Assistive Technology is a dynamic area. New, updated, redesigned and emerging technologies compete for attention by students and users. This section of the Broaden Your Horizons Project will assist in locating and determining resources that may assist students who require alternative or assistive technologies. These resources and tools may be commercial products or ones that are freely available.
The usefulness of a product is largely determined in how and when it can be applied to solve a problem or meet a specific need. Every student has his or her skills and abilities, combined with disabilities, impairments and/or disadvantages.
Whether you have a disability yourself or you are a teacher, support person, therapist, Para-Professional, advocate, parent or student you will find the Assistive Technology section to be useful. The resources are diverse and varied and cater to individuals who require intervention, support and tools to aid in study, writing, reading, research, planning, organisation, problem solving, time management as well as in pursuing leisure options.
Each genre of software has its own discreet benefits. Combining genres provide multiple advantages and opportunities. Text to speech (e.g. Word Talk, Read Please 2003 and Natural Reader) delivers auditory feedback whereby text is spoken. The student can hear each letter as it is typed, or word or sentence.
Text entry for a student who is new to a language, or who is vision impaired, is made easier as he or she can check for accuracy and edit more independently. Punctuation is stressed as voice technologies indicate the use of commas, semi colons, full stops and question marks, with the use of inflection. Missed words, added words or misspellings are also more evident. Overly long or brief sentences become more apparent. The notion of text ‘making sense’ to the reader is also more obvious.
Commercial software includes high quality voices, some now including Australian accents. Headphones provide for private listening in instances where a student wishes to work alone or in a noisy environment. Text to speech technologies assist in the editing process and in gleaning additional information from data, thereby helping with comprehension.
Students can read whole passages of text downloaded from websites such as eBooks, or copy sections from websites, emails, encyclopaedias and MS Word documents and have it voiced.
Male and female voices can be modified, with the speed of the voice dictated by the user. A freeware program such as PowerTalk voices MS PowerPoint files. Students who cannot speak or who are reluctant to deliver an oral presentation can use it to voice their project or assignment, especially to an audience. Other students may discover that it helps in editing and determining what to include or exclude from their presentation.
Talking calculators are available as are other commercial applications that include voice output. Large print calculators assist by presenting the numerals and mathematical functions in large icons and buttons.
Vision impaired students can more readily see the program as well as hear the data entered or calculated, so that they can check that they have not entered the wrong function or number.
Typed material can be scanned using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, (e.g. OmniPage) usually bundled with an OCR capable scanner. Any printed material can therefore be accessed on a computer in a text capable program.
Students who find reading difficult can scan books, newspapers, journals, study notes or any literature required and transform it into electronic text. It can then be saved into another more amendable format (e.g. MS Word) and then edited. Text to speech software can then provide voice output.
The text can be fully edited, with the font changed and/or increased in size for a vision impaired user. For a blind user, it could be brailed. More colleges and tertiary institutions are providing course content electronically, but a great deal of required reading, research and study material is still sourced or delivered in hard copy print.
Optical Character Recognition also provides facilities for recognising a whole page or section from a book. Using programs that have the capabilities, content can be manipulated and re-versioned so that the user can access and work with text, graphics and other elements (e.g. Wynn, PaperPort Deluxe).
Using these programs with appropriate onscreen tools, text can be edited in the scanned document, highlighted, inserted, moved or deleted. This assists students who find writing or manual work off a computer difficult or impossible as they may have a physical disability, or fatigue, or have the use of only one hand.
Voice recognition (e.g. Dragon Naturally Speaking) enables students to talk into a headset or microphone and as they speak, text is created by voice input. The speaker must train the software first. Computers require additional memory and more powerful models are needed as speed and performance ultimately dictate success.
Students in quiet environments can therefore speak and type, without relying solely on the keyboard. Commands for editing and operating system functions are also available. Time is required, however, to increase accuracy and proficiency.
Voice dictation assists students who find typing arduous, slow or inaccurate due to dyslexia, a physical disability or poor typing skills. It can allay frustration and assist students completing tasks more quickly.
Screen reading programs (e.g. Jaws) assist users who are vision impaired or blind as text and graphics are voiced. The entire operating system, with menus, pop ups, dialogue boxes and screen contents can be navigated and negotiated with voice output. Freeware programs (e.g. Thunder) are also available.
Fully featured options in a range of commercial programs such as Jaws provide partial or complete access to computers. Large cursors can also assist users as can smaller screen reading programs or magnifying glasses that zoom into an area of the screen and enlarge it.
A combination of screen magnification and voice output enables users to negotiate computer tasks without intervention or support.
Dictionaries and thesaurus programs (e.g. WordWeb, The Sage) provide additional supports as they can improve writing performance by suggesting synonyms, antonyms, related words as well as indicating whether the word is used as a noun, adjective, verb or adverb. These programs prompt students to use alternative words, or embellish and improve their writing.
Students with dyslexia often choose more simple words as they can spell them. By using a thesaurus, they can search for more appropriate or accurate terms that they often or can use verbally, but are reluctant to type due to potential misspellings. Confidence is increased together with performance over time.
Word Prediction (e.g. Co:Writer, Penfriend, Reach, textHELP Read & Write) is technology that predicts words that a student wishes to type. Once launched, it assists in predicting logical words based upon powerful algorithms that have been designed to work within the rules of a language. Words are chosen according to set criteria (that usually can be altered by a more experienced user).
Students who have typing disabilities, are dyslexic or who find text creation difficult, find the functions and features of word prediction programs empowering, as they do not have to enter every letter or keystroke. Predicted words appear onscreen. By pressing associated function keys or numbers whole words or phrases are ‘sent’ to the document or program that is being used.
This technology can be used in conjunction with other programs (e.g. onscreen keyboards or voiced programs). Different programs include a range of features to cater to different disabilities. Research and trialling of word prediction software is highly recommended before a commitment is made to one product.
Planning and organisation programs ( PIMS – Personal Information Systems) can prove to be very useful for students who have difficulty organising tasks. Hand held devices (Palm OS or HP iPads) include inbuilt applications including calendars, contact lists, calculators, to do functions, memo and note pads as well as scaled office-type applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and slide show programs. The majority can translate MS Office applications.
MP3 players and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) can be used to play back Podcasts or voiced files obtained from web sites or from text converted into .wav or MP3 files. Software (e.gTextAloud or textHELP Read & Write) can convert passages of text into sound files. These can be played back on a range of music players and MP3 players (e.g. iPods). Students can surf the web and locate information that is relevant. By simply copying it and applying sound conversion software tools, they can listen to study or class notes, research or other literature anywhere they wish on or off campus.
Organisation and mind mapping or brainstorming programs (e.g. Inspiration, Rationale) provide visual tools and graphics so that data can be represented diagrammatically. Instead of text being entered into a program in a linear fashion (e.g. text traditionally typed top to bottom) it can be entered similarly to when using a whiteboard or jotting notes on a scribble pad. Text can be arranged in a number of different ways and dynamically linked to related graphics and text.
Using a combination of fonts, colour, drawing tools, photos and graphics ensures more meaningful associations. Notes can be added to text boxes or graphics to record remarks, recommendations or web links. Hyper linking provides opportunities for direct access to other files, resource folders, programs or websites. Text to speech is available and programs can be scaled in size. Graphic libraries in Inspiration are now more extensive and it includes a Word Find feature.
Taking a different path, but with similar features, are programs that have been designed specifically for students with dyslexia (e.g. Spark Space). Students copy or enter text and data and arrange their research or study notes in a clockwise fashion. The software then arranges the document in a more concise and logical layout. Links and sub headings are automatically set and formatted. Data can be moved manually and associated links modified by the user.
The visual representation of the document can be viewed in a 3D format. The diagram or document can also be manipulated by scrolling through vertical and horizontal axis.
This visual element helps students examine and critically analyse data more readily and intuitively. Students can enter data or type their ideas in any order and rearrange or organise their ideas, with Spark Space software intelligently creating the necessary links.
Vast ranges of devices assist students in a combination of different ways.
Enlarged keyboards or ergonomically designed models assist in reducing fatigue, increase typing speed and functionality or help avoid repetitive strain injuries.
Mini keyboards assist users who are hemiplegic or vision impaired, as navigation is made easier due to decreased size and dimensions.
Trackballs can be placed on a desktop or wheelchair tray. Students can roll a larger mouse pointer target (i.e. usually a ball) and target icons and objects more easily. Buttons are often programmable and key lock and scrolling features assist in locating and manipulating onscreen icons, menus and buttons. Students with physical disabilities or who have suffered short-term injuries may find trackballs or joysticks easy to use.
Sophisticated programmable keyboards provide numerous keystroke shortcuts and functions that allow for increased productivity and functionality. Wireless mice and keyboards avoid the messy cables, multiple leads and connections on desktops and notebooks.
Note takers and support personnel can assist students in lectures and tutorials by working alongside students using an external wireless device. It is discreet and ensures better work practices and flow. The student does not have to relinquish control of his or her Notebook. Both parties can collaboratively work on a document or learn a piece of software together.
Head pointing systems provide access to people who cannot use other body parts. By using cameras and sensors, students can partially or fully use any software by using their head or other controlled body part. Switches provide other input devices by working with scanning array programs that help in selecting options in layered menus (e.g. The Grid 2, Speaking Dynamically Pro).
One or more switches can be pressed in a timely manner to initiate or stop a function in specifically designed software or mainstream applications. These programs are often associated with symbols, icons and graphics to assist in identifying and selecting text options. Voiced output assists with accuracy and can be used as a means of communication to another person or audience.
Closed circuit TVs, magnification units and other devices cater directly to students who are blind or vision impaired. Some models are stand-alone or work with computers, and more portable magnification systems are appearing that are hand held. Low tech to high tech devices cater to vision impaired users and thorough research is required so that specific needs are met accurately.
Other hand held devices such as Reading Pens afford opportunities for students to more ably access text. These technologies can voice text that is scanned in a device no larger than a bulky biro. Words can be spelt, defined and thesaurus meanings provided. The words or text scanned is stored and can be downloaded later to a computer for editing and other purposes.
Promoting Assistive Technology for Students
A device or piece of software may increase opportunities for individuals, alleviate an area of difficulty, assist in making them more productive, able to sustain greater effort, reduce fatigue or enable them to accomplish what may have been previously impossible.
Students encounter a variety of situations where they may require specific or general solutions. The Assistive Technologies included here as well as the manufacturers, local suppliers, support agencies and consultants may offer one or more products that can be used to make everyday life more accessible.