We jump in our car, turn it on and expect it to get us from A to B without needing to understand its internal workings, unless one happens to be into vehicle mechanics. Most of us approach the use computing devices in the same way; we turn it on, expect it to work and call a technician if it doesn’t. Here the analogy ends, because under the ‘bonnet’ of our educational computing devices are some necessary and useful options which enable basic accessibility for ourselves and particularly for our learners.
The merging of assistive features into device operating software, along with improvements in hardware, is making it easier to set these features up for students. Some of these features were once only found in specially designed and often expensive software packages, like text-to-speech, voice recognition, word prediction and onscreen keyboards.
With a duty to enable reasonable adjustments for students who need them, it is necessary to look under the bonnet and become familiar with what is available. For the technologically nervous, be assured that, unlike a car engine, where adjusting something in ignorance may cause a fault, turning on and changing a built-in accessibility setting will not ‘break’ a computing device.
Try out the ‘text to speech’ option in the computer or device’s settings to see how beneficial this is for a student who struggles with reading, or remembering what they have just read. Turning on word prediction with the onscreen keyboard and using a trackball can assist students who have problems such as spelling, speed of input, physical control and attention. Combine both these assistive features together and they not only enable students to read, but also to create by reducing barriers to completing their work effectively and sharing it with others.
Motion tracking and touch screen technologies have also brought new ways for people with disabilities to access computers. Eye Gaze® and Tobii® technologies use a sensor bar attached to an off-the-shelf computer, while its software tracks eye movements and converts those movements into mouse clicks. Touch screens are common on tablets and laptops, providing direct control on light-weight portable devices which can be set up easily by the student.
Connectivity also enhances accessibility through portability. Recently, in technology timescales, desktop and laptop computers have in-built Bluetooth and wireless, while wireless devices come with their own dongle that plugs in to the USB port.
Improvements in connectivity can enhance aspects of inclusivity too. By connecting a Bluetooth enabled trackball instead of a standard mouse, along with a wireless keyboard to one computer plugged in to an interactive screen, a group of students can share an activity.
These advances, as well as an improvement in universal design, are making it easier for everyone to access and use a range of off-the-shelf educational technology. Be encouraged to go ahead and explore the features of your computing devices in the classroom or to enhance your own accessibility and ease of use.
Alastair Fielden is connect’s Education Consultant with over 20 years experience in SEND Education and assistive technologies.