Tuesday 20 December 2011

What is a good Christmas present for a visually impaired child?

What is the best piece of kit for a visually impaired child?

You might think of investing in a piece of kit for your visually impaired child for their Christmas present. But what is the best kit for a visually impaired child? That is like asking, how long is a piece of string? It depends on the child and their eyesight. Then there is the all too common pupil’s denial of their disability and the deliberate resistance of all forms of support. Technology is a great asset to people who are visually impaired but in school it can have the unfortunate side-effect of accentuating a child’s difference.

So let me begin with some less obtrusive and simple changes you can make, mainly when using a computer, that do not draw attention to a child with low vision. An essential piece of equipment nowadays for a visually impaired child in school and at home is a laptop computer. That would definitely make a good pressie. However even laptops in class are not too popular with children if it makes them look different. Nonetheless when considering a laptop a lightweight model is best although a net book is probably not ideal since a fairly large screen is needed. The Mac Book Air is in many ways a perfect solution but it is not cheap.

The latest operating systems (Windows 7 and Mac) have good accessibility features, particularly magnification features built in so that they do not take up any of the computer’s RAM. One of the more annoying aspects of screen enlarging programmes is the way they slow the computer down because they use up so much of the computer's memory. In my opinion separate screen magnifying software is not needed quite so much as it used to be by many visually impaired children in school simply because of the good accessibility features of the new operating systems. That does not apply to screen reading software, but having said that Apple has its own built-in screen reader, which is quite good. 

Keyboard shortcuts make it easier on all of us especially the visually challenged: we do not have to move the mouse cursor up to the menu bar and scan a scarcely visible menu bar to find what we are looking for. The most useful shortcut on the keyboard is the control (Ctrl) key used with the central mouse scroll button (if you have one). This enlarges or reduces whatever there is on the screen.

I have mentioned the high contrast option, accessed by the Windows keyboard shortcut: SHIFT+ALT+PTRSCRN. This feature can be useful for occasional use when a child’s eyes are tired and need a rest. It is especially helpful if glare is a problem to the pupil. But it does tend to make the icons large. It can of course be adjusted and fine-tuned in the accessibility settings of the computer. This should be definitely be explored.

Low Vision Aids – De-mystifying the jargon
When first hearing the name CCTV you might be excused from thinking of this as a type of camera fixed to a wall, which sends video footage to a monitor as a security device. However CCTV is used widely now in low vision contexts for enlarging near texts and accessing print from far away such as on a board in a classroom. There are many companies making them. They all have their uses, but the major drawback is the expense; they are often between £1500 to as much as £3000.

My colleague in the VI school unit uses one of the more portable CCTVs called the Eye-Pal from Universal Low Vision Aids (www.ulva.com). It folds up and can be easily carried around. The Eye-Pal scans printed material and instantly converts text to speech or sends the information to a Braille Display for the Blind and Deaf-Blind. Faster than flatbed scanners, the Eye-Pal takes only 3-7 seconds from the keystroke to speech or Braille output. Another device is the Magnalink Student from Professional Vision Services. This has been used effectively in many contexts and plugs into a laptop via the USB port. Screen snapshots can be taken of board writing. It is quite portable and reliable.

Other kinds of low vision aids include hand-held devices such as a monocular, which is effectively half a pair of binoculars. It is small and conveniently goes in the bag or is worn round the neck. It is really useful for looking at bus numbers or on the Underground at the train station for reading the times of trains.

There is even a clip-on version of the monocular, which can be worn on a pair of spectacles. All of these devices require a certain amount of confidence. A person needs to be comfortable with using them in a public place as it may draw attention to their disability.

A dome magnifier is just that, it is shaped like a dome and fits over a page of writing to enlarge and brighten a word or group of words. For some applications a bar magnifier or ruler magnifier may be more appropriate. The value of a bar magnifier is the way it enlarges (slightly) a whole line and can be helpful for a person who takes longer focusing and re-focusing when moving on to the next line of print. Some of them also have a line to aid the reader to keep their place. They are inexpensive, portable and a simple solution for many daily tasks. There are many types of low vision aids. My advice is to take the young person to a ‘Low Vision Clinic’ in a hospital. There they will have the expert advice of an optometrist who will show a variety of types available and certainly in the UK they can be prescribed on loan on the NHS. The RNIB shop in Kings Cross London has a range of magnifiers and it is worth a trip to try these out before purchasing.  They can choose their Christmas present there and then!

But all this said, I have personally become quite minimalist over the years with regard to access technology, CCTVs and the like. I have seen so much expensive equipment under-used and wasted. In addition technology moves on at such a fast pace it is hard to keep up with it. There is some sort of technology for all levels of low vision but most children in mainstream schools are actually reluctant to use equipment if it accentuates their difference. My standard advice has been usually: use computers and use an iPad or a Kindle. Certainly have a glass magnifier or monocular at hand for emergencies. All these will be acceptable to young people and more likely to be appreciated than a bulky CCTV that takes up one desk space or even a small electronic video-magnifier that does not look cool.

Recently I have come across another solution that might suit some applications. In several primary schools I have visited I started to notice a piece of electronic kit used a little like the old style overhead projector was used, to display data, sheets and pictures quickly and with the minimum of technical expertise. It just so happened that the classroom where I first saw this being used was a room where a pupil with a severe visual impairment pupil had just started.

Immediately I saw the potential of this gadget as replacing the traditional CCTV for a partially sighted child. This device was set up on the teacher’s desk linked with the computer and already being used by the teacher with the whole class; the kids in the class loved it. It was visual, exciting and very effective. So it met four of the main requirements for a piece of access kit straightaway. (1) It removed the stigma of using specialist equipment as it was regularly being used by the teacher and it did not make the user appear ‘odd’. In fact it was the reverse: it was a quite ‘cool’ gadget to use. (2) It saved space in a limited environment as it was permanently set up in a dedicated location. (3) It did the job of enlarging and freezing a page of text or images onto a computer screen or whiteboard. (4) Perhaps more important in some ways in these days of financial difficulty, it is remarkably inexpensive. As such it can easily be placed into every classroom in every school, no doubt bringing its cost down even further. It is called a ‘Visualiser’. There are different types but the actual model I saw being used was called Avermedia AVerVision CP135 Visualiser and best of all, the price in ‘www.Visualisershop.com’ is £259 plus vat. Compared with a minimum £2000.00 for a CCTV this is remarkable. So I am now recommending that every classroom with visually impaired children invest in one of these. It may not be as sophisticated as more advanced CCTVs but I guarantee it will get used! All the pupil has to do is move seats and sit at the teacher’s desk whenever they need or want to use it.

I would say in conclusion that anyone interested in technology needs to update their knowledge regularly. One way to do this is to belong to the visual impairment forums that exist in the UK and in the USA. Google the phrase ‘VI-Forums’ and you will no doubt find what you are looking for. Or spend an afternoon at Sight Village festival of access technology or the US equivalent in your own country.

Have a great Christmas - Maurice 

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