A good friend of mine’s son is a software engineer for one of our largest banks; she’s immensely proud of his achievements which include a master’s degree in computer science from a prestigious university. He also happens to be blind.

Despite my rather graceless questions, like “How exactly do you know what’s on the screen?”, he was kind enough to be more graceful in his answers. And so I have realized that, relative to abled communities, technology has improved accessing information, entertainment and education for differently abled students and seekers to the point of being a quantum leap.

Opening up the world in a way that many of us can barely imagine.

6 Awesome examples of EdTech for the visually impaired student

We have touched the subject of web accessibility on this blog before — why it matters and how to create such a design. For this blog, I thought it would be a fun, and useful exercise to explore some of these incredible technologies aimed at supporting the visually impaired in reaching their goals.

  1. Screen readers

    The niche market for screen readers is unsurprisingly buoyant, and the products and services increasingly user-friendly. Simply put, screen readers convert text on the screen into sound. Advanced SEO programs also allow developers to place text within each image on the screen, that when utilized describes the image on the screen.

  2. Paperless Braille

    This wonderful addition to a standard or Braille keyboard, uses small pins underneath a flexible mat that perpetually converts the text on the screen into Braille on the pad, one line at a time. The pad also comes with navigation arrows to use when moving up and down the screen, the Braille text adjusts on the pad accordingly.

  3. Electronic Braille note-takers

    Electronic Braille note-takers are small devices that have a braille keyboard for quick note taking. Students can then take notes in class as they listen. The information in the device is then stored electronically and can then be accessed either as an audio file, or plugged into a Braille display to reread later.

    More advanced Braille note-takers can include internet connectivity, where students can access YouTube, Google, Dropbox etc, and can basically fulfill the function of Braille PDAs. Find some independent comparisons of the most popular models here.

  4. Internet browsers

    There are a heartening number of internet browsers, designed specifically for the visually impaired. From my research it seems the most popular is Firefox enabled with NVDA (Nonvisual Digital Access).

    NVDAreviews I have read indicate that Apple leads the pack, with its built in VoiceOver screen reader seemingly the most intuitive and clear.

  5. EmacSpeak

    Developed by lauded blind programmer T.V. Raman (now part of Google’s AI Team) EmacSpeak is a groundbreaking tool that allows blind and visually impaired users to interact with their computers. As we know, the development of the mouse turned our previous dot-matrix style screens into visually stunning windows and information displays. Great for us, not so great for the visually impaired.

    What EmacSpeak does is it uses non-speech auditory cues, intonation and inflexion to help define these visual features, giving the user the same sense of how the information is ordered.

    ”The system deploys the innovative technique of audio formatting to increase the bandwidth of aural communication; changes in voice characteristic and inflection combined with appropriate use of non-speech auditory icons are used throughout the user interface to create the equivalent of spatial layout, fonts, and graphical icons so important in the visual interface. This provides rich contextual feedback and shifts some of the burden of listening from the cognitive to the perceptual domain.”

  6. HaptEQ

    Music is no doubt a fantastic way for the visually impaired to enjoy, connect, create and communicate. Making and producing music is also an important way many visually impaired people are employed.

    However, today’s music editing tools have been designed with highly visual feedback loops. For instance, if you want to change the EQ curve on a track, the sighted need simply drag the cursor up or down the curve to change it. This leaves serious musicians, who happen to be blind, in a quandary – as screen readers would still not be able to make head nor tail of the graphic interface.

    HaptEQ — developed in the Interactive Audio Lab at Northwestern — uses rudimentary materials such as a chain, magnetic board and magnets to interface directly with existing sound editing software to change the EQ balance. From the video you will see that the technology is in a rudimentary stage; and one hopes that inventors such as Aaron Karp get the support and backing to continue making music production accessible to everyone.

Closing thoughts

I hope you have found this quick tour through technologies that make the world more accessible to visually impaired students as fascinating as I have. Next time we’ll explore how physically impaired students are being better served by great learning technologies.

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