Stepping Stones Of Technology Innovation For Students With Disabilities

Cfda 84.327a — Phase 1 Development

School systems face the challenge of finding successful strategies for the inclusion of students who are blind and who use braille. Braille, a complex language used for both reading and writing, consists of raised dots that represent letters, combinations of letters or words. General education teachers are often not able to read or write in braille. Braille is taught by teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs). Most often, TVIs work with students and teachers on a part-time, itinerant basis, converting instructional materials into braille for the student to read, and converting braille materials created by the student into print for the teacher, classmates and parents.

Students who are blind are at a severe disadvantage accessing inclusive classroom materials and participating in the general curriculum. This disadvantage increases with each grade as the amount of reading and writing increases. Hardcopy braille occupies considerably more space than printed material. Braille versions of general education textbooks are not always available. The manual production of braille becomes overwhelming and there simply is not enough time to convert all instructional materials into braille. Computer systems using scanners, braille translation software and braille embossers are sometimes used to generate braille, but these systems are complex and not readily available in the general education environment.

Consequently, alternative formats such as audio tape and computers with speech synthesis, or reliance on personal assistance from teacher aides and resource room teachers, either augment or replace the use of braille. However, replacing the braille with materials in spoken language format is not a good option if the student is to continue to advance academically, just as replacing print with audio tapes for a sighted student would be inappropriate.

Advances in technology have introduced an innovative alternative to hardcopy braille, called "refreshable braille," providing instant braille access to material stored electronically. Textbooks may be scanned into the computer and saved onto a single 3.5" floppy disk, or may be provided by the publisher in electronic format. Refreshable braille displays use moveable small pins that raise and lower as needed to form braille characters. After a line of text is read, the user can "refresh" the display by pressing a button, and read the next line. Refreshable braille displays are now built into portable braille note-takers that can be used for both reading and writing.

While refreshable braille technology is available, a system for providing and integrating this technology into the general education classroom is not. This project will develop and document a system for integration of portable braille note-takers with refreshable braille to a total of 15 students and 15 school teams New York State. Project objectives include: provide refreshable braille systems and training, convert print learning materials to electronic format, conduct a formative evaluation, and disseminate project materials and findings. The outcome of this project will be a replicable system for implementing refreshable braille in the general education classroom. This project qualifies as a "Stepping Stone of Technology Innovation" because it will permit suitable field-based evaluations of operational effectiveness and improvements in education for students who use braille.