Monday, August 29, 2011

Accessibility for the Visually Impaired and Computer Geeks

Whew! After a June full of educational technology with district work, a July full of pregnancy and relaxing, and August full of school starting, I've finally regained enough momentum to blog again!

In addition to the many observations the beginning of every new school year brings for me, I have been forced into new learning. As we all know, given the option, most of us will continue to do things the way we've always done them until something comes along and forces us out of the way. Such is the occurrence in my teaching right now. (I am again teaching 7th grade Computers and 8th grade Photojournalism.) Last year, I had a 7th grader who was blind, and I had a heck of a time trying to accomodate for him, though I did try (with varying degrees of success). A major part of the challenge was that he used a PC and all the rest of the kids used Macs.

However, in 7th grade this year, I have another blind student who is very interested in sticking with the Mac laptops all the rest of his classmates use, and another who is visually impaired, but not completely blind. At the request of this last student's visual-impairment teacher, I finally sat down and did some research into what the accessibility features were on the Mac, including keyboard shortcuts for zooming the screen and enlarging the cursor. Part of me was also quite curious about the use of a PC because his teacher maintained that it had a better accessibility functions than Macs. Being a Mac-believer, I had reason to doubt this, and finally went hunting to find out.

First of all, as it turns out, Mac's Voiceover program appears to be just as capable as comparable Windows programs, and with only a few sets of keys to memorize, you can be up and on your way.  For instance, command+F5 turns on the Voiceover program, which then reads any items currently on the screen. (Side note: Apple has fantastic intro videos in terms of the more extensive vision accessibility features, including Gestures, which is very cool.) I also found the commands to open a list of applications, open an application, open Spotlight, do a Google search, and so on. To test it out, I closed my eyes with a blank screen, and after about 5 keyboard shortcuts, I had opened Safari, searched Hurricane Irene in Google, selected an article and had the screen reader reading an article about it.

But wait, there's more! The best thing I discovered today (other than all of Mac's simple accessibility features) was the Safari Reader function of the Safari internet browser. This feature takes any website on which it finds a text-based article and automatically converts it into a plain-text article, with only relevant images attached. (i.e., no ads, no extraneous page links, etc.)
From this new window that pops up, you can either magnify the text many times, print it or email it, or even better, have the screen reader read it for you. This addresses one of my biggest frustrations with my blind student from last year: it was almost impossible for him to use anything on the internet because it had so many other links that the screen reader would read and never get to the actual content. Safari Reader seems to be a much better system, and will help me greatly in the coming weeks.

I was so excited today as I finally sat down and wrote down all the relevant shortcuts and ideas. As I wrote the shortcuts  down (and sadly acknowledged how long it took me to do all of that,) I decided that I should really save some other people the work. Since the visual-impairment teachers seemed unaware of the accessibility functions on a Mac, I emailed them all of the relevant shortcuts, links, features, videos, etc., that I had looked up. Then I realized that in our culture of sharing, there are probably a good number of other people who may find this information useful. So, I did what any good computer teacher would do: I made a Google Doc. Of course, the people most directly impacted by this kind of information are those that are visually impaired or who work with them. However, the other biggest users of extensive keyboard shortcuts are computer geeks, and I think this could be useful to them as well. It made my geeky side happy anyway :-) Click here to access the basic information in a Google Doc and add to it yourself, or here to get an extensive list of Apple accessibility keyboard shortcuts. Hope it helps someone else too!

[And I realize this comic is PC-based, but I thought it was entertaining nonetheless, assuming you know what they do ;-)]