Last week we looked at what visually impaired people should expect of potential college employers. Here we examine just what assistive technology is out there, the schemes and initiatives reassuring job applicants that they will be able to work effectively alongside sighted colleagues, and developments to come.
Digital support has come on a pace during the past few years. Assistive technology - IT programs tailored to enable people who are blind or partially sighted or with other sight-related disabilities to hold their own in and outside work - is now ubiquitous in simple form across most mobile phones, tablets and desktops.
No longer does a visually impaired (VI) person have to call up a specialist with basic queries; most colleagues can help. Even the old iPhone 5 includes not only basics like text size, brightness and magnifier but also speech recognition and assistive touch (introduced in 2011!) programs that reduce normally more complex operating actions down to one-finger screen taps for, say, adjusting volume and rotating/locking your screen.
But the specialist assistive technology that opens doors to so many careers for VI people is the real game-changer, a field led in many ways by the RNIB. Again, some of the software has been in use for years, yet numerous colleges with experience of very few if any staff with disabilities need constant reminders of the technology’s ability to open up a rich new seam of staff talent.
Plenty of VI software does exist - and much of it is long-established, according RNIB’s Stacy Scott (who in last week’s article underlined the positive impact of bringing VI staff onboard colleges). “They assume people with VI need too much support and help. Unless college managers are in a space where they know about disabilities - and assistive technology etc - they will often think, mistakenly, that as so much teaching is now computer-based and online, people with VI will not be able to do it! They just don’t know that all this VI software is here already.
“They have to educate themselves, that’s a good place to start. They need to understand what people with VI are capable of, what support is in place, and financially what resources VI people have access to - there is a whole range of things employers can look into to understand VI needs better. Because we are essentially talking about people who work in a different way. The goal and outcome will be same; whether you read it with your eyes or listen to it with your ears.”
Among several national services for people with VI and other diabilities pioneerd by the RNIB is its Bookshare digital repository scheme, a unique and vast education library of textbooks and learning materials supporting students who struggle or cannot read print. Managed by Stacy Scott, it is free and exclusive to teachers and eligible students in the UK.
“We have so far got around 1,100 publishers to send us books in digital format (some 715,000 titles),” she says. “These are placed on a common online platform that offers everyday access in a variety of different customisable formats (font, colour, size, background etc) and available via text-to-speech screen reader, magnification software and Braille frames.
“Access is free to anyone signing up who struggles or is unable to read texts. Users include all blind and VI students, those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or other cognitive learning disabilities such as autism or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and others unable to handle print because of physical impairments.”
The RNIB works closely with one of the UK’s leading assistive technology specialists, Dolphin Computer Access, which designs, creates and sells software for people who are blind or have vision and print impairments, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other specific learning difficulties. Its SuperNova range of screen magnifiers, screen readers and braille output enables teachers and students to operate word processors, spreadsheets, databases and the internet. SuperNova is also available on a USB memory stick which means college staff can take the software with them wherever they teach.
“We provide a free reading app called Dolphin EasyReader accessible via iOS and android mobiles, tablets, laptops and desktop computers to all students with reading difficulties,” says Dolphin’s chairman, Noel Duffy. The tool enables visually impaired and dyslexic readers to listen to audio books from RNIB Bookshare, while each word is highlighted on their computer screen, tablet or smartphone. Size, colour, font style and background colour can all be adjusted and text and images magnified to suit. Readers can also use EasyReader to link to other accessible book libraries and talking newspaper services in the UK.
“If there was ever a group ideal for access to these repository libraries, it would be further education colleges,” says Noel. “They probably cater for more people with dyslexia than any other group.”
There will often be times when teachers with VI and cognitive reading difficulties need answers that their own colleges cannot supply. Stacy Scott highlights the mailing list run by Facebook’s Librarian (accessibility) Champions group - subscribed to by librarians from colleges and universities who specifically deal with students (and teachers) with disabilities. “People email in questions like how do I make this accessible and welcoming to my students? How do I do x, y and z? There is no specific support channel for FE teachers with disabilities but this would be the right space for them.”
VI Talk is another established Facebook group, with around 4,000 members, where you can ask any questions about VI. “These days more people with VI are wanting to become teachers and taking PGCE and other teacher training qualifications - and they will post questions asking for advice,” says Stacy. “Teaching comes up quite a lot - for instance, I’m doing this so does anyone know what support I can get. Can I do this sort of job if I can’t see? What sport is out there for me?”
RNIB is also developing a VI curriculum professionals online hub - another support mechanism for teachers with VI. It is being based on a curriculum that will follow national standards but be specifically for teaching VI students. It will have in place all the resources and answers you might need to teach any subject and be an information source for teachers, support staff and librarians.
Of course, one of the best ways to learn and feel at home in a new job setting is linking up with FE colleagues who also have disabilities. Leeds City College business and law lecturer Carol Redfearn, who has spina bifida, attends a five-strong Google online group they have recently set up at the college. “It’s a hangouts group so if you feeling up or down you can post something - we’ve only started it recently and hope it can become a WhatsApp group with our own chatroom.”
However, perhaps the best advocates of promoting the case for far more visually impaired staff in colleges are the candidates themselves. Ask the really pertinent questions about IT provision and cite the statistics and anecdotal evidence that show the extra loyalty and dedication VI staff traditionally tend to show their employers. College recruiters will get the message - hire us!