A variety of technology has allowed students at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind to gain freedom and independence, says Paula Brannon, the school’s technology resource instructor for the Blind Department.

Apr 17 2008

Taking Charge

Advances in technology at this acclaimed school allow special-needs students more freedom and control over their education.

Advances in technology at this acclaimed school allow special-needs students more freedom and control over their education.

The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has long been a national leader in educating students with sensory impairments from pre-K through 12th grade. It’s the largest such school in the country, boasts a graduation rate of 99 percent and propels more than two-thirds of those graduates toward a higher education.

Today, this 123-year-old public boarding school, which has grown to more than 893 students and 47 buildings, is leading the way into the digital age by incorporating advances in educational technology — including not only the breakthroughs designed for the blind/visually impaired and deaf/hard-of-hearing, but innovatively using more mainstream hardware and software.

As a result, FSDB’s blind graduates are heading into the workforce with computer skills; some have gone on to become court and medical transcriptionists. “They’ve moved into that computer space for the first time,” says Paula Brannon, the school’s technology resource instructor for the Blind Department. She adds that one alumnus has built a business as a “white-hat hacker,” someone who tries to break into computer networks so the businesses using them can improve their security.

Students are also leaving the school with the newfound skill of advocating for themselves technologically. “We have one graduate,” notes Brannon proudly, “who convinced a local Pizza Hut to install a computer with a screen reader so he could take orders over the phone.”

“When I first began teaching deaf children, we didn’t have nearly the number of computers or the knowledge of what to do with them,” says middle school teacher Colette Cook, for whom the “olden days” were barely seven years ago.

Teaching Technology

Educational technology has since enveloped FSDB’s now-wireless campus, from the interactive whiteboards in every deaf classroom to the one-to-one notebook program for blind high school students.

All receive standard computer keyboard training in their early elementary years. In her own classes, Brannon introduces the concept of computerized files and documents by having her students feel their way through the folders and papers in her filing cabinet. “We start low tech,” she says.

The process continues as Brannon regularly takes carts full of notebooks to the classroom for grades three through five. Students in grades six through eight make daily trips to the school’s computer labs to use their desktops. And the 91 high school students tote around their own HP 6000 or 6100 notebooks.

As students become familiar with Microsoft Windows, they use the Window-Eyes or JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for screen reading. They find and open files by navigating the desktop with the directional keys.

“Whatever text is on the screen, the screen reader will say it out loud and it will show in Braille,” Brannon continues. A computerized Braille display set just in front of the keyboard uses changing configurations of tiny pins to create the appropriate symbols.

Eliminating Tapes

Brannon and others have also turned increasingly to optical scanners that use letter-recognition software to translate printed materials into Braille or to read them aloud. “My students can read today’s newspaper,” Brannon notes. “Instead of waiting for someone to read it to them or put it into Braille, they can do it by themselves. That’s a great advancement.”

Another big step forward for the school’s blind students and their teachers has been their use in the past three years of the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) Consortium’s software players, which look like CD players with a keypad on top and which have replaced books on tape with interactive books on CD.

“I had to use those ugly tapes,” recalls Brannon, who herself is visually impaired.

Now users can navigate by chapters or subheadings and bookmark along the way. “If every chapter has a vocabulary list, you can bookmark those lists and then quickly travel through the bookmarks,” she says.

Deaf Student Gains

The same holds true for FSDB’s deaf/hard-of-hearing students, for whom interactive whiteboards have become part of the daily classroom experience. These whiteboards enable users to project, mark up and manipulate computer files, Web pages and DVD content and then save the results.

“Our deaf students rely heavily on visual information, and they require significant additional graphical and video support to read and understand new concepts,” explains Cook. “If I get to a point in the reading where they don’t know what I’m saying, I can go to the Internet for a picture.”

Eighth-grade teacher Susan Cooper recalls how the interactive whiteboards made an immediate difference to some of her deaf eighth graders. “I had a group of struggling readers [who were] at the first- and second-grade reading level who saw all of their friends reading Harry Potter and felt left out.”

So Cooper got the book on tape and over the next weeks translated, via sign language, the contents to her students, who came up and illustrated each episode on the electronic board. “Every day, we’d do more of the story and add to the pictures,” which multiplied to more than 50, she adds.

Cook also has students move words and phrases to create the correct order in sentences. “It’s much harder to pick up sentence structure without being able to hear it,” she says.

“Our students are much more able to follow lessons over time and reflect on what they’ve learned earlier in the year, and their participation has increased,” says Shelley Ardis, the school’s director of distance-learning services. She notes that teachers are better able to command attention because they can switch seamlessly from DVDs to Web pages to computer files. “They can stand at the board and maintain eye contact without losing momentum.”

Cooper, who provides whiteboard training to her fellow teachers of the deaf, points to the advantages of saving marked-up lessons and student work electronically. “The teacher may say, ‘Do you remember when we studied habitats?’ And she opens up a file from a month before, complete with graphics and charts. And the students say, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

More Uses for Assistive Technologies

Screens that speak and electronic whiteboards that interact have made a big difference to the students and teachers at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. But some of the same assistive technologies have plenty to offer less specialized schools, especially as they try to meet the escalating demands of No Child Left Behind.

Screen-reading software is benefiting students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities. And organizations such as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic make their growing collections of books on interactive CD available for use by dyslexic students on the same DAISY software players used by students at FSDB.

For the past three years, the Iowa Department of Education studied the effects of screen readers on seventh- and eighth-grade students with mild to moderate disabilities and deficient reading scores. The researchers found that programs that pronounce the on-screen text led those students to double the information they were able to take in and to increase their reading comprehension.

And since screen readers — and a newer generation of reading pens, which voice the sections of text they pass over — are also able to translate and pronounce words into languages such as Spanish, they have become a promising tool for ELL/ESL programs.

Braille Facts

  • Created in 1821 by Louis Braille after a boyhood accident left him without sight
  • Based on a code created for Napoleon so his soldiers could communicate at night silently and without light
  • Adapted by almost every known language, from Albanian to Zulu
  • Canadian banknotes have raised dots that indicate their denomination