Episode 2: Assistive Technologies

Posted by in LD State of Mind

[Introduction] Welcome to the LD State of Mind, a podcast about learning together and making a difference for college students. Join us as we discuss tips and useful information with our peers and experts in the area of learning variability’s.

[Patrick] Welcome to episode two. I’m your host Patrick Young and joining me today is my guest Dan Comden. Dan why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself.

[Dan] Hi Patrick I’d be happy to do so. I’ve been working in the field of information technology and accessibility going back to the 80’s. I’ve been in information technology here at the University of Washington Main Seattle campus going back to 1992. I am in the role of helping students, faculty, and staff with disabilities have access to the IT resources that they need in order to pursue their academic programs or do their jobs. I’ve been involved with providing services to students with disabilities since I was undergrad, in college back in the 80’s. I actually started as a student employee reading textbooks onto tape. That was our main assistive technology at that time, was human readers recording textbooks read out loud. That’s how I got into this field, as a student employee. So, I’ve been at it for a long time, seen a lot of changes, seen a lot of amazing technology, got to meet some amazing students over the years, which is probably the best part of my job.

[Patrick] Wow it definitely sounds like we got the right man for the job. Having such a long history in this field, how can you tell me the changes that you have seen in assistive technology? How have they changed, how have they grown, and how do you think today’s technology has become more effective in helping students?

[Dan] Well, wow that’s a pretty all-encompassing question there. You know, when I talk about what things were back in the 80’s, it was really an analog world. We couldn’t do what we are doing right now, being on opposite sides of the country having a conversation and easily recording it from the comfort of our own offices. So what we did back then was primarily putting books on tape with human readers. We provided in-class note-taking assistance; we did mobility assistance around the campus. At that time, when I started personal computers really were not at all common, they were very uncommon. When I was in that role, PC’s really started to be something that you would see in offices, but even then it was typical that there would be only one computer in the office. So, at that time, assistive technology was being developed, there was a little bit of a lag. But with the relatively simple interface on the computers, which was really text-based, it was relatively easy to do simple accommodations to allow people with different disabilities to use those computers. Students with learning disabilities were kind of left out. The process of making a computer speak was fairly advanced for a few years. You know, having those sound capabilities in the computer was relatively unusual. So over the course of the last 30+ years, what we’ve seen is computing becoming more ubiquitous, meaning it’s just everywhere. It’s on our desks; it’s in our faces, literally everyday with our smart phones and other mobile devices. And then, along with that is an amazing array of tools that allow people to do their jobs. Whether that job is working at an office, working in the field, or being a student in a classroom.

[Patrick] Absolutely. I know I myself when I was in middle school I had one of those big yellow recorders. It was from the library that was used for the learning, dyslexic, and blind program they had. I just had a tape and I had to flip it over every thirty minutes to continue reading my book. And that helped me so much; that helped give me a love for literature. So, starting in the early days, before they had smart pens and stuff like that, that’s how I really learned and that’s what I got to use. So that’s awesome that you were directly recording those books, you were getting them out there. That’s really what sparked my interest in literature. So, you saw the change, when you saw it happen, what would be the best part of the assistive technology that you see today and how it functions.

[Dan] Well what’s interesting is that at its core, the things that we need to make happen for accommodations really have not changed. For a student with a learning disability that struggles to read printed text, we’re still doing the same thing. We are turning that printed text into audio. What we’re able to do though, is have that happen more rapidly, in a much more customized fashion, and in a very mobile way. So that if you need to study and you need your materials in an audio format, you don’t have to go to a special room. You don’t have to lug around a giant tape player, you can have all that stuff right in your pocket. But at its core, we’re still doing the same thing. We’re making things talk. In particular, when we’re talking about accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Same thing for people who are blind and visually impaired, you know we’re sort of making things talk, we’re making things bigger, and we’re changing contrast, we are changing colors, all those things that we do in the field of assistive technology to allow to accommodate somebodies needs so that they can do their work, whether academic work or professional work.

[Patrick] Nice. We have all this great technology. Now, the question is, I know how to find it, but where can students maybe K-12, or in college setting find these assistive technologies that can really make a difference in their learning?

[Dan] Well in the K-12 system, most of those resources are going to come from the school or the school district. There is typically learning specialists and special educators within the system that should know about those resources and provide them to the students. It doesn’t go smoothly everywhere however. All school districts are not created equal and that’s where the parents typically get involved to help advocate for their child who needs that accommodation. So, it’s important for family members to know about these resources as much as it is for the school to know about these things. Because it’s not just a case of finding that one product that’s going to make a difference, it’s getting it in place, it’s making sure there is a place for it in the classroom if that’s where it’s needed or at home for study needs. It’s so important to have that experience to be able to figure out what’s going to work best for an individual. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of different programs that are designed to do those accommodations, but they’re certainly not all equal. You need to be able to tailor the solutions for the individual’s needs. So, in the K-12 system the school has an obligation to provide an accommodation if a student has a disability identified by the school district. Sometimes, depending on what the disability is, and the cost of the accommodation, it may require some pressure from the parents who have to help advocate for the students, in order to make sure those things are in place. It’s a very different model than what happens once you’re out of that K-12 system, once you get into higher education. Nobody is going to take on that role for the student. They have to be their own advocate in order to start that process and make sure those accommodations are in place.

[Patrick] Absolutely. Coming from a private school, I never really got to experience an IEP or any plan specifically designed for my learning needs. So, having that I think would have been great and I think having access to somebody that knew about these technologies younger, would have been a great help. I came to college and I didn’t really know, luckily I was in a program that helped me find everything. But I really had no idea how to use many of the assistive technologies that they gave me. And that leads to another question. Is there a learning curve behind a lot of these technologies? Are there ways that a student needs to learn how to use them to be more effective in their research or in their use of them day to day?

[Dan] Yeah absolutely. Some training is really a key part of this process, at least initially. There is a huge variety of products in terms of their complexity that are out there. And some are really better targeted in the K-12 system versus the students in higher education. So, you know I am thinking about specific products like, Ker12 3000 or Win, which have very rich tools that are not necessarily simple to learn and use at first, but, could make a huge difference. But really they require somebody sitting right there with the students to get them going to help them understand how to take advantage of all the features in these products. Once you are out of the K-12 system, that’s not going to happen anymore. You’re not going to have somebody sitting there almost working on a remedial basis. So the student has to be much more of a starter, they have to be familiar with the tools, they have to be familiar with learning new tools, because one reader might work well with one type of file format, but it might not work well with another. So it’s important that they get that training in order to develop the skills to pick up on the technology in an independent fashion.

[Patrick] Absolutely. That’s why we’re trying to get them started young. You mentioned a few types of assistive technology in that last question. Can you tell me what some of your favorites are? What are some of the more effective ones that you’ve seen college students use?

[Dan] Yeah sure. There are all kinds of products that I’ve supported and trained and installed, maintained these programs from an IT perspective for years and years. What I see in higher education is probably a bit different than what you’ll see in K-12. Students are looking for relatively simple and lightweight tools, by lightweight I don’t mean how much it weighs on a scale. I mean how big of a computer do you need to run it? How big of a screen do you need to run it? How much does it interfere with other applications? So, for students with learning disabilities in higher education in my experience, they really turn away from the super expensive, super richly featured programs like Ker12 and Win. What they’re looking for are programs that very quickly and easily turn text into speech, we call those text-to-speech programs. And by lightweight, I mean it’s not a big program that takes a lot of memory or a lot of processing power. Often these programs are free or really inexpensive. My philosophy is to get the students to learn how to use these tools independently and it’s going to be something that goes past college as well. Your need to be able to consume print material doesn’t end when you receive your degree. You’re still going to need to be able to read and you’re probably not going go out and buy a $1500 piece of software in order to make that happen. So, having these lightweight tools that do that basic functionality of text-to-speech, is really really important. That’s what we focus on and that’s what the students are primarily asking for.

[Patrick] Absolutely. Currently, I like to use one, read and write gold. It takes whatever I highlight on my screen and it will convert it to a text-to-speech, and it really helps me get my homework done. But I remember when I was really young, before I realized I was really dyslexic, I really had this problem, I would always track everything with my finger. After I was diagnosed, they gave me what looked like a four or five-inch ruler, gray on the top, gray on the bottom, with a little highlighted strip in the middle. And that was kind of how they said you can track it and I used that. It increased my tracking capability, I didn’t get lost, and I was able to read a lot better. Both of those are very different but they both at the end gave me the same outcome, I was able to finish my reading. What do you prefer? Do you prefer high tech, big download software? Or do you prefer the little low-tech things like tracing with a finger or highlighting your paper? Since you’ve seen it all over your long history working in this field.

[Dan] Well I’ve seen a lot. I don’t know if I’ve seen it all. I think anybody who says they’ve seen it all or know it all is probably not being completely accurate with that. That said, you know I’m thinking about programs like read please. I’m thinking about programs like Balabolka is another one that runs in the windows environment that really just takes text and speaks it out loud. But you’re right there are low-tech options out there for reading print material that’s not bee converted to a digital form. The little highlighting sheets are just awesome right? It makes a difference to allow you to focus on just one line of text at a time. You can do some of that without needing any special software. I’ve seen a lot of students benefit from just making the font bigger on their screens. If you just enlarge the font, for some students that may be all they need to track a lot better. With the text-to-speech tools that are out there, you mentioned text helps like read and write gold. One of the things that I look for are word highlighting options. Where words are highlighted as they are read which also helps with focus considerably. There some tools like the built in text-to-speech in the mac operating system, does a really nice job, it’s free, it allows you to highlight text and have it read. But what it doesn’t do is highlight the words as it is reading and that can make a big difference in comprehending the material, so you’re not just listening to it, you’re also seeing it. You’re also seeing it in real time as each word gets read it’s also being highlighted. Some of these tools will also highlight the sentence that’s being read and the words within that sentence. So ClaroRead is a product that can do that, which is similar to read and write gold that you mentioned. Readplease is a program that’s available for free and they also have a relatively inexpensive paid version that does the same thing. So those are some of the features that I look for and it’s the kind of thing that could make a big difference in somebody’s success at reading and comprehending.

[Patrick] Awesome. We’ve been talking a lot about technology that would really help somebody with dyslexia, somebody who has trouble comprehending written words and really struggles with their reading. Is there something that might be able to help somebody who may be having trouble in math? Or might be having trouble formatting their ideas to write a paper? Like coming up with good ideas.

[Dan] So yeah, I’m going to leave math aside for the moment, because math is kind of a special-

[Patrick] Oh I hate math too. You don’t have to tell me, forget about that for a few minutes.

[Dan] We’ll come back to it because it’s really important. For writing, if somebody is challenged with the production of language in a written form, certainly just using a computer and a keyboard, can be a big help right there, where you don’t have to physically form the letters with a pencil and paper. But, for the writing process, organizing a writing project whether that writing project is a paragraph or a 20-page paper, there’s a great set of tools out there under the category of mind mapping. And if you do some searches on mind mapping, and there’s apps available for this, there’s desktop applications available for this, there is even some online web-based solutions. The mind mapping allows you to represent your ideas in a graphical format, kind of like a flow chart. And you can connect various ideas that are basically just a bubble with arrows, so you can show how various topics relate to each other in kind of a hierarchical fashion. And what these tools allow you to do is turn that graphical representation, of a set of ideas, into a traditional written outline very quickly. I was first made familiar with this type of product by a student with a learning disability, gosh, it had to have been at least twenty years ago. The program was called inspiration, it is still available today and actually it’s something that I’ve used for myself. I’ve never been diagnosed with a leaning disability, but this is a kind of tool that was developed to help everybody write. And it really is cool at letting you organize your ideas quickly and in a sort of nonlinear fashion, but then tie everything back together in a graphical way. So I really like the mind mapping software for writing. Another thing that can help with writing is just basic again, text-to-speech outputs so you can get some auditory feedback as you’re typing. There are a number of different talking word processors out there, so that would be something to consider. So you could hear the word that you typed, make sure it’s the word you thought you typed, because if you don’t type it correctly, it probably won’t pronounce it correctly. But even before that, we were talking about simple stuff like spell checkers. Pretty much anywhere you type online anymore, if you’re using like the chrome web browser or Firefox web browser, you’ll get underlines-red underlines under words that it doesn’t recognize. So there’s a visual cue that you need to reconsider what it was that you typed it’s not perfect, it’s kind of a stretch of the imagination.

[Patrick] Oh yeah, I have a lot of experiences with those. One time I was writing a paper and I had so many misspelled words on there that Microsoft had to tell me, “Yeah we can’t except any more misspelled words. We’re not going to notify you, you need to start checking your work a little bit.” It was at like 2,000 words at that point.

[Dan] Yeah. It’s one of those things that, it’s learning how to work with that software and that’s where getting some one-on-one help can really make a difference so you can get some strategies for writing a project like that. You know, do you tackle a paragraph at a time, a page at a time? Everybody is different, and so discovering you know, do you just put all your text all at once and then come back and review it? Sometimes it’s better to take it in smaller chunks, right? So that you can use text-to-speech tools to listen to what you wrote. So you can get that auditory feedback while it’s still fresh, while what you wrote is still fresh in your mind.

[Patrick] Mhmm, any help for the math? Or are we just going have to leave that one?

[Dan] No I won’t leave math behind. Math is something I’ve struggled with my whole life, from when I was a student until the present day. But it is so important. It is so important in so many different fields. Unfortunately, it’s not something that has received nearly as much attention as turning text into speech. There is a way to write math in a fashion that can be turned into an auditory format. There’s actually a couple of different ways to approach this. What we do here at the University of Washington, is we’ll take math content and we’ll use a special editor, called Math Type, to write that math out. It actually is an editor that allows you to put math into something like a Microsoft word document. Once we’ve done that, once we have that math content in Math Type in a word document, there is a free reader available online called Car that was developed at Central Washington University that will not only read the text, but it will read the math that’s within that text and gives the student access to that mathematical content. But unfortunately, the way most math gets written, whether it’s on a web page or in a PDF document, or a PowerPoint slide for class is the instructors are making a picture of math. They’re taking a screenshot of math and putting that image of an equation for example, up on the screen or in the electronic document. There’s really no way to take that picture of math and make it accessible, it has to be written accessibly in order to be able to turn that into an auditory thing.

[Patrick] Awesome. Well thank you for talking with us today Dan and I’m afraid that our time has come to a close. But, thank you again for all the information you gave us, it was so helpful and I hope to have another conversation with you soon.

[Dan] Well it was certainly my pleasure. You’re very welcome and I look forward to a future conversation

[Patrick] Thank you Dan.

[Credits] The LD State of Mind is a part of College STAR Initiative, a multiple campus project helping college campuses become welcoming places for students with different learning profiles. Check out our college STARS student blog and the larger College STAR Project at collegeSTAR.org. Funding for College STAR comes from the Oak foundation and the NC GlaxoSmithKline Foundation. Thank you to our executive producer Dr. Sarah Williams, field producer Chris Pelletier, and our sound engineer Tanner Jones. LD state of mind is taped in the STEPP Learning Cove at East Carolina University.