Accessible Instructional Materials in the Digital Classroom with Yue Ting Siu


Hello. This is Valerie. And welcome to Perkins eLearning to Go. We will be doing our podcast a little different today. We realize we have some great material on our own website. Our webcasts cover a variety of subjects and are narrated by leaders in the field. We wanted to share these with our podcasting stars. So we have converted some of these into audio versions. And now, you can listen to these on the go.

In this webcast, Dr. Yu-Ting Su will provide an introduction to technologies used to make instructional materials accessible. Dr. Sue is a TVI and a lecturer on TVI in O&M at San Francisco State University. She is also one of Perkins eLearning's online course instructors. Please listen in as she discusses accessible instructional materials in the digital classroom.

The name Perkins carved in stone below a Gothic tower a boy navigates with a cane.


A title, Accessible Instructional Materials in the Digital Classroom with Yu-Ting Su.


The law mandates accessible instructional materials. But when you say-- I mean, what is accessible instructional materials? It really is access to information. And this is really relevant both in the classroom and outside the classroom, in the community, in the workplace, everywhere. So accessibility is everywhere, and information is everywhere.

And so with the shift to digital classrooms, it's really exciting. Because you're coming from having to emboss books, maybe blow up books into large print formats, and now, it's more about digital content, so digital talking books, things on the computer, how to access information on the computer, how do you access visual information that's maybe not just picture and books anymore, but it's pictures on websites or pictures in books, video content, all of that stuff. So that is all information. And in the context of the classroom, it's instructional materials.

Fade to black. Enabling better access with technology.

For students with visual impairments, there's a couple layers of accessibility. So in the last 10 years, there's been a greater use of just classroom technologies in general, so going from the chalkboards to the whiteboards to the SMART boards. So students with visual impairments have to access not only just the regular classroom technology but then the digital content as well.

For things such as the SMART board, there's screen sharing. So for the screen sharing, it's a way that enables a student with low vision, let's say, to view things at their desktop, so they're not necessarily always having to sit front and center. They can sit whatever they want to, and they can access both the classroom technology, such as the SMART board, but then also, perhaps, use their own screen magnification software to access things.

We see in a video clip a classroom and three students, two girls and a boy, who are blind or visually impaired. The students are using a SMART board to play a game of Hangman. One of the girls uses a monitor to enlarge the writing that her classmate is doing on the SMART board.

But then you also have the mainstream technologies where there is voiceover, which is a type of text-to-speech. So text-to-speech technology is where there might be text on a screen, and the computer can read that text. And then there's also speech-to-text, where you can then dictate things, and then it appears on the screen.

There's Braille output through a refreshable Braille display. But then there's also Braille input through a six key entry. So there's different types of keyboards available. Sometimes there's a QWERTY keyboard, which is just the regular standard keyboard. And then other students might prefer a Braille keyboard, which allows for actual Braille input.

So all those different technologies are available. And they can be put together in different ways where you combine the mainstream and specialized technologies. And I know a lot of people have a concern-- or they're concerned that technology is killing Braille. But technology actually facilitates easier access to Braille.

In a video clip, a four-year-old girl who is blind is shown practicing her brailling. Using a refreshable Braille display, she is following her TVI's instructions to spell the word daddy. She then checks the refreshable display to see if her keying was correct.

Put it on the shelf.

It said daddy.

So through the refreshable Braille displays, through digital talking book libraries, such as Bookshare, it's now easier than ever for students to get access to Braille. They no longer have to wait six to eight weeks for a book to be embossed. They can just download a book through Bookshare. If they have a refreshable Braille display, they've got access immediately and independently.

And that's really, really crucial, is that students can now independently get their hands on Braille without having to rely on somebody else. So that's really, really exciting for me to see, to see that students and people can be in charge of their own accessibility and get the Braille that they need in the format that they want. There's different formats of Braille now, and when you access Braille using a piece of technology, it's up to the user what format they want to put that in, as long as it's available in that digital format. So just easier and independent access.

I feel like back before technology was so prevalent, you needed a teacher to sit down with somebody and really take a person step by step and really prepare things on embossed paper Braille. And it was a very intensive process. And even though a teacher is still needed and necessary-- that expertise in teaching Braille to somebody, it's still very much needed. But with the technology, what that affords is that the person can have better self-guided tutorials and practice materials between lessons.

There. And can you see what this says?

We watch as a young girl who is visually impaired practices her brailling skills on a Perkins SMART Brailler. The SMART Brailler is among the devices that is increasing the accessibility, too, and the learning of Braille. It's a portable brailler that has an integrated computer processing unit, which allows the student to receive audible as well as tactile feedback. Lessons can be self-directed or supervised.

G, great job.

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Designing content with accessibility in mind.

In the Digital Classroom, I think some of the greatest challenges but also opportunities and access is that, if things are designed very well, then students can get the access to information both independently and immediately. So for example, if a website is scripted so that a student can navigate the website using the text-to-speech technology, then it's right there.

They can go in the computer, the information is there. The images on websites, if they have descriptions or image description or if there is video content and the video has video description, that's excellent, because then students can get that information immediately and independently.

In a video clip, we are observing a young girl with albinism as she accesses her math textbook on an iPad. By using the iPad, she is able to enlarge the images and text if necessary, and also utilize any links that are embedded in the content.

However, when such media is not designed well-- so those are the infrastructures that can then, when they're not designed well, be barriers to accessibility. So it's sort of a tease when you see a website, and the student knows it's there, but they can't get to the information. So in that sense, the infrastructure becomes the barrier. Being able to convey spatial information to students who are blind or visually impaired is one of the big challenges of accessing information in the classroom.

It's always been difficult for teachers to support students in this area. What technology can do is just enrich that experience. So tactile graphics, they should still be taught. Tactile graphics is a raised line drawing. And it can be low tech. It could be something as simple as having felt on a piece of paper and different types of textures on a paper to convey a drawing of some sort.

Now, with what technology can bring in that landscape of spatial information is adding, maybe, talking tactile graphics. So a student can explore those graphics with their hands. And instead of having to sit next to somebody who can explain what they're touching or having, perhaps, a complicated image with tons and tons of Braille labels, maybe now they can just touch a tactile graphic, and it speaks to them, and it comes to life. And again, it's that independent access.

One example of talking tactile graphics is demonstrated in a video clip. Information on a three dimensional scale map of the Perkins School for the Blind can be accessed by the user's touch. As the user touches the various buildings depicted on the map, you hear the voice describe them.

A large gym, swimming pool, and indoor track.

Another way that technology can convey the spatial information is through image descriptions, so having very rich descriptions of, let's say, a data display, so being able to describe a bar chart. So sometimes you need a tactile graphic. And students absolutely should have those skills. Other times, the description is sufficient. So if you can just quickly describe something in a few minutes and get that information, then that might be OK.

Some of the higher tech that's coming down the line now is sonification of data displays, which is really interesting. Because you can really make it a multi-modal learning experience that then benefits not just that student who's blind or visually impaired but engages the whole classroom when everybody can see and touch and hear things. And graphics can really come to life.

So when sonify, let's say, a line graph, what's really neat is that you can use pitch to convey the data value. So let's say you're along the y-axis, and you have a zero value. So maybe that pitch is very low. And then as you get higher data value, so maybe you go to 20 or 100, that pitch gets higher.

And what's really neat is you can have stereo sound, too. So if you're wearing headphones or earphones, you can have an idea of where along the x-axis you are by whether you're hearing the sound from your left ear or in the middle or on your right ear. So it's kind of conveying spatial information auditorily.

As an example of information which has been sonified, we watch as the cursor moves over a screen that displays a geographical contour map. The varying distance between the lines on the contour map are a two dimensional visual representation of the slope of the land depicted. Listen as the cursor moves over the map. Higher pitches represent higher slopes.


One of my favorite things that has just come available is the Reach for the Stars iBook. So this is a really nice collaboration between the SAS Institute and Ed Summers, who is the main accessibility guy there, and the National Braille Press. So what they did was they partnered with NASA, and they just put together an astronomy book.

And it's just your basic intro to astronomy book. They've got a lot of NASA engineers speaking about astronomy. And it's a great primer. But the beauty of this book is that it's not made just for students who are blind or visually impaired. It's just an iBook. And it's free. Anybody can download it.

But what's great is that it engages all sorts of learners. So they have a lot of different visualizations of comets or solar systems or bar charts of different types of things related to astronomy. And in the book, it shows these beautiful data displays, so bar charts or just maps of different solar systems. And so everybody can look at the same book. And then it speaks, so it'll describe the image.

We see a page from the iBook Reach for the Stars. The title of this section of the book is What is Astronomy? There is an icon of a speaker, which when clicked provides narration of the text.

What is astronomy? Astronomy is the study of everything beyond Earth's atmosphere. This includes the moon, planets, comets, sun, stars, and galaxies. Explore the Abell 2744 image, which contains several hundred galaxies. Some galaxies are so far away we can only observe them through gravitational lensing.

And then what National Braille Press did was they created these tactile overlays, which you can overlay each image, and then it becomes a fully accessible experience for everybody in the classroom. So the blind student can feel the tactile representations, so the tactile graphic, and then they can activate different parts of a diagram or an illustration, and it will speak what's under their fingertips. So I love this example, because it's just a universally designed book for full access by anyone.

I think 3D printing has been a big buzzword. It's the new hot technology, and everybody is just falling all over themselves to get their hands on a 3D printer. And a lot of people think it's the magical cure all for accessible materials because it's tactile. I think it's important to take a step back when talking about 3D printing and really go back to considering how best to represent that spatial information.

So there's a really nice image sorting tool that was developed by Touch Graphics through the DIAGRAM Center that helps-- it's meant to serve as a guide for people to decide, OK, when do I describe something? When do I create a tactile graphic? And now, with 3D printing, when is it more appropriate to 3D print? So a 3D printing, it's just another example of another tool that can be used that both benefits all students with and without disabilities.

So I love 3D printing for modeling, so modeling things such as, let's say, a cell. So anything that's too small, anything microscopic that a student wouldn't be able to see under a microscope or access under a microscope, anything that's too fragile, anything too rare or perhaps too dangerous for a blind student to touch, those are things that are really great for 3D printing.

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Information accessibility and the STEM curriculum.

In STEM areas-- so science, technology, engineering, and math. Those students who are blind or visually impaired, they have been chronically underrepresented in these areas. And there's no reason why our students shouldn't be as full members of this community as any other academic community. And it's not that our students aren't able to carry out those sorts of academic endeavors, but this is a chronic area where accessibility really affects what students can get out of the school curriculum.

In these STEM areas, there's a lot of visual data. And these are examples of how technology can really facilitate better access to those data. So such as the sonification, such as the image and video descriptions, now there's things like ChartML that are providing better access to data online. Our students can better access this information. And by so doing become better members of the STEM community.

We are looking at a page from the Reach for the Stars iBook. On the page is a graphic representation of the distribution of various categories of stars. The x-axis represents the temperature of the stars, decreasing in value left to right from 32,000 degrees to 2000 degrees centigrade. The y-axis is the brightness of the star compared to our sun.

At the intersection of the two axes, the value of the y-axis is one-ten-thousandth of the brightness of our sun. It climbs to one million times brighter at the top of the y-axis. Listen to the sonification of the distribution of blue giant stars.


ChartML is a newer technology coming down the line. It's a way to code data so that different types of access technologies can access it. So let's say when you see an image on a website or a chart on a website, it's a way for those web side developers to script the data so that different people can access it using a number of different technologies.

My hope is that with new ADA guidelines that internet and website accessibility will soon be incorporated into the ADA guidelines. So already, any organization that's receiving federal funding, they are mandated to have accessible websites. Of course, we don't want people to do things just because it's a mandate. Ideally, you want people to do things because it's really a best practice, and it's an inclusive community that you want everybody to be participants of.

More information regarding assistive technology for blind and visually impaired students can be found at the following websites. For regulations regarding assistive technology and the Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act, visit the Technology and Media Division of the Council for Exceptional Children website at

For issues when considering assistive technology for students with disabilities, visit the Georgia Project for Assistive Technology website at For information about assistive devices and how they are used, you can visit the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website at Fade to black.


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