Accessible and inclusive blended learning for students with visual impairments

iphone displaying 'Hey Siri'

From AI spoken descriptions to keyboard shortcuts, there is a wealth of tools to support learners with visual impairments in using technology. CLC educator Peter Lillington explores what’s on offer from the main platforms.

In this week’s BlendEd Accessibility and inclusion video John Galloway considers the role of technology in supporting learning (whether in a blended, remote or concurrent context) for students with visual impairments or who are blind.

He points out that although we tend to think of technology as revolving around interaction with a screen, many people in their daily lives regularly use voice-activated functions on devices, listen to audio, or interact in some other way than reading text on a screen.

For times when use of a screen is needed he takes us through a number of tools, including text to speech reading aloud and description, and magnifiers for those who are visually impaired. These tools may be used in a number of different ways. He recommends the approach of letting learners know what the choices are and supporting them in finding out what works best for them – in other words not making assumptions.

From AI descriptions to keyboard shortcuts

The Microsoft Seeing AI app, which is available for both Apple and Android devices, gives spoken descriptions of what’s in front of the camera (and on the screen) which can be refined in various ways (such as person, colour, snippets of text or handwriting, documents, colour). Although some parts of it are experimental it seems to do an amazing job of recognition. In Microsoft’s words it ‘narrates the world’. You can see the Microsoft Education team demonstrate it in this YouTube videoEnvision AI is another innovative app in a similar vein.

Learning how to use a keyboard effectively can be beneficial for all learners, making whatever interaction is needed with keyboard and screen as productive as possible, whether by learning to touch type thereby not needing to shift focus constantly from keyboard to screen, or by using a range of keyboard shortcuts beyond the customary Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.

What do the main platforms offer?

Last week we included links to the general accessibility and inclusion sections of the main platforms.  Below are some more specific links that may be relevant when thinking about the individual needs of those students and staff who have a visual impairment, whether they are working in school, at home or in a blended way. It’s also worth noting when investigating this area that terminology about sight varies from country to country so where a localised website for a platform exists, that may be most helpful. 

Many schools will have access to specialist advice and expertise locally as well as from a range of providers but for teachers new to this area a starting point might be this teaching and learning guidance for education professionals from the RNIB.

Apple accessibility shortcuts on the iPad include using triple-click on the home button (once this has been set up in settings in the accessibility section); using control centre to easily access features such as magnifier once added. If you use a Mac you can find the full range of keyboard shortcuts pertaining to accessibility here.

More generally, Apple accessibility features include: voiceover; voiceover and braille (for braille displays); magnifier; spoken content; zoom; hover text; reduce motion; audio descriptions; display settings; text size; dark mode; dictation; Siri.

Microsoft Education has a Special Education: Vision section with details of services such as narrator, accessibility checker, Office lens app and learning tools and immersive reader. And, specifically for Windows, this page includes details on features mentioned by John such as increasing or decreasing contrast on your display.

This EDU in 90: Chromebook Accessibility Features video gives a quick overview of setup and management for individual users logging in and visual tools available include high contrast mode, zoom, and magnifier functions as well as screen reader (ChromeVox and Select to speak).  Further specific detail can be found in this series of Chrome and Chrome OS accessibility videos.

For schools using Google Workspace for Education tools such as Classroom, Docs and Slides, this site gives full details of the accessibility tools including a useful app by app table comparison of what’s available in which app. Screen reader is available across all, with some specific useful options such as type with voice in Docs and add caption tracks in Slides.

For users of Microsoft Office 365 there is some overlap with Windows, of course, but more information is available here with Teams specifically covered in this.

Finishing for now with another innovative app for iOS from Microsoft, Soundscape allows users to experience 3D maps in sound. And although this may not be directly relevant to the classroom, whether blended or in person, it may give any student some understanding of different ways to receive information – as John says in his video this week, when it comes to using technology it can be a very visual medium.

I’ve learned a lot about features and options I wasn’t aware of in detail (or at all) as I put this blog post together – please do investigate how you can give students more choices, in John’s words, and support them in finding what works best for them.

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