World Braille Foundation

World Braille Foundation

Assistive Technology Information
for Exchange Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision

Adaptive or assistive technology (AT) can play a crucial role in removing some of the barriers that students with visual disabilities encounter in educational contexts. There are many types of AT that blind and low vision students can use to read books, complete homework, conduct research, take tests, and participate more fully in the classroom.

There are many types of visual disabilities, and students come from a variety of backgrounds and educational environments. It is important, therefore, to have a conversation between the student and educator about whether the student would prefer to access information in a Braille, large-print, or audio format. The preference and needs of individual students may vary depending on a student's previous training, the type and amount of visual content the student needs to access, and the particular requirements of each assignment. Knowing the types of AT available will help the student and his or her teacher design the combination of technologies that can best advance the student's education and contribute to the 'least restrictive environment'.

1. Adaptive software for off-the-shelf computers

In many educational settings, there is an expectation that students use the computer to conduct research, write papers, design presentations, and communicate with classmates and teachers. With adaptive software, school and home computers can become more accessible to students with visual disabilities. Students can access the web and other popular applications via synthetic speech, magnified images, and/or Braille displays. Often, this involves using a standard QWERTY keyboard, but sometimes students may also use a mouse, touch screen, or dictation software.
Screen-reading Software

Screen-reading software uses synthetic speech to read aloud the content that appears on a computer screen. Most synthetic speech sounds robotic, but voice quality and human-like intonation continues to improve. Screen-readers can help users access many word-processing programs, spreadsheets, presentation applications, and internet browsers, often with key strokes rather than by moving a mouse. There are screen readers available for PCs running Linux or Windows operating systems. Each type of screen-reading software uses a different command structure and most support a variety of speech synthesizers. Prices range from free downloads from the web to $1100.

There is also a screen reader built into all Apple Macintosh computers running OS X or later. The newest Macs will also have some talking touch-screen capabilities.
Magnification Software for Computer Screens

Some students with low vision may benefit simply from using a large computer monitor or from adjusting the appearance settings on their computer, such as font size, screen resolution, scroll bar size, icon size, color scheme, and mouse cursor appearance (Windows also has a screen magnifier as part of its accessibility features). Many students with low vision, however, may find screen magnification software to be a more viable option. Full-featured screen magnifying programs work similarly to a high-powered magnifying glass moving over a page. They can magnify all screen items by following the mouse cursor, or they can move across and down a page at a preset speed.

These full-featured screen magnification programs are compatible with most Windows operating systems. Although screen magnifiers do not have many problems with display drivers, manufacturers often recommend a specific driver, resolution, and color depth setting for their software. Screen magnifiers can range in price from $300-$600. It is possible to use screen magnification software in conjunction with a screen reader for students who need both types of technology.
Dictation Software

Students who are blind or have low vision usually learn to touch-type on QWERTY keyboards. If a blind student has an additional physical disability that affects her/his typing proficiency, the student may be interested in trying dictation software. Most dictation or speech-to-text software involves many visual components, so it will be important to research the compatibility of any dictation software with the screen reader of choice prior to making a purchase.

2. Braille-Related Technology

Literacy is undoubtedly a fundamental component of education. For students who are blind or have low vision, literacy includes the ability to read braille, use computers, access printed materials, and work with live readers or recorded texts. In the U.S., the importance of braille literacy has received a great deal of attention in the professional literature and among communities of blind adults, parents of blind children, and teachers of blind students. Research has found that blind people process reading braille in the same area of the brain that sighted people process reading print; thus reading braille may address "visual" learning needs that complement auditory learning. When working with an international blind student who finds reading large print to be a challenge, educators may think about teaching English braille as an important component of teaching English literacy.

There are a few braille-related terms that the reader should know. "Grade 1 braille" consists of the Latin alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks. Grade 1 braille may already be familiar to beginning braille readers and some international students. "Grade 2 braille" is an English shorthand code that includes contractions of common letter combinations and words. This is the most common type of English literary braille. The "Nemeth code" is a braille system for representing mathematics, science, and other technical information. Learning Nemeth braille is particularly important for blind students who hope to pursue courses in math and science. Finally, "computer braille" is used for computer-related information, such as E-mail and web addresses. It consists of a one-to-one braille representation of each print character on a standard keyboard, and it is mostly used in communicating with computer programs.
Writing Braille and Using Braille Embossers

Students may choose to handwrite braille using a Slate and stylus or type braille directly with a Perkins braillewriter. Students may also find it useful to convert electronic text into a braille hard copy by sending computer files to a braille embosser, which is the braille equivalent to an ink printer. Braille embossers typically require heavy weight paper, utilize more pages than print, and run on the noisy side. The price of a braille embosser falls between $1,800 and $5,000 for smaller volume production and between $10,000 and $80,000 for large volume production. Embossing grade 2 braille requires the use of a braille translation program. The cost of such programs ranges from $200 to $500, depending on the program's sophistication.
Refreshable Braille Displays

Refreshable braille displays operate by raising and lowering combinations of pins to create braille characters. These characters represent a portion of the information on a computer screen; the display refreshes each time the student moves to a new part of the screen. These displays range in the number of characters they depict and usually fit on a student's desk, resting between the computer keyboard and the student. Refreshable braille displays provide direct and quiet access to format, spacing, and spelling information, all the while helping students to improve their braille literacy. The cost of braille displays ranges from $3,500 to $15,000, depending on the number of characters on the display. If a student has a braille notetaker (see section 4, Portable Devices for the Classroom), the notetaker will likely be able to connect to the computer and double as a braille display.

3. Making Reading Accessible

Providing books and other printed materials in a format accessible to blind and low vision students is an essential part of inclusive education. There are existing repositories of electronic, audio, and braille books. In addition, students and educators have the option of scanning materials into a computer and converting them to accessible formats via OCR technology (see below). Alternatively, students with considerable vision may prefer to use large print or magnifying devices to complete their assigned reading.
Repositories of Electronic, audio, or Braille books

Bookshare.org is a repository of over 57,000 digital books that volunteers have scanned into the computer and submitted to the collection. The books, which can be read in braille or with synthesized speech software, contain page numbers, important citable information from the title page, and markup indicators to direct users to the beginning of chapters and pages. Students can download their books and free book-reading speech software from the Bookshare.org website. If students prefer not to read their books on a computer, they can choose to download Bookshare books to a portable book-reading device or a notetaker with a braille display. Additionally, Bookshare can help individuals or schools order books in embossed braille. Subscriptions to Bookshare.org are currently free to U.S. students and schools once they have provided proof of students' qualifying disabilities, such as visual, learning, or mobility disabilities.

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) is a repository of digital audio books that have been recorded by human readers (often multiple readers per book). The books contain page numbers, important citable information from the title page, and markup indicators to direct users to the beginning of chapters and pages. Members can order books on CD in the mail or download them from the RFB&D website. Membership is currently free to individual U.S. residents; the cost of a U.S. institutional/school membership ranges from $350-$950 per year, depending on the number of books requested.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) offers many books and magazines in digital audio and web braille formats. The books are recorded by high quality human readers but do not indicate page numbers or include extensive reference information. Users can often navigate books by chapter and section headings. NLS books are freely available to US citizens who meet criteria for receiving Talking Books or braille books from cooperating libraries. Members can order recorded books in the mail or download them from the NLS website.

The American Printinghouse for the Blind in the United States also has many alternative formatted books listed. One can check whether a braille book has already been done by someone else, through its Louis database of accessible materials. It contains information on accessible print materials produced by about 140 organizations throughout the United States. These materials include books in braille, large print, audio, and electronic file format. A quick search using the keyword function will be helpful. If a book does not exist already, then one can use the Accessible Media Producers Database, which allows one to select from a few people or companies who can produce accessible formats.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) Systems

OCR technology involves scanning a printed document into a computer and converting the picture image into text characters and words, which screen readers and braille embossers can recognize. If a pre-scanned electronic image is already available (e.g., if you have a PDF file), OCR systems can convert it into text without scanning a hard copy. Users can store and retrieve the OCRed files in different file formats. They can choose to access the scanned text by using synthesized speech, magnification software, a refreshable braille display, or a braille or large print hard copy. The price range for a PC-based OCR system is $1,300-$2,000. Self-contained OCR systems and those that come with a PC are in the $4,800-$5,500 range.

Not all OCR systems are accessible to blind users, but there are several applications that are accessible and of high quality. When choosing an OCR system, be sure to investigate the following: does it: (a) efficiently recognize a wide variety of typed/printed documents; (b) retain the layout of the original text; (c) cope well with columns, various paper sizes, and horizontally formatted documents; (d) support different types of scanners; and (e) come with ongoing technical support and documentation in an accessible format?


Video Magnifiers or Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTVs)

A video magnifier or closed-circuit television (CCTV) uses a stand-mounted or handheld video camera to project a magnified image onto a video monitor, TV screen, or computer monitor. Cameras with zoom lenses provide variable levels of magnification, but some lower cost CCTVs use cameras that have a fixed focus or magnification. All video magnifiers offer the option of viewing black letters on a white background or white letters on a black background, and control of contrast and brightness also tend to be standard features. Color CCTVs, though more expensive than black and white CCTVs, are useful for reading certain materials, such as maps and color photographs. CCTVs with stand-mounted cameras are particularly effective for handwriting because there is room for a hand to fit under the camera. Some video magnification systems work jointly with a computer. These systems share the computer monitor and sometimes offer the ability to save the captured images. Stand-mounted CCTVs typically range from $1,800 to $4,000 in price. Lower cost video magnifiers that plug into a TV are in the $400 to $1,000 price range.

Note that eye fatigue and other physical problems can result if the user does not have sufficient vision to read for a significant period of time without tiring. It is thus advisable for people considering a CCTV to have a low vision evaluation and consult with a low vision specialist to help determine which product is appropriate.
4. Portable Devices for the Classroom and Community
Portable Magnifiers

There are also video magnifiers with handheld cameras, which are portable and thus useful for bringing to class, seeing room numbers that are in reach, and reading other print labels. Some manufacturers of handheld video magnifiers offer a writing stand as an accessory. Head-mounted displays (HMD) also offer portability and new ways of viewing the magnified images.
Portable Notetakers and Book Readers

Portable notetakers are small information management devices. They have braille or QWERTY keyboards for input and a synthesized voice and/or braille display for output. Notetakers utilize a variety of applications, such as word processers, data spreadsheets, and calendars. Some notetakers have internet capabilities, including web browsers and E-mail programs. Students can often synchronize their notetakers with a desktop or laptop computer, connect with storage devices to save files that do not fit on the notetaker's hard drive, and send their work to an ink printer or braille embosser. The cost of a basic electronic notetaker typically falls between $1000 and $3,000. Products with more sophisticated features can cost up to $15,000.

If students don't have computers at home or need to access books in multiple locations (including the classroom), then they may purchase portable book readers.
Portable Digital Maps

GPS maps are becoming more commonplace for navigation in the United States and other countries. Some of these tools have been adapted for use on assistive technology for blind, low vision, and learning disabled individuals. For example, the Trekker system uses electronic maps from Navteq to provide detailed, door-to-door information for pedestrian use, making it easier to find locations in the community. The database contains regularly updated street names and points of interest. For additional GPS coverage, country maps can be purchased and delivered on CD-ROM. Cost $99, Countries: Australia, Austria/Switzerland, Benelux, Eastern Europe, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain/Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, Spain/Portugal, United States. Other GPS tools worldwide may also be available from other assistive technology providers.

5. Further Resources

The information for this tipsheet was adapted in part from the American Foundation for the Blind's resources on Assistive Technology. See their website for more comprehensive information.

For a list of assistive technology, descriptions, and price information compiled by the National Federation of the Blind, go to their website.

Learn about other Assistive Technology and Portable Tools for Exchange Participants with Disabilities.