I have quite a lot of experience working with students who use various tools to assist them. Rather than go through the physical aspects of the tools, I have looked at various tools described on the slides and have made a few notes on how I have seen them used by students I have worked with.
Slide 7: Mindmapping: Inspiration / Freemind
Many of my students are supplied with Inspiration 9 as part of their Disabled Students' Allowance and they are offered a training session to go with it. It is listed on Amazon at £70. I have used the Webspiration version which is an online version and excellent for online collaboration. I initially used it with a student with a visual impairment whose notetaker had copied down an extensive mind map from the whiteboard in the lecture theatre. The student could not read it until I transferred it to Webspiration and they could view it online and magnify it. She found it so useful that she shared the password with other students and they collaboratively made changes to improve it.
I have just been introduced to Freemind which is produced by Sourceforge and is the free version. I have not had much time to experiment with it but so far I am very impressed.
Slide 8: Mobile phones
I think all the students I currently work with have a mobile phone with the capability of taking photographs. Many of the students with dyslexia or visual impairment use their phone to photograph information rather than try to copy it down although it is not unusual to see a queue of students waiting to take photographs of the board at the end of a lecture/tutorial. They are also very useful to take photographs of notices placed on the noticeboard. This summer I was acting as a support worker for a student on The Open University's astronomy summer school in Majorca. The students were working in groups and instructed to copy notes from the other half of the group. We were working nights with very little sleep and it would have been very easy to make mistakes when copying so all of the students took photographs of each other's notebooks.
Slide 9: Access to GUI: Keyboard Shortcuts
I am a touch typist and not that fast although I can keep up with lectures at university and so I am employed as an electronic notetaker for part of my support work. I know a handful of shortcuts in order to keep my speed up when typing. The ones I use most are:
- A letter with an acute accent: Ctrl ' followed by the letter
- A letter with an umlaut: Ctrl shift : followed by the letter
- Switch superscript on and off: Ctrl shift +
- Switch subscript on and off: Ctrl =
I tend to have to check these when I have not used them for a while and I have a great admiration for those students with visual impairments who need to memorise a lot of commands in order to access their computer. I have recently been working with a student who is registered blind and also has short term memory problems. He really struggles with accessing his computer and it consequently takes him a long time to write assignments even after he has managed to access the books and papers he requires.
Slide 10: Virtual Keyboard
This is a set of tools with which I have little experience and so I looked at them in more detail.
I had a look at the WiViK which is an onscreen keyboard with advanced text prediction capabilities. It costs $350 and has no support for this price. The website refers purchasers to their supplier for support.
WiViK® is an on-screen keyboard that enables people with physical disabilities to access any application within Microsoft Windows XP/Vista (32-bit). Instead of a physical computer keyboard, you select keys on a virual, on-screen keyboard that is displayed within a window that you can move and size.
You can select keys by:
1. Pointing and clicking at keys with some pointing device.
2. Pointing and dwelling over keys with some pointing device.
3. Scanning across keys with a moving highlight automatically or under your control and making selections with discrete switch actions.
You can also pay extra (!) in order to add in a speech recognition system
Slide 11: Speech Recognition
I tried some of the earliest versions of speech recognition and spent hours trying to train it to recognise my West Country accent!! It never worked very well and I was so unimpressed that I never tried again. I have just spent some time looking at Dragon Naturally Speaking and I must say I am now feeling very enthusiastic about seeing if I can have another go. It seems much improved.
Slide 12: Screen Magnification Software
The two systems I have seen in operation are LunarPlus (from Dolphin; $400) and ZoomText (ai squared; £400). I have not been very impressed with either system as they kept crashing and my student was losing study time and work every time they did so. We eventually moved to using Supernova (also from Dolphin; £600) which is the higher specification version and had the same problems. The support was not helpful but we eventually discovered that there are a lot of problems with magnifiers clashing with other programs. Trial and error and several months later we discovered what was clashing and the student could then use the computers in the library at university rather than having to carry her laptop everywhere.
Slide 13: Scanners/Readers
I have spent a lot of time scanning books and using OCR to convert them to Word documents so that they are accessible by screen readers. It is quite hard to do as the page must be exactly straight on the scanner and, although some of my students with severe visual impairment have tried to scan documents for themselves, it really only works with single sheets. One student uses it to read his post so that he can maintain a degree of privacy.
A big problem at university is that many of the pages are marked by other students and then they do not scan properly. It can be very frustrating.
Other problems are very white paper that reflects the light so that the text does not scan properly; complex fonts that are not recognised by OCR; and text printed so close to the spine that it cannot be scanned.
Slide 14: Radio aids
My daughter is severely deaf and I have a lot of experience with these tools. She wore one happily when she was 3 years old but by the time that she was 8 years, she was unhappy about looking different form the other children and only wore it reluctantly when absolutely necessary. When she started university she was bought one with her disabled students' allowance but it never left the box. I have experienced similar reactions with other students with whom I have worked. Many students think that they are really useful but the price is just too high. They have to walk up to the lecturer at the start of every lecture and ask them to wear the microphone and it singles them out every time. It is even worse when group work is involved and the microphone has to be passed around the students.
Another disadvantage that has caused problems is the lack of directional cues. When wearing a radio aid, the sound appears equidistant to both ears and this can cause problems identifying the speed of traffic for example.