New Technologies Engage Students With Disabilities

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Kyle Beasley is a smart 2nd grader with an infectious grin. He's also functionally blind.

Until last fall, the 7-year-old used 8-by-11-inch Braille texts that teachers printed for him on a special machine. Each page cost about $1. He once had four lockers just to store his textbooks.

Today, the student at Roosevelt Elementary School in Janesville, Wis., easily carries his own iPad and a special Braille translator that allow him to read all his textbooks, send emails, access the Internet, check the weather, and do just about anything anyone else can do with a computer.

It's new technology that is fundamentally changing how blind people interact with their world. But it appears the digital revolution is just getting started when it comes to improving the lives of people with all sorts of disabilities.

Some of the developments border on the magical, compared with what was available 20 years ago, and schools are often the places where people first encounter them.

Educators are scrambling to keep up with developments for those who can't see, can't hear, whose minds have trouble with the written word, who can't use their arms or legs, and even those who can do little more than move their eyes.

More and more districts around the country are dedicating staff to identify the latest digital technologies that could help students with disabilities. In the 10,400-student Janesville school district, that person is Kathy White.

"Technology is exploding for us," Ms. White said.

Ms. White keeps up with developments and matches the emerging technologies with the hundreds of students in the district who have disabilities.

Kyle Beasley's translator—called Refreshabraille—is just one example. It has a Braille keyboard that allows Kyle to write as well as read. It communicates with his iPad, translating his Braille into English, and English into Braille.Plastic Braille dots pop up instantly on a pad, corresponding to a text displayed on the iPad. Bluetooth technology lets the two devices "talk" to each other.

Kyle reads the dots with his index finger. When he's done with one set of dots, the next set pops up.

Ms. White gets calls from teachers who have students stymied by disabilities. She looks for a technology to overcome the barriers, working with every age in the school district, from 12th graders to 3-year-olds. The range of needs is wide.

Consider Correy Winke, who was slated for a slow-paced science class when he entered Parker High School about 18 months ago. College "was the farthest thing from my mind," he said.

Mr. Winke has dyslexia. His mind has trouble processing the printed word.

Ms. White figured Mr. Winke had what it takes to reach higher. She helped him get an iPod and a laptop computer, along with software that will read any text to him out loud and guess at thewords he needs as he writes a class assignment.

He deftly manipulated a cellphone application and writing programs on his laptop as he showed a visitor how it all works.

Now a sophomore, Mr. Winke is pulling down A's and B's and taking courses such as honors geometry.

Keyboard Challenges

Ms. White often has to prove that a particular kind of technology is what's best for a student. Once she has the proof, she can apply for the money to pay for it, often through Medical Assistance.

Dealing with a computer keyboard is a challenge for many of Ms. White's students. She has found keyboards with larger- or smaller-than-standard keys, alternative key configurations, and a design for use with one hand.

Ms. White recently borrowed a computer system called a Tobii Communicator in hopes that it would help a few students who don't have the use of their hands at all.

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Developed for military veteranswho have paraplegia, the Tobii includes a camera that tracks a person's eye movements. Gazing steadily at designated spots on the computer screen is like pressing a button or clicking a mouse. It allows someone whose hands don't work to access the Internet and much more.

With the right connected hardware, a person can switch lights or a television on and off, drive a powered wheelchair, or even open a door. Users can write and send email or do just about anything else with a computer.

Three students are using borrowed equipment, and Ms. White hopes to document their efforts so they can get funding for their own machines.

"The students who are using it are using it extremely well," Ms. White said, and they're "extremely excited" once they see the possibilities to do things they have never been able to do for themselves.

"They become so empowered," she said.

Vol. 31, Issue 23, Page 14

Published in Print: March 7, 2012, as New Technologies Engage Students With Disabilities
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