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Beyond the sightand sound barriers

Tina Detheridge looks at the ways in which multimedia can be used to help children with learning difficulties.

CD-Rom has changed the face of educational software. It has brought the capacity for large numbers of high-quality graphics and animation. This can both entertain and illustrate information in ways that earlier stylised images could not hope to achieve. The inclusion of digitally recorded sound gives computer speech better pronunciation and intonation, which has also increased the power of software to communicate and inform.

This improvement in quality has created new means for communication that have particular benefits for pupils with learning difficulties. Special Edition (National Council for Educational Technology) illustrates ways in which multimedia, much of which arrives on CD-Rom, can be used to help pupils with learning difficulties.

The majority of the cases quoted demonstrate that children have shown increased concentration, motivation and awakening of interest in areas that had seemed closed to them before.

It all sounds good. But few of the illustrations are of pupils with severe physical disabilities or sensory impairments. There are some obvious reasons for this. Most CD-Rom software is mouse driven using a graphical interface, relying on good vision and motor control, and this is where the difficulty lies.

IT has made a number of significant contributions to educational access for pupils with disabilities. The most important has been software that can be operated by a range of different devices instead of, or as well as, the keyboard. This includes the development of speech synthesis, so that text can be heard as it is written or read back after it is finished, and text display that can be changed to accommodate the visual needs of a partially-sighted user.

In the early days of IT there was a plethora of special-needs software, but the drive for equality of access and the sheer economics of software development has put the emphasis on creating ways in which users with special needs can use standard packages, sometimes with the help of additional interfacing programs that add these special features.

Applications such as SAW, Windows Switch and Switch Clicker give access to pupils with motor disabilities. They enable a grid of letters or pictures to be displayed on the screen from which the user can select items as though they had been entered from the keyboard. Developers have been encouraged to make their software compatible with these utilities, and to include similar facilities that make software accessible to wider groups of users. So far success has been limited.

While software developers known to have an interest in special needs have moved in this way, the larger publishers have, on the whole, not taken these requirements seriously. They are not difficult modifications and, if they are implemented at the design stage of development, need not be costly.

A few years ago, the NCET published CD-Rom, A Matter of Access, which gave some guidelines for developers. It contained a number of points for them to consider. It also provided a useful set of pointers to teachers evaluating software for their pupils. For example, screen displays that are clear and uncluttered are much easier for the partially sighted. They are also easier for pupils with learning difficulties. Good colour contrast, visual spaces between icons and colour clues all help in screen readability, as does the font.

The biggest bete noire is printed text on a background graphic. Sit with your eyes half closed and see what you can read. It also helps to have a spoken keyword attached to the main menu items and navigational icons. Pupils who have limited sight are likely to have their own word processor that has been specially configured for reading or displaying text. If text can be saved from the CD-Rom as a text file, these pupils can load it into their own processor to read. This means the CD-Rom itself does not have to provide extensive speech.

Pupils with motor difficulties may be able to use a mouse if the selection areas are separated or not too small. But those who cannot use a mouse can navigate a pointer through an emulator or on-screen grid. This can be slow, and it helps considerably if there are keyboard equivalents for actions selected by mouse so that areas can be chosen using macros on the grid rather than by laboriously moving pointers all the time. It also helps if the layout is reasonably consistent between screens. A new grid is necessary for each layout, and keeping buttons or "hot" areas the same on each screen will reduce the number of grids (or selection sets) needed.

The Ace Centre in Oxford has produced several selection sets to be used with SAW for commonly used CD-Roms. These include Encarta 94, Musical Instruments, Dinosaurs and Creepy Crawlies.

There is an increasing awareness that people with disabilities have rights of access to the places and facilities enjoyed by everyone else. This entitlement extends to children in schools. It is not just a matter of a ramp here and a bit of Braille there. The entitlement has to extend to all the educational facilities and resources provided. Access to IT ought to be one of the easiest to achieve.

Some hardware manufacturers are aware of the needs of the disabled. For example, Microsoft is developing a range of developers' tools and utilities. We need to persuade software designers to use them.

The only people who are really going to make the developers incorporate these essential features are purchasers. When you evaluate a CD-Rom, look at it for accessibility. If you need a program for a pupil with special needs, don't settle for second best - contact the developer and demand what you need. Access should be a priority as a matter of course.

* Tina Detheridge is a senior lecturerin special education at WestminsterCollege, Oxford

* Special Edition, NCET, Millburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel 01203 416994SAW, and SAW Selection Sets, ACE Centre, Ormerod School, Wayneflete Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 8DD. Tel 01856 63508Switch Clicker, Crick Computing, 123 The Drive, Northampton NN1 4SW. Tel 01604 713686Windows Switch, Advisory Unit: Computers in Education, 126 Great North Road, Hatfield, AL9 5JZ.Tel 01707 266714

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