2001 Conference Proceedings

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RECENT EFFORTS TOWARD DEVELOpMENT OF SOFTWARE FOR YOUNG, BLIND CHILDREN

RJ Cooper, president, RJ Cooper & Assoc., Inc.

After researching the entire field of Assistive Technology, looking for 'gaps' in development, the author has found that the population of young, blind children, has seen less software development than any other disability group. These children, ranging in age from 3-10 years old, that are from completely to legally blind, and from physically able-bodied to disabled, have very few software options.

There are, however, many options for adults, that are physically capable. But these programs cost $500 and more. Also, these options only exist for pC's with only one program available for Macintosh, which is still the prevalent computer in most school systems in the United States. Further, these screenreaders often require many memorized keyboard combinations, all but impossible for young children to remember and/or execute. And to further make these tools inaccessible for young blind children is the complete lack of any training materials designed for younger users.

There are 5 areas of concern:

  1. Learning Braille
  2. Learning a GUI (graphical user interface)
  3. Accessing on-the-screen text
  4. Confirming keystrokes
  5. Accessing existing educational software

Learning Braille

It has been expressed by many teachers in contact with the author, to teach Braille at the youngest age possible. Currently there are several obstacles to attempting this at ages below 6.

  1. Braille spacing requires fine motor and sensory development that may not be present in children this young.
  2. Having the entire keyboard accessible presents too many distractors for children that are functiong at a young cognitive level.
  3. Feedback is not simple and obvious enough.

The author has developed and tested responses to the above problems:

  1. The author has developed tactile/braille overlays for the popular IntelliKeys keyboard (IntelliTools). These consist of braille versions of the standard overlays that come with the keyboard. These braille cells are spaced approximately one inch apart, but consist of traditional intra-cell spacing and size.
  2. Using a legal size of paper, cutouts can be made over just the target letters of the software. For example, if the learner's name is RJ, then only those cells would be available. This is a simple and low tech solution
  3. Using proven special needs software that was developed over 10 years ago, and has provisions for blind users, Spell-A-Word, feedback is simple, obvious, and always auditory.

Learning a GUI (Graphical User Interface)

Although a controversial subject, some teachers and parents expressed an interest in having their child learn about a mouse, icons, buttons, and other elements of the popular graphical user interface, prevalent in Windows and MacOS. Many professionals see no use in this, as most blind users interact with their computers through a text-based screenreader, such as the popular JAWS (Henter-Joyce). Other screenreaders to provide access to the standard GUI's through speech feedback and other unique methods, such as vibration technology.

In the interest of serving those persons wishing early instruction of the GUI, the author has developed and tested a training program, Find The Buttons, which gives auditory feedback of mouse position, relative to on-screen buttons and screen borders. Feedback is entertaining, with the content capable of being authored to simulate a GUI desktop, or a story, or a lesson.

Accessing On-The-Screen Text

The problem is that current screenreaders are expensive and quite difficult to learn, being geared toward older users. And, as mentioned earlier, there is only one program available for Macintosh, the prevalent computer in school systems.

The author has developed screenreaders, for both Macintosh and Windows, KeyRead, that is economical and easy to operate, targeted for children as young as 6 years old. Further, provisions are built-in for persons with physical disabilities. In addition, reading of non-editable text, which has traditionally been a problem with some screenreaders, is implemented in KeyRead, with web browsers and email clients being specific targets.

Confirming Keystroke

In many instances, persons with visual impairments include persons wth other physical, developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities. In these cases, it is very helpful to have the computer echo the keystroke. Further, it is desirable to hear the last typed word, upon pressing a key that moves the user to the next element in the current sentence, or next sentence/paragraph.

There are several excellent programs, most notably Co-Writer and IntelliTalk, that are self-contained applications that perform these functions. However, it has been expressed to the author to achieve these goals within any software, be it word processor or email text.

This has been accomplished with KeyRead, the author's software utility for Macintosh and Windows computers.

Accessing Existing Educational Software

This has ben, and continues to be, the area most under-developed in educational and special educational software. As a great amount of text in educational software is graphical in nature, and not true text, screenreading software is useless in making these programs accessible. Content is usually comprehensive, which makes these programs desirable, however without proper access, these programs are beyond the reach of young, blind children.

One unique approach is to scan material from printed matter into the computer, and have special software recognize the text within the graphical page, and then be able to read to the learner, the contents of that page. However, this is a task that requires a budget and time considerations, usually unavailable to most classrooms and homes. Further, it requires a pC compatible computer, whereas, as has been stated several times, one cannot simply ignore millions of Macintosh computers serving special needs classrooms.

Unfortunately, no utility exists for translating the contents of a graphical *screen* into true text. This author believes that it is possible to create such software, so that young, blind children can use some of the same software that their peers are using. The many graphical elements would create many challenges and development could take several years. However, it can be done, and must, since there does not seem to be a sufficient number of developers working on creating special instructional software for these children.

Conclusion

The author is pleased to have had contact and success with many parents and teachers of young, blind children, and to have had the chance to work one-on-one with so many of these children. Only through directly interacting with learners and their care and instruction providers, can a developer get a sense of what the problems have been, and how to address them. It is this author's opinion that some of those problems have been addressed here.


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