Software is revolutionising visually impaired pupils' ability to study and socialise in mainstream settings. Sean Coughlan explains
Pupils with visual impairments often depend on their sense of touch. They feel the world rather than see it. And if you imagine how a word such as "technology" might feel, it would probably have a rather harsh and metallic texture, something machined and cold to the touch. But technology is bringing a tangible feel-good factor, as a local authority pioneers ways of helping visually impaired pupils succeed in mainstream schools.
Surrey's support for the visually impaired, provided by the county's Physical and Sensory Support Service, includes five units based in primary and secondary schools, where pupils with the most severe eyesight problems, including the fully blind, can be given specialist support while allowing them to study and socialise in a mainstream setting.
Among the latest software packages being used in these units is Supernova Reader Magnifier, produced by Dolphin Computer Access, which helps pupils with very limited vision to use a computer. This software provides a number of different routes into the computer screen. It can act as a magnifying glass so that a single letter can almost fill the screen. It can also read out the text, so that the user can hear what is written. And there is also an accompanying read-out in Braille.
This multiple approach increases the range of pupils with special needs who are able to access a computer. Ciaran, a pupil who is supported by a unit for the visually impaired at Woking High School, has severe problems with both hearing and vision, but he is still able to use a wordprocessor - in this case to extol his admiration for Manchester United FC and David Beckham.
Such technology is not just clever. For visually impaired pupils, being able to use a wordprocessor is a huge step forward if they want to be taught in a mainstream classroom. Ben, an articulate Year 8 pupil also at Woking High School, says that trying to handwrite on paper can be frustratingly slow, particularly when the end result might be difficult for a teacher to read. With his laptop, wordprocessor and printer he is on much more of a level playing field. And Murray, an avowed "big time computer maniac" in Year 9, says he likes the independence that using the internet gives him. He will be studying for a GNVQ in information technology using software that will let him use online course materials despite his lack of vision.
The technology deployed here and at the nearby unit in Scythwood Primary School is not all computer based. There are talking calculators, taped books, large-print books, talking microwave ovens, tactile globes and even a Braille garden, where the plants and ornaments are felt, smelled and heard as well as seen.
Small devices can make a big difference. Another pupil at Woking High School, Mariam, uses a machine about the size of a computer keyboard that allows her to take notes in class in Braille and then to write up her work, which can be printed off either in the form of embossed Braille or in conventional text. This means that what she writes down in Braille can be read by a non Braille-reading teacher.
Lesley Langston, an advisory teacher for visually impaired pupils and responsible for information and communications technology, says that the support staff have had to work hard and imaginatively at finding ways of making it possible for pupils with impaired vision to achieve their academic potential within a mainstream school.
This has meant plugging together the seeing and non-seeing world, in a way that allows both to communicate. This has led to deceptively significant developments, such as attaching Braille machines to PCs, so that teachers who cannot understand Braille can read and mark the work of visually impaired pupils.
The support staff have developed their own publication system, in which ordinary Microsoft Word files are fed into one end of a computer and embossed Braille pages come out at the other end.
If you think that every document, diagram and worksheet generated by a school has to be translated into large print, Braille or a tactile sheet, you can imagine how labour intensive all this can be. And looking at the shelves crammed with customised materials at Woking High and at Scythwood, you begin to recognise the level of dedication from the staff that all this involves.
But technology is not a magic wand. One obstacle that support staff have to deal with is that the various pieces of equipment are not always compatible. Another is that when people come to depend on technology it becomes a much more serious problem when it breaks down.
There are also some practical concerns that can make life difficult. Laptop computers look very portable in the showroom, but when they are packed away in their carrying case with all the attachments, they can be very heavy for younger children - to the extent that they have to be carried between classrooms by staff. "Visually impaired pupils have to have muscles," says Lesley Langston.
In terms of where they hope technology will lead next, the most sought-after item, says Judith Chilcott, the head of the unit at Woking High, will be an affordable and reliable interactive whiteboard. This would allow whatever is written by the teacher at the front of the class to simultaneously appear on the laptop computers of the visually impaired pupils.
Another area in which pupils with vision problems can be at a disadvantage is in preparing for SATs tests - the support staff say there is always a shortage of large-print past papers.
Lesley Langston warns against generalisations about the academic potential of pupils with vision problems. Blind students include the full range of ability levels and need different kinds of assistance. When she assesses pupils' needs, she finds examples where problems assumed to be linked to visual impairments might be caused by another learning difficulty. "We don't expect any less of anyone because they have a visual impairment. The challenge for us is to find a way of getting the lessons across," she says.
This is not always easy - and sometimes it is not possible at all. "How do you explain the concept of colour to someone who has never had sight?" Or how do you describe to someone who depends entirely on touch what a butterfly looks like?
At least in this setting the visually-impaired pupils know what an "ordinary" class feels like. In the classrooms at Scythwood, the pupils with vision problems are unobtrusively part of the classroom scene. The head of the visually impaired unit, Hilary Mitchell, says that the children, whether sighted or unsighted, are not troubled by any sense of being "different".
And it is difficult not to be quietly moved when a young girl, who lost her sight through illness at the age of five, begins to write you a story "about coming across a hidden gem locked behind a closed door".
* Dolphin Computer Access: PO Box 83, Worcester WR3 8TU. Tel: 01905 754577