Assistive Educational Technology

Teaching math at Perkins has evolved since the 1850s, when students used wooden arithmetic slates to show numeric values and to add, subtract or multiply. Today, students can use a tactile graphics pad for complex equations.

Source: Adding it up

Assistive Technology in Education

Students with visual impairments face unique challenges in the educational environment. Not only must they be able to access text information across all curricular areas, but they also need to be able to participate fully in instruction that is often rich with visual content. Assistive technology is one way of supporting them in that process.

Consideration of assistive technology by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team is required for all students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and when deemed appropriate, it must be provided and supported by the local education agency. This is to ensure that students with disabilities have the tools necessary to fully access and participate in the curriculum, with the greatest possible level of independence. Even more important, use of assistive technology helps prepare students for independent living, vocational pursuits, or higher education following graduation from high school!

“Assistive technology” refers to a range of tools, devices, and strategies that allow a student to accomplish a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or would have difficulty accomplishing effectively. Assistive technology can be simple or complex. Examples of low tech tools for students with visual impairments might include enlarged text or raised line paper, while high tech tools may encompass digital tools that “read” to the student, connect to a braille display, or even incorporate GPS.

The term “visual impairment” describes a broad range of visual abilities and needs. Because each child is unique, what works well for one student may not work well for another. Selection of assistive technology should be the result of a team process that takes into consideration feedback from family, educators, paraprofessionals, and the student. It is important to remember that “high-tech” is not always the best solution for a student. Selected tools should reflect the student’s unique strengths and needs, the activities he needs to be able to accomplish, and the environment in which he will be working. A student’s need for assistive technology will likely change and evolve throughout his or her education, and in most cases, no single tool will meet all of a student’s needs.

The purpose of this resource guide is to provide an introduction to the types of assistive technology that may benefit students with visual impairments. Specific products and their features are not described here. Instead, a general overview of tools will help raise your awareness so that you are able to determine what tools to investigate further. A list of additional resources and vendors is provided at the end of this guide if you’d like to learn more. There is also a glossary of terms if you are unfamiliar with some of the terminology related to assistive technology and visual impairments.


Further Reading:

AT for Reading

Reading is an essential part of learning. Students rely on textbooks in science and social studies, complete word problems in math, and complete assessments that are often text-based. Assistive technology tools to support reading should reflect the student’s level of visual functioning, their literacy development, as well as the environmental and task demands.

Environmental Considerations: Consider lighting and positioning of materials for optimal visual function.

Enlarged Text: For students with some existing visual function, providing text information in enlarged format may be the simplest strategy. As a general rule of thumb, 18 point or 24 point font size is good, but enlarging beyond that may not be efficient.

Enlarged text can be acquired through a variety of sources, including publishers and vendors, or materials modified through the magnification feature of copy machines, while text size of most digital materials can be easily adjusted to a user’s preference. (See Screen Readers for Text)

Handheld Magnifiers: These low-tech, portable tools allow students with some vision to access not only text, but other objects in their environment as well. They are available in a range of magnification power, are relatively inexpensive, and eliminate some material modification. (See Low Vision Aids)

Video Magnifier: A video magnifier can be used for other objects as well. It may be in the form of handheld device, a stand-alone device, or work with a computer, TV or projection system. (See Low Vision Aids)

Braille: For students who do not have sufficient vision to rely on other supports, Braille is an essential tool for teaching literacy skills and will serve as a lifelong skill. Learning Braille allows students to experience aspects of written language such as spelling, grammar and sentence structure, and will provide a valuable foundation for written language. Braille products can be obtained commercially or can be created using specialized software and a braille embosser. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Braille Labeler: Labelling items throughout the student’s environment will not only reinforce vocabulary, spelling and reading but will also promote independence and assist with orientation. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Audio Books: Audio books are generally recorded using human voice, and can be accessed through the use of specialized computer software, devices, or mainstream tools like MP3 players. The various devices allow options in features such as searching and navigating an audio file. While many students will find the use of audio books useful, educators warn not to rely solely on audio books for access to text. (See Apps for the Blind for Audiobooks Reader, Learning Resources for Audiobooks)

Students who are still developing literacy skills need continued access to print or braille, while preferences of older students vary. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Digital Text: The use of digital text provides one of the widest ranges of options to students with varying needs. Visual aspects of documents and text can be customized, a variety of supports can be easily integrated, and digital text can be obtained through numerous resources.

Digital text materials can be obtained commercially, through providers of accessible instructional materials, or created by instructors and students themselves, and can be accessed through a variety of tools including computers, mobile devices, or specialized devices such as braille notetakers. Digital Text:

  • Allows user to adjust the visual display including font size, color, and contrast.

  • Can be viewed on an enlarged monitor.

  • Can be magnified at levels, with chosen area of the display and visual qualities

  • Can be read by Text-To-Speech (TTS) software. Some programs will highlight words as they are read, allowing students to follow along.

  • Can be used in Refreshable braille displays providing students with the option to read the text tactually.

  • Can be generated from scanned printed texts by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. OCR scanners can be handheld or freestanding.

Audio-Supported Reading (ASR): The concept of ASR was first elucidated in a paper written for the AIM Center (Jackson, 2012). Focusing on students who are blind or who have low vision, the paper defined ASR as a technique for reading in which users access a digital text format for displaying magnified print or refreshable braille along with TTS screen reader technology. The paper noted that students who are blind or have low vision have always been challenged by limited access to reading materials customarily available to the general population. Today, digitization of printed materials in accessible formats has greatly reduced this access problem, but the efficient use of accessible materials for purposes of learning remains a central challenge.

Further complicating this challenge is the fact that print and braille reading rates for blind and low vision learners compare unfavorably to those of typically-seeing classmates. These comparatively depressed reading rates are an unfortunate yet seemingly unavoidable consequence of the limitations of the tactile and impaired visual systems.

A distinct advantage of audio-supported reading in addressing reading rate issues is that ASR allows the user to bypass the sensory and motor skills typically required for reading connected text by allowing an individual to listen to text read aloud at substantially faster rates. Today technologies are in use that far exceed the capabilities of the “talking book machines” and audio tape players of yesteryear. Application of these technologies makes possible an entirely new approach to reading and working with text. Using screen magnification or refreshable (paperless) braille simultaneously or in combination with speech gives the reader the potential to cover text at rates comparable to those of typically-sighted readers. The use of TTS technology to accompany either refreshable braille or screen-magnified print serves as a support for making reading in the student’s primary modality (print or braille) more efficient. In ASR, speech is not a substitute for braille or print reading but rather an enhancement of those media that makes the entire reading process more efficient for purposes of processing material in a timely fashion with good comprehension.

In the field of educating blind and visually impaired children, learning to read either braille or magnified print and learning to listen to spoken text have been approached as separate domains of learning within specialized curriculum for teaching students who are blind or visually impaired. First, of paramount importance to the young child is to establish a primary learning medium in either print or braille through a process known as the Learning Media Assessment or LMA. Then, learning to listen to text is introduced at a later time in the child’s literacy development, largely for the purpose of compensating for the relative paucity of reading materials available in either braille or large print. One notable exception to the separation of text reading from listening was proposed by Evens (1997) using an approach she called audio-assisted reading. In this approach, students who struggle with reading braille use tape recorded material to follow along while reading hardcopy braille. Evans’ proposed audio-assisted reading was intended explicitly for the purpose of building braille reading speed. The goal was to remove the listening component once speed of hand tracking and braille character recognition were hastened. Evans was particularly concerned with students whose braille reading skills were lagging behind those of their braille reading peers. Thus, she proposed to examine the potential effects that audio-assisted reading might have on correcting deficits in braille reading fluency. Audio-assisted reading had great intuitive appeal since it mimicked so well the widely applied practice of the read-aloud where a teacher serves as a model of proficient oral reading for students to follow along with for the purpose of improving reading speed (Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002).

Further Reading:

Talking Word Processor

Talking Word Processors are writing software programs that provide speech feedback as the student writes, echoing each letter as it is typed and each word as the spacebar is pressed. These programs often include other assistive features such as word prediction and spell check.

Talking Typer for Windows

Computer keyboarding and typing training software that speaks and displays lessons on screen. It includes drills, practice, and typing games and is adjustable to the student's level of skill and sight impairment.

Recommended ages: 6 and older.

AT for Writing

Writing Tools: Using bold felt-tip markers or soft lead pencils can provide greater contrast on paper, allowing students with low vision to read with greater ease. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Adaptive Paper: Specialized paper with darkened lines, raised lines, or using color can significantly improve the writing of students with low vision. (See Readers and Writers for Tactile Graphics)

Slate and Stylus: A slate and stylus can be equated to paper and pencil for individuals who are blind. This simple low tech tool allows students to quickly and efficiently complete simple tasks like creating labels or writing notes to themselves. The slate and stylus is not practical for longer writing tasks. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Handheld Digital Recorder: A handheld digital recorder allows the student to record lectures, dictate assignments, or make notes to self.

Video Magnification/CCTV: Writing with traditional paper and pencil under a video magnification camera allows the student to view their work in real time through the use of a large monitor.

Word Processor: Word processors are readily available and are highly adaptable. Text size and font can be customized or built-in operating system accessibility features can be used to enhance the visual display. The use of adaptive keyboards with high contrast or enlarged keys can also be utilized

Word Processor with Specialized Software: Text-to-speech software can create a “talking word processor” which provides feedback to the student about what they have typed, while speech recognition software allows the student to dictate into a microphone, which the computer translates into text. Screen magnification software can enlarge the entire display or only selected portions and may or may not provide audio feedback.

Word Processor with Refreshable Braille Display: For students with no vision, a refreshable braille display can be used in conjunction with the word processor, which will display the text tactually allowing the student to reread and edit their own work. This strategy can be used with or without audio feedback, which supports multisensory learners and allows the student to choose the access method. The incorporation of braille has the potential to significantly improve the editing process. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Manual & Electric Braillewriters: A manual braillewriter is similar to a typewriter and is a simple, yet rugged device that is often introduced to students who are emergent readers and writers. As students progress, they may transition to an electronic braillewriter before beginning to use a braille notetaker. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Braille Notetaker: A braille notetaker is a portable word processing device that utilizes the eight key braille input system and has an integrated refreshable braille display. This tool encompasses many functional areas in addition to writing. Students can use a braille notetaker to complete assignments, read textbooks, and navigate the Internet. Although products and their features vary, many are available with speech output, Wi-Fi connectivity, access to e-mail, calculators, calendars and other personal organizational tools, or GPS navigation systems. The braille notetaker is a lifelong tool and should be introduced as soon as the student demonstrates readiness. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

Braille Embosser: A braille embosser allows the student to print out their completed work in braille format. (See Braille Reader and Writers)

AT for Math

Due to the visual and abstract nature of math concepts, math is perhaps one of the most challenging subjects for students with visual impairments to master. Using two-dimensional, and when possible, 3-dimensional items to represent math concepts, space, diagrams, and graphs is critical to helping students grasp and form mental images of these concepts.

Abacus: The abacus is a critical tool for early math development among students who are blind, but continues to be a practical tool for many students as they get older. It is used to teach early number concepts, operations and fractions, can be used in lieu of paper and pencil, and is a lowtech substitute for a calculator.

Tactile, Braille and Visually Enhanced Manipulatives: Math manipulatives are a critical component to teaching beginning math concepts in primary grades, and continue to play a vital role in grasping math as students progress into middle and secondary school. Here is a list of manipulatives that may be useful to your student:

  • Tactile manipulatives for sorting by size, shape, or other properties

  • Geometric manipulatives can be used to show concepts such as angles, area, and spatial relationships

  • Tactile or braille number line

  • Fraction manipulatives and puzzles

  • Large print/braille dice can be used to reinforce number recognition and play a variety of math games

  • Large print/braille Bingo cards teach students to quickly scan for numbers while reinforcing concepts of horizontal, vertical and diagonal

  • Base-ten blocks and braille math blocks help students “visualize” and manipulate numbers

  • Large print or braille hundreds board

  • Pegboards or geoboards are useful for teaching shapes, spatial relations, or graphing

  • Wikki StixTM can be used to represent lines or shapes

  • Braille flashcards

Low-tech Refreshable Braille Cubes: These non-electric, low-tech tools can be used to introduce and reinforce Nemeth Code (the braille system for writing numbers and math functions), but can also be used to teach patterning and simple math operations.

Manual and Electronic Braillewriters: Can be used for writing out math computations. Although somewhat time consuming and awkward, introducing the braillewriter in early math instruction is useful in helping students understand the steps involved in completing math operations.

Adaptive Calculators: Adaptive calculators range from simple 5-function, to scientific and graphic calculators. Built-in supports include large display and large keys, tactile or braille keys, braille displays (which are very expensive) and talking calculators. In addition, some adaptive calculators are compatible with a computer or CCTV for viewing on a large monitor. Digital talking calculators are also available for both computers and mobile devices or are integrated into advanced math software.

Adaptive Measurement Tools: Measurement tools can be adapted through large print, tactile cues or braille, or electronic devices are available with audio feedback, as with a talking measuring tape. Some examples include rulers, tape measures, protractors and compasses.

Adaptive Time Pieces: Tools for teaching and telling time can be adapted with large print, tactile cues, braille or auditory feedback, and may include clocks, watches, and calendars.

Talking Money Identifier: This handheld device may be helpful for students when learning and working with money.

Adaptive Paper and Tactile Graphics: While 2- and 3-dimensional manipulatives are preferable for representing charts, graphs, diagrams, tables, angles and shapes, when unavailable, tactile graphics can utilized as well. These can be purchased, or created using swell paper, or produced using specialized software and an embosser. Other adaptive paper includes raised-line graph paper.

Specialized Math Software: Depending on the software being used, accessing and completing math assignments digitally allows the use of supports such as screen magnification, text-to-speech support, audio representation of graphics, and translation into Nemeth code.

Digit Talking Calculator

Eight-digit talking calculator that features an automatic power shutoff. Measures 5" high and 6-7/8" wide. Requires two AA batteries (not included). Includes 90-day manufacturer's warranty.

Jumbo Display Folding Calculator

Folding Calculator

Compact LCD eight-digit calculator with large number (½”) display. Powered by solar energy and battery back-up.

Calculator Desk Model, Large Display

Desk calculator with an 8-digit LCD readout on a module that can be moved up or down for better visibility. Numbers are 5/8" high and keys are .62 inches wide for better visibility and for ease of use. Uses solar power and back-up batteries (included).

17.Assistive technologies for mathematics:Braille compass, Braille ruler, Braille protractor, Raised line graph, Braille cube

Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator

A modified Ti-84 Plus with a small attachment capable of reading the calculator's screen aloud. The attached unit allows the user to navigate graphs through speech and audible tones; designated keys can be used to control volume, rate, pause, silence, repeat, and also change preferences. The unit features built-in stereo speakers, though a headphone jack is available so that headphones may be used.SciPlus-2200 (Scientific Calculator)

Large button, big display scientific calculator designed specifically for users with low vision. Performs scientific, statistical and trigonometric calculations, and fractions. Performs a comprehensive set of advanced mathematical and statistical functions. Features include large 6" four-line display with adjustable contrast, inverse video, and four-level backlight. Features a long-lasting battery and includes USB charger and country specific adapter. Available in blue or silver.