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Assistive Technology for Students with Visual Impairments

Instructor: April Gwen Ellsworth

April has a master's degree in psychology and has experience teaching special populations from preschoolers to adults.

Assistive technology can level the playing field, so to speak, for students with visual impairments to access the same educational opportunities as others. Read on to learn about audio resources, iOS devices, low-tech items, Braille helps, and more.

Why Use Assistive Technology?

With the advancement of sophisticated technology, educational opportunities for students with visual impairments are abundant. Both high- and low-tech devices take barriers away from students to perform reading, writing, math, and other academic tasks, as well as participate in classroom activities and projects with their peers.

Assistive technology includes any device that aids in a student's learning. Although they should not give students an unfair advantage, they do provide visually impaired students with the least restrictive environment to promote independence and academic progression. Let's take a look at some of the resources available.

Low Tech Aids

For students who need larger print or improved lighting, many low tech aids can be helpful, including:

  • Large print books, calendars, worksheets, vocabulary cards, and so on
  • Markers with various size tips for writing larger fonts on white boards and paper
  • Nite writer pens with built-in lights for illuminating study material
  • Thick-line paper and raised-line paper for tactile cues
  • An abacus for teaching basic math computation skills
  • Variable intensity study lamps for illuminating material more effectively
  • Colored transparency or acetate film over text to provide less page glare
  • Full page writing guides placed over paper to help stay within the writing space

Additionally, a light box provides a lighted surface for higher contrast to objects and learning materials placed on top of it. This is especially helpful when learning visual tracking and scanning, visual-motor integration, visual discrimination, and visual perception skills. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) offers the APH Light Box, or one can make their own light box with a string of lights placed inside of a transparent or translucent container.

Magnifiers

Hand held magnifiers enlarge text and images. For a higher tech alternative, video magnifiers use a camera to transmit images onto a screen that is enlarged for easier viewing. These are very helpful for students who need to change the background contrast for easier reading and larger print on materials and worksheets. The field of view is also enlarged so students can sit at a comfortable distance from their material.

Audio Books

Audio books and publication allow students to hear the written word. An extremely generous amount of books, newspapers, magazines, and the like are available from many sources including, but not limited to, Bookshare, Amazon Kindle, iBook for Apple devices, EBSCOhost, LearningAlly, and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Audio books should not take the place of a student's need to read print, or Braille, since these are life skills. However, audio books are a tremendous aid to students with visual impairments and should be used to give them the same enriching opportunities as other students. Audio playback devices include Victor Reader Stream, Milestone 312, Kindle, iOS Apple devices, Android devices, MP3 players, CD players, laptops and computers. Some of these devices also allow for taking notes and changing text display while reading.

Screen Readers and Text-to-Speech Devices

Screen readers and text-to-speech devices change the written word to audio. These range from software programs that work with speech synthesizers to read what is on a screen to handheld scanning devices that the student places over text to hear it verbalized. Some of these devices are TalkingFingers, Write:OutLoud, Victor Reader Stream, and Dolphin ScreenReader.

Tactile Keyboarding

Students with visual impairments benefit greatly from learning touch typing, allowing them to use a regular keyboard for navigating a computer or laptop with the aid of screen enlargement or a screen reader. Tactile keyboards are also available for learning keystrokes, or for everyday use. Particularly helpful learn-to-type programs are Talking Typer for Windows and Learn Keys: Verbal Keyboard Feedback. These programs speak and display keystrokes as they are typed.

Portable Note Takers

Carry-along note takers use either Braille or Qwerty keyboards and are generally the size of a book for easy transport. Students can use portable note takers to read books in Braille, write class assignments, and record lectures. Some helpful devices are BrailleNote, PAC Mate Omni, and Braille Plus 18.

iOS Devices

It seems the helpful features built into iOS devices by Apple are nearly limitless for students with visual impairments. Some of them include:

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