25 March 2015
Have you ever played with the accessibility settings on your phone or tablet? Or perhaps you have had good reason to explore them to help you, your family or friends to access material on the internet? What you may not realise is that the accessibility settings on these devices can represent a huge breakthrough for children, young people and adults with impairments.

Accessibility settings

The accessibility settings on mobile devices range from straightforward modifications such as making the text larger to getting a device to read out to you. Go to ‘My Computer My Way‘ for instructions about how to use the accessibility built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones for vision, hearing, motor and cognitive support.

Significance for visually impaired children, young people and adults

The recent developments to accessibility settings have been particularly important for visually impaired people. Anecdotally, touchscreen devices created anxiety for visually impaired people when they first hit the headlines given their presumed dependence on sight. Nevertheless, accessibility settings on mobile devices were quick to follow and whilst these devices can be too expensive for some people, they represented a huge breakthrough for others who could afford them.

It’s what you do with it

Of course, research has shown that it is never just the particular technology which can create transformation for learning but what people do with it. Keeping this in mind, I have been visiting schools and talking to visually impaired young people aged between 7 and 17 in the north-west of England about how they use mobile devices to support their learning. I’ve also been talking to the QTVIs (specialist qualified teachers of visually impaired children), special educational needs coordinators, primary and secondary school teachers and teaching assistants who work very closely with each child to support them.  The impact of the expertise of these teams should not be underestimated as they often have a leading role in supporting the young person to use mobile devices for learning and their proficiency with technology can be crucial. The onus within the schools I have visited is on independent learning. The support teams are therefore essential for developing young people’s skills with technologies so that they can, in turn, support themselves.

Benefits of mobile devices

The results for visually impaired young peoples’ uses of digital technologies including tablets are very encouraging. As I mentioned earlier, it is not just the mobile device that matters but what young people do with them. The young people I have spoken to have talked of an increase in terms of their own independence to learn and more generally. Teachers note development in the young people’s capacity for self-directed learning.

As an example, visually impaired young people are using tablets to capture images on whiteboards or other resources using the camera and then zooming in to enlarge the text, enhance the colours and modify the brightness contrast which enables them to access materials without needing to ask for help. This may sound like a small change but the impact can be huge. Laura, age 16 said:

“Before I went in year 11, I felt very dependent on the teaching assistant to scribe things for me, but now I have got my iPad, I feel very, more independent which is what I want to do and what other people want me to do as well”

The benefits of these devices also include their reliability, portability and speed to start-up.

There have been a number of other projects which have noted the benefits of using mobile devices for learning. This study is no different, with students commenting on how they are “fun”. For instance, Nigel, age 11, said that he liked the interactivity made possible when using a tablet. In the class I observed, French conversation was being practised through using the sock puppet app. This enables the creation of lip-synched videos which delighted Nigel and his classmates (I saw this for myself whilst observing the class).

Additionally, visually impaired students also report that stigma is reduced when using a tablet. Laura, age 16, said that:

“I feel like just an ordinary person when I’m using it. I like to be a tiny bit different but I don’t like to be so much different that everyone treats me differently. I like to be just like a normal girl sort of thing, in the mix, which I quite like. And having an iPad, and my friends have iPads as well, it just makes me feel like one of them basically.”

For instance, students preferred not to use mobile devices for extended pieces of writing unless they had an external plug-in tablet keyboard. Some also reported difficulty getting documents on and off the iPad and yet were not familiar enough with using cloud storage space as an alternative. Not all textbooks are available electronically and sometimes are not of adequate quality. Some students found it a drawback that they could not use tablets in exams. Others commented that some of the subject teachers were not yet up to speed digitally to be able to support them. This particularly emphasised the important role of highly skilled teaching assistants who could bridge the gap between the student and the teacher.

For teachers, there are also the tricky technical problems that crop up in classrooms when using technology from time to time. I observed a German language lesson where the teacher was using animation of food and drink items on the interactive whiteboard for the students to name. Unfortunately the package would not load onto the visually impaired young person’s tablet so he could not identify what he needed to. Nevertheless, a teaching assistant was onside to whisper the names of the items to him in English so that he could join in.

One of the older students, Simon, who was planning to go to university next year, said that it had been difficult to get a tablet to take to university through the DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance). He wanted the portability and convenience enabled by a tablet with plug-in keyboard and printer. However the standard allocation for students is a bulkier, less efficient, laptop with CCTV camera for magnification which it was assumed could be taken into lectures. Fortunately for Simon, the assessor was willing to lobby for what he and Simon thought was needed and a tablet has been recently approved.

Finally

It is clear from the research I have been carrying out that digital technologies, particularly mobile devices, have the potential to improve the learning and lives of visually impaired young people inside and outside of schools. In some cases, these technologies can be transformative. The government is currently bringing in changes to the funding mechanisms through which children, young people and students going on to higher education can get support. I very much hope that these shifts do not undermine the important and positive progress which is being made in this area.

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank the young people, QTVIs, special educational needs coordinators, primary and secondary school teachers and teaching assistants who have so generously given of their time to talk with me about uses of digital technologies for learning.

Dr Sue Cranmer, Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University