Technology in the Classroom for Students with Low Vision and Legal Blindness

by Kathy Robinson

Classrooms are certainly looking different these days. Sure there are still rows or groups of tables or desks usually in the center of the room but, if you look along the periphery of the classroom, you will most often find counters filled with computers, printers, scanners and some unusual-looking pieces of high tech equipment. In our secondary schools, where students move from room to room, you will see students with a variety of things on their tables/desks ranging anywhere from binders and textbooks to laptop computers and even iPads. Go into a secondary school or even post-secondary library and the first thing you may notice is the lack of stacks filled with books. The stacks have been replaced with counters and work stations for computer use.

Technology is used by so many students today and our students who have visual impairments are no exception. This is a very exciting time, technologically speaking, for our students because the tools that are available to them truly help in “leveling out the playing field” and allowing them the access to the same materials as fully sighted peers and, in most cases where a visual impairment is the only presenting challenge, without modification to the curriculum.

One of the primary concerns that parents and their children have, is that the use of technology in regular classrooms will make their child “stand out” or “look different”. It is important to know that our students today grow up with such a variety of media and exposure to cultural, religious, social and physical diversity that things which used to be regarded as “different” are now simply the norm. Often it is the case that the student with the visual impairment, because he/she cannot see it, is not aware that there are so many others using technology and doing things in different ways. This is a learning opportunity for our students with visual impairments to become aware that others have exceptional needs and helps them to be more understanding and sensitive to the needs of others thereby becoming more compassionate and accepting people themselves.

When setting up a classroom to accommodate technology, the teacher needs to consult with the vision resource teacher and/or the student with the visual impairment when appropriate to ensure that the student is placed in the location that helps them see best. For example, a student with better vision in the right eye is placed near the front and to the left of the center of the classroom. A student with no vision at all in the right eye can be placed near the front and well right of center. It is also advisable for a student who is using technology to be near a wall so that they can plug in their equipment when necessary. It is also desirable to have a larger work surface to accommodate the pieces of equipment that the student needs to access on a regular basis. Having this accessible to the student reduces the need for the student to get out of their seat to walk to a different area of the classroom thereby reducing the amount of class interruption.

When a student requires specialized equipment to allow them to access the curriculum, it is necessary for a qualified person to make the recommendation. If there is no qualified person employed at the school Board, an external recommendation is required. SEA or Special Equipment Amount will not be granted without a recommendation from a qualified authorizer. There are several ways to get recommendations for classroom equipment. W. Ross Macdonald School has consultants that will travel to schools, assess a student’s needs and make appropriate recommendations for equipment to be used at school. These consultants are available at no cost to school Boards and are available if the student meets the necessary criteria. They cannot, however, recommend equipment for home use that will be claimed through the Assistive Devices Program or ADP.

It is beneficial for a student to be using the same technology at school as at home and, therefore, it is optimal for parents, should they be considering equipment for home use, to be aware of what their child is using at school. In many cases, the Vision Technology Service, a service component of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University can make recommendations for both home and school as can the Low Vision Clinic at the University of Waterloo. If recommendations are being made for the school by any of these external sources, it is imperative that they have input from the school Board staff as these are the people who will be implementing the use of the equipment within their buildings and they will know what is going best meet the needs of the student in their class.

Although some of the guidelines for SEA have changed for most claims – those being generally for students with learning and other disabilities – it appears that the funding for students with visual impairments has not been changed to any great degree. For students with visual impairments, funding will continue to be accessed through a claims-based process. The SEA claim must include an assessment from an appropriately qualified professional, proof of purchase and a copy of the student’s current Individual Education Plan or IEP which must demonstrate that the use of equipment “aligns with the program and report card, reflects a logical thread from assessment data to the student’s areas of strength and need, accommodation and/or program section, the program sections provides measurable learning expectations related to Ontario curriculum for modified subjects/courses, and/or includes alternative skill areas as appropriate, and demonstrates the student is using the equipment, and, where appropriate, that the student is using the equipment for provincial testing.” (Special Education Funding Guidelines Spring 2010 Ministry of Education)

With the increasing amount of equipment available to students with visual impairments, it is important for a purchaser to know what is going to best meet the needs of their child or student. A CCTV or closed circuit television is often a required piece of equipment and there are many on the market. They all have special features and, in many cases, can do a variety of things. For example, the Acrobat from Aroga, the Magnilink from Microcomputer Science Center, the PEARL from Frontier Computing and the SmartView Graduate are examples of ‘portable’ video cameras that have the ability to project images to a computer which can then be magnified to the required degree. This is a great tool for a student in higher grades to gain access to what is being written on the whiteboard or blackboard as well as view other areas of the classroom by turning the camera head. These can also be used for close viewing and magnifying the print or diagrams in a textbook right on the student’s desk. Because the cameras are mounted on an arm, and sometimes an articulated arm, that either is clamped to the desk top or fits into a stand that is placed on the desk, the desk must be solid and stable to avoid vibrations and other movements that will affect the quality of the image.

In classrooms with younger children, arm mounted camera CCTVs are not often practical. Instead, desktop models such as the Optelec Clearview from Microcomputer Science, the SmartView from Humanware or the Merlin from Aroga are good options. They are available in a variety of monitor sizes and are great tools for students to view detail in pictures, graphs, maps and also for viewing print. A CCTV like the myReader is a good tool for readers as it enlarges to the necessary size and can change from a row layout to a column layout or word layout as necessary. The print is very clear and it is an easy machine to use but it does not work well for viewing details in diagrams or pictures as the picture quality becomes grainy upon enlargement.Having the CCTV available to the student in the classroom enables the student to access required materials immediately and independently.

Another tool that is vital to a student with a visual impairment is a personal computer. Typically, PCs have always been recommended as the almost all of the accommodative software that a student with a visual impairment needs requires a windows operating system. With the relatively new built-in accessibility features of the Mac, more and more Macs are being recommended. The built-in accessibility features such as screen readers and touch zoom capabilities, Macs are quickly becoming more attractive to computer users who, with using a Mac, no longer need to purchase Kurzweil or ZoomText. Macs can also run Windows which is a nice feature for greater user flexibility. Kurzweil 1000 and 3000 basically are software products that enable a user to scan printed material into their computer and have it read to them using either keystrokes or the mouse. With the Kurzweil 3000, students can also extract phrases or information by highlighting with the mouse and transferring the phrase or information to their own document thus simplifying the task of note-taking. ZoomText is a software product that allows the user to increase the size of the print or image on the computer screen to whatever size suits them best. It, too, has reading capabilities and has been a staple tool for many years for students with visual impairments.

It is important to remember that when a student is prescribed specialized equipment, they will require some intense training and support as they learn how this technology will impact their lives. We, as educators, must realize that the students are coming from a place where they have learned to ‘get by’ and that by giving them this equipment, are now asking them to improve on what they have been able to do in the past. We need to be patient with the learning curve of the student but also understand that the students will need encouragement to use the new equipment until they are at a place where they, themselves, recognize the benefits from using the equipment.

With so very many products on the market today, it is a wise and prudent shopper who will search out products on-line, speak with professionals, and gain input from current users in order to get the equipment that will best serve the needs of their child or student in the environment in which it will be used, understanding that, as the needs of the child or student change, so, too will it be necessary to explore other products. Having said that, if a child or student is comfortable with the equipment and software they are using and they are using it effectively, there is no need to change every time a new piece of equipment or software comes on the market. In order to protect the integrity and ensure the security of both the SEA and the ADP programs, we must be prudent in the amount of equipment we purchase and must be able to prove that the equipment is meeting the child’s needs and does, indeed, succeed in “leveling out the playing field.”

Kathy Robinson is a Vision Resource Teacher for the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board in Barrie, Ontario. She has been a classroom teacher in both elementary and secondary school classrooms and has been the itinerant teacher to students with visual impairments for the past 10 years.

Published August 2011