Screen Reader for Low Vision Students?

For a variety of reasons, students who have functional vision are often resistant to using a screen reader. Should these students be introduced to a screen reader? If so, are there indicators that can help educators/family members to determine if a screen reader should be added to the student’s toolbox? And if the student would benefit from a screen reader, when should the student be introduced to screen reader skills or pre-skills?

Student Scenarios

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of scenarios.

Kay

Kay is a shy high school student with low vision that fluctuates throughout the day. She has nystagmus (rapidly moving eyes), scotomas (holes in her vision) and poor acuity. She is frequently absent from school due to excruciating and incapacitating migraines often caused by reading. Her preferred reading format is large print (and often zoom) on an iPad where she can quickly change the font size, backlight, and color schemes as her eyes fatigue. At times she increases the magnification to where she has to scroll across the screen; however, scrolling quickly makes her nauseous. She always leans over her iPad and often has her nose almost touching the screen. She does not like using an articulating arm to hold the iPad up, as she says it is hard to transporting and set up between classes, makes her look different, and can be in the way as she watches the teacher and tries to take notes. Kay is a very slow reader (speeding rate is inconsistent, but reading passages is often around 10 – 20 words per minute). She rarely finishes reading assignments, never reads a full book, and due to eye fatigue/migraines is rarely able to complete her modified homework. She NEVER reads for pleasure. Kay, who has average or slightly above IQ, is in a resource language arts class.

Kay was given a popular iBook on her iPad and shown how to use the basic VoiceOver Read All (two-finger swipe down) and Pause/Start VoiceOver Speech (two-finger single tap) along with how to adjust the VoiceOver reading speed. She quickly sat back in her chair, closed her eyes and avidly listened to the story. She asked to take the iPad home so that she could continue reading. Before the next VI lesson, Kay had finished the book – her first-ever book for pleasure reading – and animatedly retold the story! After several months of using VoiceOver for reading assignments, Kay intentionally worked on increasing her reading/listening speed, enabling her to complete these reading assignments at a speed more consistent with her peers. At this time, Kay embracing VoiceOver for specific tasks, such as reading, but is struggling and/or resistant to learning the full range of VoiceOver gestures/commands. She typically uses a combination of vision (to locate a button, etc.) and needs encouragement to use VoiceOver when writing. However, she fully embraces dictation!

Evan

Evan is a bright, inquisitive high school student who is making A’s in AP classes and is interested in engineering. Evan is applying to top universities and has been involved in mainstream engineering camps, robotics, and more. Evan has Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP); he currently has night vision issues, decreased peripheral vision and acuity and he prefers the inverted color scheme on his devices. He uses a PC, iPad and iPhone with magnification and accessibility settings proficiently. Evan recently met a successful professional with RP who strongly recommended learning JAWS and VoiceOver now. The mentor suggested that Evan use his phone constantly running VoiceOver for at least two weeks. Evan reported back that he now uses VoiceOver on his phone continuously and is now reading books on his iPhone using VoiceOver. In addition, Evan has practiced using JAWS on his PC and has expanded his knowledge of keyboard commands which he incorporates into his tech skills with and without JAWS running. Evan has embraced technology – and accessibility tools – and he is building his network of peers and professionals in STEM fields with vision loss.

Jimmy

Jimmy is a talkative, energetic first grader who loves tech! Jimmy is learning to read large print; at this time, his IEP team does not believe he will be a dual (print and braille) reader. He has a stable eye condition. He was introduced to an iPad in preschool and learned to play many simple cause-and-effect educational games using preschool apps with uncluttered backgrounds, large objects and high contrast colors. Jimmy does best with digital games that do not have moving images. Preschool/emerging reader digital games tend to be self-voicing and are not compatible with VoiceOver. Jimmy loves the self-voicing ePub books and apps. Jimmy is learning to write (pencil/black marker and paper); although, his handwriting is not very legible, and he has trouble reading his own writing. He is being introduced to typing using an iPad paired with a Bluetooth keyboard. His keyboarding improves when VoiceOver is on, as the instant auditory feedback is helpful.

Keep in mind that students can and do use a combination of tools, devices and apps to accomplish various tasks. As educators, it is our job to introduce students to the various tools, teach each tool, incorporate the tool into various educational tasks, and help determine when to use which tool.

Need for Screen Reader: Indicators 

The following are indicators that the child will benefit from a screen reader:

  • Emerging or potential braille reader or dual media reader
  • Text is magnified to the point that scrolling is required
  • Posture: If the student needs to be very close to the iPad (bent over or device is held close to face) in order to see items on the iPad
  • If the student has scotomas (holes) in his vision
  • If the student has a field loss
  • If the student demonstrates eye fatigue
  • If the student has double vision
  • If the student has nystagmus (rapidly moving eyes that can cause double vision and/or eye fatigue) 
  • If the student's vision fluctuates significantly
  • If reading causes headaches
  • If the student has a progressive eye condition
    • Note: Students who are efficient using a screen reader are significantly faster readers than students who read visually.
  • Other indicators?

Which indicators does Kay display? She has numerous indicators and has demonstrated an immediate benefit from using a screen reader for reading. Note: Kay has to concentrate so hard when using her functional vision that she has trouble processing additional information (such as listening to auditory hints) at the same time. She does best using VoiceOver when the screen curtain is on, so that she cannot attempt to use her vision.

Which indicators does Evan display? His main indicator is the progressive nature of his disease; however, field loss and fluctuating vision (decreased night vision) are also strong indicators. Added benefits for Evan includes learning screen reader skills early in preparation for when he will rely on screen readers and the emotional impact of being familiar with available accessibility tools and connecting with successful mentors.

Which indicators did Jimmy display? Jimmy is not currently displaying major indicators; however, he is too young to know if his visual reading speed will be acceptable as he becomes older and if he becomes visually fatigued when he is required to read volumes of text. There is a potential indicator with his poor writing skills. Jimmy is learning a variety of pre-screen reader skills, that will be beneficial across the board. He is learning to listen (digital books), beginning keyboarding skills (along with keyboarding shortcut commands), and is embracing technology. Jimmy should continue to build his skills as well as learning which tool is best for a specific task.

When Should a Screen Reader be Introduced?

Young students, with their brain plasticity, are able to quickly embrace new skills including tech skills. Preschoolers are playing digital games which are self-voicing, which lead right into listening to a screen reader. Keyboarding skills and keyboard short cut commands are also used with screen readers. Screen readers use the same shortcut commands and additional screen reader-specific shortcut commands. Just like students should be introduced to tech early in this digital 21stcentury, students should also be introduced early to basic screen reader skills – these skills can grow with the student! Early adoption is also beneficial as young students – and their sponge-like minds – easily embrace screen readers; while older students/adults may struggle to embrace the same skills later in life. 

Students with low vision are often successful relying on their vision for reading - even through high school - but significantly struggle with the quantity of reading required in college. Freshman year of college should not be a sink or swim time for students. College is not the time for students to learn a new tool, especially if the student has a progressive eye condition! Ideally, all low vision students who might display an indicator, should be introduced to and become comfortable with a screen reader for educational tasks in high school. 

Educators, provide your students with the full arsenal in their toolbox – introduce screen reader skills early!

Resources

Preparing a Low Vision Student to use a Screen Reader (2nd post in the Screen Reader for Low Vision Series)

Bigger is Not Always Better; Understanding Magnification post

Reading Rates post

Collage of screen reader for students with low vision