Cool and clever

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Technology is transforming learning for visually impaired children. Gerald Haigh reports

School is still, essentially, about books and reading. How do you cope, though, if you're a child in a class where a lesson is based on a particular text and you find it difficult to read standard sized print? For some, simple solutions go a long way. There are large print books, magnifiers, and photocopiers that will enlarge. But these have their limitations.

The charity AbilityNet constantly reminds teachers on its website pages to explore fully what can be done with standard software - changing fonts, background colours and line spacing. There are simple adaptations: high-contrast, simplified keyboard overlays, for example. Beyond that, sophisticated aids such as screen reading software, Braille translators and voice recognition improve all the time.

However, large print books are limited in number, and photocopier enlargement will only take you so far. No child, either, likes to be the only one with a jumbo-sized publication. Braille is a possibility with many texts, but is difficult and not many visually impaired children ever become fluent.

Will Pearson, who worked on this area for the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), says: "Research shows that Braille and large print have some inherent difficulties. Large print books are badly perceived by some students, and Braille is time consuming - about 5 per cent of visually impaired students succeed with it."

What's needed is a means of supported access to text that isn't too "uncool", that has its own motivational qualities, and is easy to use. One effective answer is DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System), an ingenious and flexible way of presenting text to anyone who needs - or prefers - to engage with the printed word other than just by reading it.

DAISY has been around for some years as a more sophisticated sort of "talking book", making use of flexibility afforded by digital technology.

Now, educational possibilities are being explored by organisations such as the RNIB and by Dolphin Computer Access, a commercial firm specialising in ICT for visually impaired users.

At first glance, DAISY looks straightforward. The text is on a computer screen, typically the child's laptop, and highlighted phrase by phrase as a voice reads it. But it's much more than just a screen reader. You can manipulate the screen text, making it as big as you like, and in whatever combination of font and background colour. The reading is the voice of a real human being. If the school has the authoring software, it could be the child's own teacher. Alternatively, DAISY format books are available from RNIB, for example.

Most importantly, you aren't limited to just watching and listening.

Instead, you can stop and search the text. If, for example, you are studying Macbeth and you want to go to each reference to the witches, you can ask the software to do that: type "witches" and it will list all the references. Click on one and you'll get the text and the reading. A bookmarking system means you can go back to parts you may need again.

This is a system with many pleasant surprises. How, for example, can you significantly enlarge the font of a primary textbook page that has lots of illustrations closely associated with the text? No problem. The illustrations appear in turn as the appropriate points in the text are displayed and read.

Still, no matter how good a system such as DAISY seems in a one-to-one demonstration, what matters is how it works with real students in the inclusive classroom. The RNIB has just completed, with Dolphin Computer Access, a 12-month classroom trial for DAISY in four secondary schools in Peterborough, Coventry and Leicester authorities. "We deliberately chose key stage 3 because we knew those pupils don't always like reading," says Will Pearson.

Any kind of reluctance isn't evident in Kyle Mulholland and Terri Clews, the personable and keen students who tried out DAISY in their English lessons at Coundon Court school in Coventry. Each has significant reduction in near and distant vision, usually coping with text with the aid of magnifiers or large fonts. Both found DAISY helpful as an additional aid.

"With a large print book, obviously you can't change the font or the colours. It was an advantage to have that," says Kyle.

There were some classroom management issues. Terri found that where a text is being read round the class, a common enough strategy in key stage 3 literacy, there's the problem of synchronising the DAISY reader to the pace of the lesson. "The computer was quicker than the class," she explains.

(The reading speed can be adjusted, without affecting pitch, but is something that children and teachers have to learn to deal with.) The child also needs to listen to the machine and to the teacher. Stuart Brash, a teacher with Coventry's sensory support service who works with Kyle and Terri says: "It needs something like a single earpiece."

According to Brash, for pupils of that age (13), the issue is not wanting to seem different from the others, and that's a social imperative that can affect every kind of sensory aid. "We find that they'll come into Year 7 willing to use whatever equipment they're given," he says. "But this tails off through Year 8, and in Year 9 they're using a bare minimum."

The answer is to stop seeing DAISY just as a visual impairment aid. It's easy to see that the facility to have text and a real voice synchronised and searchable, with the text in a form that can be manipulated for size, background colour and font, is going to be attractive to lots of children in a range of classes.

There are obvious applications for dyslexia, for example, and for the teaching of languages. Many schools are generously equipped with computer hardware, including laptops, and they'd find that if some of their standard texts were made available in DAISY format, they'd be widely used to the extent that visually impaired users wouldn't feel exposed.

"Even without a lot of computers," says Brash, "you can reach more children using DAISY with an electronic whiteboard."

Too expensive? In fact, EaseReader, Dolphin's version of the DAISYtext and voice software, costs just pound;30.

DAISY is an international standard, open-access system. Dolphin supplies EaseReader and EasePublisher to the DAISY standard, which is regulated by the worldwide DAISY Consortium: www.daisy.org.

Dolphin Computer Access: www.dolphinuk.co.uk

Product details are available on the RNIB, Becta and AbilityNet websites: www.rnib.org.uk; becta.org.uk; www.abilitynet.org.uk

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