, students with visual impairments will be impacted even more. (Note: Several Paths to Technology bloggers are CATIS certified and are sharing their expertise through a variety of posts on this website!) Many computer teachers who teach at a school for the blind have or are in the process of getting their CATIS certification.

Impact of Tech on College-Bound Students with Visual Impairments

In today's classroom, a student is only as successful as his/her tech skills. A student initially learns to read; after third grade, a student reads to learn. Reading skills then impact every subject. Tech is very similar; initially, students need to learn how to use tech; then, tech is used to access and complete every subject. Through tech, a student with visual impairments has instant access to do unlimited Internet research. Tech is used to write and edit, to collaborate on class projects, to create PowerPoint presentations and the list goes on. Do not misunderstand - braille is still a critical part of learning to read, functional daily living skills and for many - personal enjoyment. However, through tech, students and adults have instant access to unlimited online resources and digital materials.

Mastery of tech skills are required in college and in the work place. College applications and job applications are submitted online. While many students with visual impairments have the grades and academic knowledge to be successful in college, many of these students struggle the first year of college. Most students report that the biggest hurdle was their gap in tech skills. In high school, these students often self-reported that they were tech-savvy; however, reality hit when they entered college and struggled with using tech to access and complete assignments - without TVI support. When interviewed, these college students (or recent college grads) said that their focus the first year was spent learning to use their tech; not on learning the class content. To address this gap, several 'gap year' programs are now available to students with visual impairments. (See College Success Program post.) College-bound students need to be efficient on a computer (not just a tablet) - including the ability to create PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, charts and graphs, access learning platforms (such Blackboard), converting print materials to accessible digital materials, collaboration tools, ordering textbooks, filling out online applications, etc.

Note: Many K-12 students who are reading large print need to be proficient with using a screen reader before entering college. University-level reading and assignments require extensive reading; students who are proficient screen reader listeners can speed through these assignments at 600 words per minute with a screen reader or 75-100 words a minute using magnification or large print. (Read Five Reasons why your student should learn to read at a rate of 600 words per minute post.)

What Does This Mean?

Technology is a critical - and often missing - piece of instruction for students with visual impairments. Students should be immersed in age-appropriate technology starting the first day they step into a classroom. Tech skills should be taught systematically as the student progresses through the grade levels. (See Mastering Tech Skills: When and What post - a general guideline for students who are visually impaired.) Students should be confident, independent, and efficient with a variety of tech and software. Students with visual impairments have unique tech needs, learning styles and gaps. The mainstream computer science teacher is a great resource but often does not have the experience/knowledge with AT. Students with visual impairments need a strong tech background which requires an instructor who is strong in assistive technology: both computer/tech skills and working with students who are visually impaired. The tech instructor may be the most critical teacher the student with visual impairment ever has!