Hail jumbo changes in technology

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Could oversized keyboards be the key to making ICT accessible and enjoyable for pupils with special needs? Quite possibly, writes Jackie Cosh

Seven-year-old Callum Devine knows his way around the keyboard. Errors are made but he knows how to correct them, and he insists he doesn't need any help. Having cerebral palsy means that tasks such as this can be laborious, but a Jumbo Keyboard makes life a lot easier.

Connor McLaughlin has been asked to type his name and, once started, he is keen to continue. "Connor McLaughlin is six," he types quickly. Like Callum, Connor prefers the adapted keyboard.

Children at Kelbourne Park School in Glasgow have physical impairments with learning difficulties. For those with fine motor difficulties or involuntary movements a standard keyboard can mean that they keep hitting two keys at once by mistake. Large keys and a keyboard frame mean that this not a problem. Children become less frustrated and are more keen to work. As headteacher Andrea MacBeath says, "Imagine how tiring that would be on a standard keyboard".

Jumbo Keyboards, made by SpaceKraft, have keys which are larger than those on a standard keyboard, making it easier to hit the correct one. The keyguard ensures that children only hit one key at once rather than accidentally hitting two. A giant mouse with a golf-ball sized moving ball sits beside the keyboard, allowing easier navigation.

The letters are bright with vowels in purple and consonants in green. And lower-case letters rather than capitals make it easier for younger children to recognise them. The Qwerty set up on the keyboard can be changed to alphabetical if required and there are fewer function keys, making the letters more prominent. For children used to communication aids, such as a Vantage, the keyboard emulates the thumb action that they are used to.

"We started to use the Jumbo Keyboards in the infant department to get the children familiar with keyboards, but also because the letters are in lower case," says Ms MacBeath. "We use them whenever we use ICT and for any time they record things - any piece of news or writing. Some children will use Jumbo Keys, others will write."

Kelbourne Park has a wide population with a wide range of needs. Jumbo Keyboards are currently used mainly in the nursery and infant department. Thereafter, it depends on need. One girl has a visual impairment, so she will stick with a Jumbo Keyboard. Others will move on to a standard keyboard as they get bigger.

"We have always had a big emphasis on ICT and on getting the children familiar with it," says Ms MacBeath. "It is a means of access for many who struggle with fine motor skills - that was the philosophy when we first started using them.

"At the same time, writing is also important. Parents want their children to be able to handwrite their own name. It is about getting the balance. There is a huge variety across the board. Some children will always need an adapted keyboard, even when they are older."

Ensuring that the Jumbo Keyboards are used appropriately and don't stop a child from writing or using a standard keyboard if required is taken into account by the teachers.

"I think we strike the balance here. We speak regularly with occupational health for their input," says Ms MacBeath. "Writing is a big part of learning and we would not want to lose that. And they won't lose their ICT skills as this is what they will be using in the future.

"For some, it is their prime method of recording. Others have communication aids such as DynaVox and Vantage, and technology supports their communication. I suppose the philosophy is - the less specialised the equipment, the better."

A couple of times Connor presses a key in such a way that it is easy to see how smaller keys could be a hindrance. The keyguard ensures that it is as easy as possible to hit the right one.

"We put keyguards on if they have tremors or fine motor skills physical impairment, such as cerebral palsy, or any kind of involuntary movement. This means that they don't depress the two keys at the same time," says Ms MacBeath.

Deirdre Arnott, the co-ordinator of ASL (additional support for learning) technology for Glasgow, says: "Our service is a peripatetic service where people are referred for a variety of ASL needs. If we see that they need an adapted keyboard, we will provide it.

"As a result of providing them for individuals, schools have seen them and thought they would be good. They may need a keyboard with reduced functionality or big keys if they have difficulty with smaller keys."

Most of the visits made are to mainstream schools, but adapted keyboards still prove popular.

"They make access easier," says Ms Arnott. "The child could have visual impairments or problems with literacy. As regards literacy, this could be dyslexia or a problem with capital letters. We have tried stickers but they just get pulled off."

P12 teacher Claire Woods sees the benefit the keyboard brings to pupils like Connor.

"Connor is great on the keyboard and very keen," she says. "On an ordinary keyboard fingers can get in the way, so this is ideal. If a child is motivated, it helps with the curriculum and makes it easier.

"We are setting them up to succeed; that's what we're doing."

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