2003 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2003 Table of Contents 


COMPUTER TRAINING FOR INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE DEAFBLIND

Michael Barber
Assistive Technology Analyst
Iowa Department for the Blind
524 Fourth Street
Des Moines, IA 50309
Phone (515) 281-1305
Email: Barber.Michael@blind.state.ia.us  

Laurie Merryman
Assistive Technology Instructor
Iowa Department for the Blind
524 Fourth Street
Des Moines, IA 50309
Phone (515) 281-1399
Email: Merryman.Laurie@blind.state.ia.us  

The Problem

Deafblind individuals use a variety of technical and non-technical methods to communicate with others, including using sign language techniques (finger spelling, American Sign Language, signed English, print on palm, etc.) and specialized devices like the Tele-Touch and Tele-Braille. The computer is perhaps one of the most effective means a deafblind individual has of directly communicating with the general population, who have neither specialized skills or devices to facilitate such communication. Using assistive technology in combination with mainstream software applications, a deafblind individual can interact with others using e-mail, Internet-based communications, and electronic documents.

Acquiring effective communication skills is necessary to secure and retain employment; as such skills are necessary for nearly every employment situation. Indeed, job placement is often hampered by an employer's inability to foresee reliable communications, the VR professional's difficulty in determining effective assistive technology software / hardware combinations, and by a deafblind individual's inability to use the assistive technology effectively. With proper training and access to materials that demonstrate effective assistive technology software / hardware combinations, employment and communication barriers can be overcome.

With the advent of the World Wide Web, deafblind individuals can also independently pursue personal interests and recreational activities. They can shop for services and products, conduct research on a variety of topics, read online newspapers, magazines, books, and journals, communicate with others in chat rooms, organize a vacation, and more.

The advent and subsequent refinements to assistive technology used by deafblind individuals have greatly enhanced their employment opportunities and communication abilities. While a variety of increasingly reliable assistive technology exists, learning to use these sophisticated and complex software programs and hardware devices is a continuing challenge. Simultaneous training in both the mainstream programs and the assistive technology is essential before a deafblind user can successfully utilize the computer for employment related tasks and communications. Training is essential because an individual must learn numerous keystrokes, devise and use complex strategies to read and navigate graphic-intensive screens, and develop troubleshooting and work-around solutions when compatibility problems arise. Further, constant upgrades to mainstream applications require corresponding changes in the assistive technology. Keeping pace with changes to both the mainstream software programs and assistive technology can be daunting and time-consuming. Most individuals do not have the time or resources to assess the performance and reliability of new technology.

Unfortunately, the need for computer training that is specifically designed for deafblind individuals and for blind individuals who use refreshable Braille displays is not being met. Because of their mouse-based instruction and visual feedback, the myriad of computer books available at local bookstores are not appropriate for deafblind or blind computer users, nor are computer training courses offered by commercial training companies. Computer training materials exist for blind computer users who use a screen reader with speech output; however, these materials are not appropriate for deafblind or blind computer users who use refreshable Braille displays. These existing specialized training materials are not appropriate because the information a screen reader relays to a speech synthesizer is not the same as the information it relays to a Braille display. In addition, the Braille display also offers its own series of keystrokes to read and navigate the screen. Obtaining instruction that includes specific keystrokes and accurate feedback helps the user learn to use the programs more efficiently and thoroughly.

The Solution

In 1997, the Iowa Department for the Blind began work on project ASSIST With Windows (Accessible Step by Step Instructions for Speech Technology With Windows). The purpose of Project ASSIST is to develop and distribute computer training materials to blind and visually impaired individuals. In 2002, project ASSIST received a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to expand their training efforts. The goal of this new project is to create a comprehensive array of computer training materials tailored to the needs of deafblind individuals. The goal of this presentation is to announce the availability of these tutorials and to demonstrate the training methodology used in the tutorials.

The tutorials use an innovative approach to training deafblind individuals to use a computer with assistive technology. The tutorials use a keyboard-only approach to the graphical Windows interface and include information and step-by-step exercises that specifically address the screen reader - Braille display combination the individual is using to operate mainstream or communications programs. It is vital that the tutorials address the specific screen reader and Braille display combination, as each screen reader and Braille display use unique keystrokes, configurations, and feedback.

This project will provide deafblind individuals with computer skills they need to obtain and retain good jobs and to pursue computer based communications and recreational activities. It will provide VR professionals, consumer organizations, and other private and public agencies with professionally developed tutorials, which they can give to clients for independent work or use in one-on-one or group computer training.


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2003 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.