By John Farina and Diane Brauner
Each student with a visual impairment has unique needs. Students who are legally blind can range from being able to read regular print to having no vision; students can have a full range of field, tunnel vision, pinpoint of vision or various holes in their vision. Different eye conditions may require different lighting and lighting needs may change in different environments; the students may see best when the screen has inverted colors (white print on dark background) or other color combinations. Many students with visual impairments and blindness (VIB) - even students with useable vision - are often more efficient using screen readers rather than their residual vision. During a tech evaluation, the AT Team carefully considers all the visual needs as well as which technology works best for each educational task. Students with VIB often have multiple pieces of technology that they use depending on the task at hand.
Here are common questions asked by IT staff, along with answers from John, an AT Specialist who is blind and Diane, a TVI and Educational Assistive Technology Consultant.
1. What does this “screen reading” or “low vision software” do again?
AT Answer: This software processes the contents of the screen and either magnifies (if it is screen magnification software) or speaks it in synthetic speech via the sound card and speakers.
2. Can this software introduce viruses or malicious stuff into my network?
AT Answer: Though there is always a possibility that the software could be hacked to introduce malicious code, it is tightly controlled by the authors and can only be authorized to work on the computer after contacting the company server to receive an authorization code. The user has no control over the program source code so they are unable to change anything other than the normal settings for speech rate, voice and if appropriate magnification level.
TVI Answer: Many devices, such as all Apple devices, have built-in magnification and screen readers. These accessibility features are available out-of-the box and only need to be activated. There is no additional cost for these built-in features.
3. You do not use a mouse, how can you operate this computer stuff?
AT Answer: The user is familiar with the windows and application specific keystrokes enabling one to interact with both the operating system and the specific application being used. In addition, the assistive software has keystrokes available to allow for interacting with specific portions of the screen. This enables the user to review such aspects as character, word, sentence (if implemented), line, paragraph and the entire window contents.
TVI Answer: Tablets and smart phones – touch screen devices – have a different gesture set when used with the native screen reader. Students can drag a finger around to explore the screen and they can learn the physical location of frequently used buttons. When the student’s finger touches an item on the screen, the screen reader will announce the item. The student then double taps to activate the announced item. The touch screen device can be paired with a Bluetooth keyboard or a refreshable braille display. There are numerous short cut gestures, Bluetooth keyboard commands and refreshable braille display commands that can be used to efficiently navigate and interact with touch screens running a screen reader.
4. How much will this stuff cost?
AT Answer: This is dependent on the type of technology needed by the employee/student. Though the cost may seem high there are often trials available either free or paid which enables the user to be sure that this software is the right one for his/her needs. Service Maintenance agreements are also available to allow for prepayment of software upgrades that generally occur either on a yearly or six-month schedule depending on the vender.
TVI Answer: Traditionally, software and devices (such as a stand-alone braille notetaker) were developed specifically for students with VIB. However, there are now options of mainstream devices that contain built-in accessibility features including magnification and screen readers. As classrooms transition to digital classrooms, there are new mainstream technology solutions that are beneficial for students with visual impairments. These mainstream solutions tend to cost significantly less. Example: Students with low vision can now access the classroom “board” using a screen-sharing app that displays the information on the whiteboard directly on the student’s computer or tablet. The student can then use built-in magnification features as needed. This technology solution may replace the more bulky and pricey CCTV or magnification system created specifically for students with low vision. Also keep in mind that providing accessible digital materials significantly minimizes or eliminates the need to produce materials into braille and to transcribe the braille materials back into print.
5. We only use ___ (substitute software or app name) around here; we do not allow _____ (substitute software or app name).
AT Answer: Unfortunately at this juncture not all software, apps and devices are accessible for students/adults with VIB. The AT specialist and TVI along with the IEP team will need to come up with alternatives to allow for the student to perform those functions of the job or educational expectations that are based on the use of software package.
TVI Answer: Ideally, the school/district has carefully chosen apps and software that are accessible; however, if that is not the case, then exceptions must be made to provide the student with VIB access to the same materials as his/her classmates. Please be aware that there are instances that software/apps are labeled “accessible” but truly are not. Be sure that someone knowledgeable about accessibility checks the software/app before the student is expected to use it. There are times that a student with VIB may benefit from software/application that is not on the approved list for students. A prime example of this is a screen-sharing app in order for the student with low vision to view what is on the whiteboard as there are a few districts that restrict this kind of app. (There are free screen-sharing apps that do not allow the student to control the teacher’s device.)
6. The student already has a piece of technology – why does he/she need something else?
TVI Answer: Technology needs change depending on the student’s skills and educational tasks. Example: A preschool student may start with an iPad paired with a refreshable braille display, then move to using an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard and eventually that child will transition to a computer with a screen reader. Keep in mind that technology – especially technology that is accessible – is rapidly changing. Devices and software that were not accessible last year may be partially or totally accessible now. New technologies – such as a full screen braille display that could provide tactile data visualization information – may be available in the future.
7. We update all student devices twice a year – why does your TVI need to control when the device is updated?
TVI Answer: Many school owned devices are typically updated district-wide by the IT staff. Accessibility features, especially screen readers, often have bugs after a major software update. It is critical that devices used by students with VIB be updated ONLY after careful accessibility consideration after a major software update. On the flip side, additional app updates may fix broken accessibility features. In which case, these apps (after careful consideration) may need to be updated immediately. TVIs and students should carefully research whether an update is beneficial or detrimental and then have the control over when to or when not to update. Additionally, TVIs should have the ability to add educational software/apps to the student’s device; often these apps are accessible and substituted when the district approved app is not accessible. Other times, these software/apps are specifically designed for students with VIB and are not beneficial for other students. These special apps are often funding through the Exceptional Children’s Department.
For additional information about technology for students with VIB, go to: