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Assistive Technologies For Students with Low Vision

By: Sarah Doar
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Making assistive technologies available in universities is paramount to allow students with disabilities equal access to learning. 6.8% of US children younger than 18 years have been  diagnosed with an eye or vision condition. When the time comes for them to enter university, students with vision loss will inevitably require accommodation to be able to receive an equitable education. With this in mind, more educational institutions are committing themselves to implementing assistive technologies to help students who are blind or have low vision.

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Access to assistive technologies opens the door to opportunities for students living with low vision to participate alongside their peers who are sighted. Assistive technology runs the gamut of tools like audio description, modified keyboards and virtual assistants, which are making all the difference in creating a more equitable learning environment for students who need accommodations.

Understanding assistive technology

Many institutions are paying greater attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Universities are working on how to remove barriers that are detrimental to the learning process for those the act is designed to protect. Part of this involves implementing assistive technology to help students who are blind or have low vision. 

Assistive technology is anything that is used to increase, maintain or improve the independence and learning capabilities of an individual with a disability. The technology may be a piece of equipment, software program or product system. Assistive technology for individuals with blindness or low vision is designed specifically to allow them to better interact with the world around them. Effective solutions can help them with anything from grocery shopping to using search engines while studying or watching a movie.

For students who have low vision, access to assistive technology means that they are able to have equal access to class lectures, resources and opportunities to participate. Even if a class’s educational content is primarily visual, assistive technology aims to minimize learning obstacles or else provide an alternative way to understand the materials.

The overall goal of assistive technology for students who are blind or have low vision is ultimately to provide them with a rewarding education so they can go on to succeed after college.

Why universities need assistive technology

While more students with disabilities are enrolling in college programs, the graduation rate of this population is significantly lower. Only 41%of students with disabilities graduate college compared to 52%of the general population. This 11% difference is referred to as the disability gap and often occurs as a result of educational institutions failing to provide adequate resources for learners with disabilities. To avoid this gap and potential lawsuits, it is vital that institutions  implement assistive technologies to set their students up for success.

Assistive technologies also benefit universities as they strive to present themselves as inclusive and accessible by providing equitable learning opportunities. Offering assistive technologies helps institutions meet the guidelines prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and also creates a welcoming environment for a diverse student body in the process.

The top three assistive technologies for students with low vision

Advancements in technology have created a variety of assistive tools for these students. Assistive technology in the classroom allows these learners to thrive in higher education and take advantage of the same opportunities for success as their peers.

Here are three of the most popular assistive technologies students are utilizing today: 

1. Audio description

One of the best assistive technologies for students who are blind or have low vision is audio description. In the same way that individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing have a right to closed captioning, viewers who are low vision have the same right to audio description. 

Audio description (AD) provides additional audio narration for video. AD can be added to multiple forms of video whether it be educational, TV or film. Many streaming platforms like Netflix even have a feature that allows users to select to add audio description on a show or movie.

laptop and headphones on a table

Audio description describes what is happening in a video out loud. AD describes the key visual elements so that individuals who cannot see them can understand what’s being shown visually. . These elements could be physical descriptions of characters or a play-by-play of on-screen action. This narration is incorporated seamlessly into the video’s natural pauses to provide clear, concise and objective language to describe what was shown.

For universities, audio description may be incorporated into online videos and lectures. To ensure audio descriptions are high quality, accurate and easily accessible, it is recommended to partner with a professional audio description provider like Automatic Sync Technologies. AST uses expert audio describers and partners with universities to ensure that students with low vision receive the highest quality AD possible for equitable learning.

2. Computer and device modifications

Customization options and modifications can play a significant role in helping students who are blind or low vision access what they need to learn. Many students with low vision are able to access library catalogs and other databases for relevant articles and books as long as computers are equipped to enlarge text on the screen or read the on-screen text with speech output software. Modified keyboards have features like Braille, large letters and brightly colored keys. Screen readers can also be used to help describe what is in a book or on a page and video magnifiers can be attached to a monitor display to zoom in on specific document areas.

transcription machine connected to a laptop

Smartphones can also be modified to increase the usability. There are a variety of apps that can assist with everything from typing Braille notes to finding a destination on campus with Google Maps via speech to text. 

Adding modifications to everyday devices can make all the difference to a student’s learning experience. Consult with your university students who are blind or have low vision in order to understand what modifications they prefer. They will be grateful for the accommodations and for care shown to ensure accessibility.

3. Automatic speech recognition technology 

Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology powers a lot of the tools you’re likely familiar with, including Siri, Alexa and much more. ASR is based on Artificial Intelligence and is used to transform speech, or an audio signal, into text. It uses knowledge of linguistics, computer science and electrical engineering to produce the text. ASR technologies like speech to text can be used by students who are blind for hands-free note taking and general learning assistance. 

ASR is also the basis for voice assistants who can be summoned with a simple voice command to perform tasks on the phone or computer like making a call, searching online or reading information out loud.

With access to ASR technology, students who are blind or have low vision can have control over their learning by autonomously taking notes and using these AI-based tools to search for what they need with their voices. Students can greatly benefit and receive more equity as they learn with access to ASR-based tools, even captions like AST’s which are built with ASR capabilities.

woman working on her laptop and notes on the floor

Creating an accessible learning environment

Although students with disabilities in higher education are protected by federal laws, like the ADA, postsecondary institutions still face challenges in supporting them. It has been reported that most college students are unaware of their campus disability resource office and its services. Students with disabilities also face classroom barriers if faculty are unaware of disability accommodations or how to provide students with what they need. 

Making it known that your university is an accessible environment both in the classroom and throughout the campus is key. Part of providing accessible solutions includes educating faculty on how to accommodate students. Being proactive about providing accessibility solutions like assistive technologies saves students from having to request assistance themselves, especially if they do not feel comfortable doing so.

Assistive technology like audio description, modified computers and ASR continues to open a world of possibilities for students who are blind or have low vision. Contact us to learn how AST’s dedicated team for education can help by offering your institution the tools it needs to create an accessible campus.