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Technology to break down the barriers for students with vision impairment

Carolyn Palmer
The Flinders University of South Australia

The provision of an appropriate education for students with a vision impairment requires a cooperative effort from professionals, parents and other significant players in order to ensure that the needs of this group of students are identified and resources secured. They may need specialised materials and equipment to enable them to participate in learning and to access information that is readily available to their sighted peers. Technology has the potential to provide the full range of educational possibilities for the student with vision impairment. This includes the curricular activities of the school as well as recreational and social usage. There its already a great range of databases information accessible by computer and this is increasing all the time. Of significance is the potential of computers as a communication medium to overcome the barriers imposed by print. This enables students with vision impairment to access curriculum more easily and those with no useful vision to produce material in both braille and print.

This paper will outline how technology contributes to the provision of more equal access to learning for students with vision impairment. It will discuss how it can provide these students with a broad range of alternatives to print, the opportunity to function more competently in a sighted world, and access to a broad range of curriculum materials. Finally it will describe how technology can enhance learning and increase self confidence.

The capacity to think, imagine, discover, problem solve and invent new tools has always been crucial to human development. It has also been basic to education. Students who attend school in the nineties live in an age when technology pervades society and influences lifestyle. As a result they learn with and through it (Education Department of South Australia, 1990).

Students with a vision impairment live in a sighted world. For them the challenge of technology is even greater because it provides them with the tool that enables them to gain access to the curriculum and to participate in schooling on a more equal footing with their sighted peers. The South Australian Education Department policy Students with Disabilities recognises all children, as students with a right to equality of educational opportunity (Education Department of South Australia, 1991). To this end they have developed a Negotiated Curriculum Plan that will ensure that students with disabilities not only receive an appropriate education but that they are able to gain access to and participate in the curriculum as valued class members. It ensures that the student is adequately resourced to achieve this and that learning outcomes are planned.

The challenge for teachers and parents is to select appropriate technology to ensure that this is possible. Technology, if used well and if chosen with knowledge and experience in both its use and potential, will make a significant difference in the education of students with vision impairment in their preparation for independent, successful living as adults in a sighted world.

The computer revolution has had an impact on every aspect of life. Computers and microcomputers are found everywhere. They are used in businesses, in local shops, libraries, transport, vending machines, in kitchen appliances, in telecommunication systems, to name but a few. People with vision impairment can gain access to computers through many kinds of technology such as synthetic speech, software that enlarges print on a screen, electronic braille, electronically embossed braille, scanning and reading devices. It must be noted however that while each possesses unique advantages they also have unique limitations. (Ruconich, 1984)

The computer provides teachers with a means by which they can enhance learning opportunities. It brings flexibility to the class room and enables access to a broader curriculum at different ability levels. Computers can provide an alternative learning mode. A survey of computer use in 44 schools by Mokros and Russell in Martin (1986) found that many teachers used computers for drill and practice exercises. They were also considered effective as a motivational tool to be used upon the successful completion of work. There is an increasing emphasis at the present time on the analysis of information and participation in decision making. Problem solving skills are also recognised as important and provide students with the opportunity to use previously acquired knowledge and understanding and apply it to unfamiliar situations. Computers can contribute to problem solving activities by providing a variety of situations, appropriate task difficulties, sequenced activities and controlled positive feed back (Martin, 1986).

The impact of computers on students with a visual impairment

Vision impairment imposes limits on access both in areas of communication and mobility. Students who are blind or partially sighted are print handicapped, the totally blind being dependent on braille. They are constantly challenged in the classroom. The focus on learning has changed. Educational outcomes are planned and students are expected to problem solve, discover, think, interpret and question. They are expected to take responsibility for their own learning. They need to learn how to learn The presentation of material. both by the teacher and in text books, is increasingly visual in nature. Charts, diagrams, pictures, maps and graphs are used more and more and visual layout and the use of colour can seriously disadvantage the student with severe vision impairment.

These students need alternative ways of presenting visual information by sensory translation. By substituting auditory and/or tactile material for visual they are able to access the medium of print. The micro- computer and micro-processor based aids can assist them to achieve a greater level of 'normal' functioning. Nevertheless, relevance to specific educational needs must be carefully examined in terms of practical application in an educational setting. In the area of mobility, computers have been of limited value in overcoming limits to independence. Although aids such as sonic guide, mowat sensor and light probe order and sequence spatial information for the user, human capacity for spatial awareness, spatial memory and perception can limit their effectiveness as solutions to mobility problems.

Access to computers

Access is aided by the computer in terms of communication and handling information.

The development of synthetic speech output from computers has proved an important step in bridging the information gap between children with a significant loss of vision and their sighted peers. Voice synthesis has become the most common and also the most economical way for students with vision impairment to gain access to the computer screen. Text, normally displayed on a computer screen is processed and spoken by a synthesiser. For students with limited vision, although print enlargement can be helpful, many find that they can achieve greater reading speed through synthetic speech (Department of School Education, 1990). A combination of hardware and software provides the same access to computer displays on screen as their sighted peers. For students with no useful vision, add on braille devices can create braille which appears on an accompanying or built in factual display and is read by touch (Rust, 1992)

Word processing, computerisation of databases and optical character recognition has meant that vast numbers of documents can be available to blind and vision Impaired people (Noonan, 1992:115).
The use of a computer that has provisions for synthetic speech, large print display or braille output, allows students to access information independently and reproduce it in an appropriate sized print or embossed braille. Because braille is by nature a code which is definable, it lends itself to electronic transfer. Computer generated braille materials have become practical and effective in reducing the cost of braille production thus making more books available to the blind.

Developments in information access for students with vision impairment

An essential component of modern life is the ability to access information. Basic to this is the ability to read. For students with severe vision impairments human readers, tape recordings, enlarged print, Braille, Optacon output and computer access devices have been used as a means of accessing information. All reading methods have a vital role in assisting these students to participate more equally in education, employment and recreation. New reading technologies serve to supplement and enhance the reading process. Newer computer-based technologies also contribute to the production and speed of provision of reading materials by automation and enhancement of braille and large print production. (Noonan, 1992)

Braille, in particular has become much more available and accessible. The production of sophisticated software has reduced the amount of human intervention required to convert word processing into quality braille. Recent efforts have also enabled computer programs to produce maths and science in braille, thus increasing the speed of production and making these subjects more accessible. Also, according to Noonan (1992:115),

the use of telephone based voice digitisation means that a single reading by a human of a newspaper or memo can be instantly available to any users of the voice messenger system, via the basic touch-tone telephone.
The advent of fax machines has meant that short print document can be sent to voluntary readers who are then able to read their contents over the phone giving quick access to important material.

Word processing, computerised data bases and optical character recognition have also assisted in opening the world of print to students with vision impairment. Material can be scanned by devices such as OsCaR, designed by TeleSensory. This is an automatic print reading system, which together with TeleSensory access devices, allows blind or vision impaired students to work with print independently. Recognition can take place as fast as 15 seconds, and with Vert providing audio output, an individual they can access material independently. OsCaR also converts print to refreshable or hard copy braille. Coupled with a refreshable braille display or using the optional built in software program that translates text into Grade 2 braille the student can either read the information or send it to a braille printer for a hard copy. For students with significantly low vision, OsCaR can be teamed with a computer magnification system such as Vista (TeleSensory). Printed material can be scanned and enlarged on a computer screen. Text can then be read edited, manipulated or reviewed with a choice of enlargement. (OsCaR systems 1994)

Some current textbooks. encyclopedias, dictionaries, abstracts, research documents, newspapers, journals and magazines are available on disk, CD Rom and online information services. Microsoft Bookshelf, for example contains the American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Electronic Thesaurus, Colombia Concise Encyclopedia, Word Almanac, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and the Concise Colombia Dictionary of Quotations (Dalton 1993). An exciting project submitted to DEET for funding by Townsend House was based on an American Model, Project CD VisRom (Dalton 1993). Adaptive computing hardware and software will be used to give remote access to information contained in CD Rom software via telecommunications from school to home.

Overcoming the barriers

While technology is not the panacea for all of the educational needs of students with vision impairment, it is clear that it makes a difference in terms of access and the production of material in a form that teachers in regular schools are able to interpret. For older students it provides a medium that is fast, efficient and reliable as long as the student has appropriate training in its use and is confident in working with its applications. Technology can be used to complement existing curriculum by enabling its presentation in a range of different forms, (tactual and auditory). It does not take the place of sound pedagogy, but it does assist teachers in meeting the needs of students for whom vision is not the major learning sense.

The careful selection of appropriate technology is crucial. Identification of student's needs and the selection of appropriate hardware, software and peripherals must be based on careful assessment, of physical and cognitive levels of development. Time is also a crucial factor and teachers must balance the benefits of computers against curriculum demands and educational needs of the student. Computers must enhance learning and be used to ensure that learning outcomes are improved. Appropriate technology used confidently and knowledgeably, is a tool that will extend the capabilities of these students.

The potential of technology is obvious. Nevertheless, although adaptations to overcome print handicap enable the student with vision impairment to work with the same materials as their sighted peers, the impact of technology can in fact widen the gap for them. Computers enable sighted students to process information more quickly, to review, select and produce results more efficiently. Students with vision impairment are limited by their level of skill in perception and cognition. They are denied, by their disability, the skills they most need to benefit from technology. So the role of the teacher in preparing students for the use of technology is multifaceted.

Students require substantial training in the use of vision, cognition and perception. Listening skills are crucial. Tactual skills training is basic to the interpretation of factual graphics and maximum independent efficiency in the use of devices such as NOMAD a device that enables independent study of very detailed graphical information.

Technology that provides access for students with vision impairment

Braille word processors

Students who have no useful vision use braille as their preferred learning medium. This must be considered when considering technology. Students have the option of hardware that is operated using a braille keyboard, a Qwerty key board or both. With the development of options that allow the selection of a range of different methods of output, material from the screen can be printed in braille or text or can be listened to by the operator. The Versa braille machine and other 'paperless' braille devices enable blind operators to store masses of information on cassette tape, edit it and retrieve it at the press of a button. These devices also able access to computers and other equipment such as typewriters and braille printers.

The Eureka A4, designed in consultation with potential users, contains a unique combination of features. It has been described as the world's first personal computer specifically designed for people with vision impairment. It is the size of an A4 piece of paper and about one inch thick. It has a built in disk drive and modem. It has no screen, instead it has a high quality speech synthesiser. The braille keyboard is supplemented by a number of control keys. In addition an exceptional Qwerty keyboard can be connected. In addition to voice output, a large capacity storage for text, data and programs, it can be used as a note taker, database, word processor, diary, and telephone directory. Added features include a general purpose calculator incorporating scientific functions, time and date keeping functions, and a thermometer. The basic interpreter and a disk operating System enable the Eureka to be used as a personal computer. The in built telephone modem, provides the link to world-wide computer networks and data-bases via telephone. This device fills the gap which has long existed in the range of resources for students with vision impairment and is being used currently by students at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education (Eureka, 1993).

Braille to print

Students must have appropriate technology and at the same time teachers must be able to interpret their work. The Braille'n'Print machine has been of enormous benefit to blind students in allowing them to produce print versions of braille. It has also enabled student's work to be presented in a medium that teachers can read. As with all technology, however, students must be trained to use these machines independently while teachers must be able to trouble shoot when faults occur.

Portable note taking devices

Students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning. They need to keep track of information, take notes, find important dates, names and phone numbers quickly and write essays. A number of portable, hand-held braille note takers have been designed to assist students in these activities. They are small, pocket sized and light weight. These devices have editing facilities, text to speech and print output facilities and built in calculators. They allow students to store, edit, organise and retrieve information quickly, quietly and reliably, often with greater ease than their sighted peers. One such device, the Braille'n'Speak, manufactured by Quantum, can be used as a talking computer terminal and a braille to print transcriber as well as a work processor, talking calculator, clock calendar and a talking telephone directory (Quantum, 1990). BrailleMate, another hand held note taker gives continuous feedback of entered text for instant recall and correction. It has automatic braille scrolling and an internal speech synthesiser. TeleSensory's Soft Vert screen access program enables BrailleMate to provide synchronised speech output to IBM PCs or compatible computers (TeleSensory, 1994).

Tactile translations

Students who are blind or vision impaired are constantly challenged by the increasingly visual nature of the material which is presented to them. Some subjects such as maths, biology, geography, physics, electronics and economics have a high graphics content. To teach these subjects, teacher assistance is necessary and resources in the form of factual maps and diagrams are expensive and time consuming to produce. Developments in tactile graphics by the computer generation of symbols have expanded the limited amount of material available to students in the area of diagrammatic and graphic representation - practical realities are only limited by the human capacity for tactile perception. NOMAD is one such program. It enables very detailed graphical information to be prepared very quickly and simply which the students can study independently.

Computer generated speech

Computer generated speech via a speech synthesiser using either stored or unlimited vocab make computer assisted learning possible. These devices utilise both stored and unlimited vocab techniques. The text is both video displayed and spoken. Speech syntheses is a powerful tool which is the gateway for some students to a complete range of information handling devices which can assist them in their pathway through schooling.

Large print displays

Closed circuit televisions have long enabled some students the option of print rather than braille. They are a valuable teaching tool which enable them to magnify print or objects to 60 or more times the original size. Colour monitors are useful for some students while black on white or white on black suit others. Closed circuit televisions have been useful for the study of science as well as for reading.

The view scan text system (a portable, battery powered L. screen text reader and Microcomputer) enables partially sighted users to read print displayed on a screen after a mouse-style hand-held reader is passed over the text.

Print to speech

The Kurzwell Reading Machine converts almost all typewritten and typist material into speech. The machine combines sophisticated pattern recognition, speech synthesis and text to speech conversion techniques. It also serves as a talking calculator capable of performing complex logarithmic, trigonometric and exponential functions. It provides voice output for computers and can be used to convert printed material into the digital signals required to drive braille printers.

Text to braille systems in addition to text to speech provide a wealth of information via a computer. The potential is obvious. According to Hannaford and Sloan ( 1981:54) the micro-computer when properly programmed can:

The limitations of a vision impairment are electronically over-ridden as technology makes provision for speed, motivation, revision. It can enable the vision impaired user to compete with others on a more equal basis in educational and/or vocational settings. Technology can be applied to provide both sophisticated and simple, practical solutions in an educational setting. It can be used to increase awareness of surroundings, provide access to information which can be relayed in forms other than visual, increase safety, provide enjoyment in leisure time, aid employment and increase self confidence. It can provide the vision impaired student with an opportunity to function more competently in a sighted world by the provision of a broad range of alternatives to print. In other words it is a highly versatile and important tool for accomplishing educational and vocational tasks.

On the other hand, technology requires thorough training, is often reliant on the operator having visual concepts, is expensive and much sophisticated equipment and research is directed to a minority group of users. The computer must be used properly. Adaptations should enable students to operate programs independently. Programs need to be tailored to meet individual needs and must be flexible enough to allow for the range of different input devices. The ability to control the speed at which programs can be operated is important. While older students may want to speed up programs, young children and those with no useful sight may need them to operate more slowly. Hardware must provide the best medium for communication with appropriate peripherals where necessary and apparatus must be easy to use. The inclusion of options to allow the selection of a range of different methods of output is essential. Finally it must provide access to a curriculum which is appropriate and adequate to the needs of the student. If it meets these criteria it will be a powerful learning tool which promises the student with a vision impairment the opportunity to function more competently in a sighted world.


Dalton, S. (1993). Project CD Vis ROM. Unpublished research project. Illinois, Research and Development Institute.

Eureka A4 (1993). Robotron Brochure. Victoria, Robotron Pty Ltd.

Martin, Dr. M. (1986). Microcomputers - catering for all students. The Australian Journal of Remedial Education, 18(4).

Noonan, T. (1992). Developments in reading and information access for people who are blind or vision impaired. Melbourne, ANZAEVH Conference Proceedings.

Quantum (1990). More than just a portable note taker: Braille'n'Speak'. QT Newsletter, February.

Ruconich, S. (1984). Evaluating microcomputer access for use by visually impaired students. The Pointer, 28(2).

Rust, M. (1991). Computers for the visually impaired. Melbourne, ANZAEVH Newsletter.

TeleSensory (1994). Braille Mate. TeleSensory information brochure.

TeleSensory (1994). OsCaR systems. TeleSensory information brochure.

Author: Carolyn Palmer, Lecturer Special Education, The Flinders University of South Australia

Please cite as: Palmer, C. (1994). Technology to break down the barriers for students with vision impairment. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 213-218. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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