Jul 01 2020

How to Accommodate Students with Disabilities Using Chromebooks

Magnification, on-screen keyboards, high-contrast screens and other features can help improve accessibility for students.

For K–12 students nationwide, the shift to remote learning has created new challenges, new routines and novel modes of instruction. For students with disabilities, the transition has been all the more complex.

About 14 percent of students in U.S. public schools receive special education services, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those students may have impaired vision or hearing; some may have dexterity issues that make it difficult to manipulate a mouse or keyboard. Others may be dealing with learning and processing challenges.

“These students may have been working closely with teachers or a teaching aide in the classroom,” says Laura Allen, senior program manager for Chrome and Chrome OS accessibility at Google. “Now that the learning environment has shifted, some students may have parents and guardians who can assist with some of this more hands-on support, while others do not.”

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Google Chromebooks include features that can help bridge the accessibility gap for students during remote learning.

The built-in screen reader ChromeVox can help visually impaired students navigate their screens using spoken feedback. It’s ready to activate with a simple keystroke, offering full audio descriptions of on-screen content.

“If a blind or visually impaired student wants to go through assignments on Google Classroom, they can turn on ChromeVox and use keyboard shortcuts to navigate the interface,” Allen says. “ChromeVox will enable them to navigate item by item, reading out whatever is on that page.”

High-contrast mode offers another means to make Chrome content more readily available to those with impaired vision. It’s especially helpful in a remote learning situation, where students may be spending more time than ever looking at screens.

“They are normally looking at dark text on a bright white background all day, and with distance learning, some students will experience a lot of eye strain,” Allen says. High-contrast mode inverts the colors, switching to light text on a dark background, “which can be helpful for people like me with low vision, or those who deal with light sensitivity,” she says.

For students with dyslexia, the Select to Speak feature offers a way to more effectively navigate the written word. While ChromeVox can read the entire page, Select to Speak enables the user to choose specific text to be read aloud.

“It can be very helpful for students who are dyslexic or have processing challenges. The word-by-word highlighting can help to make a stronger audiovisual connection in your brain,” Allen says. With students in mind, Google recently teamed with digital voice developer, Acapela Group, to make available a library of children’s voices for the reader. “Especially with much younger learners, the children’s voices can really resonate much better.”

Magnification Features Make Information Larger and Clearer

For those who need to get a clearer view of on-screen classwork, Chromebook’s full-screen magnifier makes everything bigger, with multiple levels of magnification available depending on the specific user need. A recent enhancement to this feature, Docked Magnifier, offers enhanced navigation by enlarging just the top third of the screen.

“For some users who rely on magnification all day long, it can be challenging to have to pan around the screen so much,” Allen says. “We wanted an alternative that doesn’t create as much motion on the screen.”

While accessibility typically brings to mind those with impaired vision or hearing, some students experience diminished dexterity, making it difficult to manipulate a mouse or operate a conventional keyboard.

Chromebook’s on-screen keyboard gives students an alternative option. They can use the mouse or a joystick to interact with the on-screen keyboard, which also accepts speech-to-text input. Another dexterity support, Automatic Clicks, instructs the computer to automatically take action when the cursor stops moving for a certain amount of time: It’s a way to “click” without having to physically click.

“For those with motor and dexterity issues, there are a lot of different use cases where these features can be very helpful,” Allen says.

Google also has taken steps in support of parents who may be working to implement their young learners’ various accessibility accommodations. This includes a guide for parents on distance learning tools for students with disabilities, as well as online training for teachers seeking to implement the Chromebook accessibility features.

To make the most of these tools, teachers also need to be engaged, ensuring their online instruction materials are readily usable and accessible for those with special needs.

“They can be thinking about the contrast of slides or adding text to their visuals for those using screen readers,” Allen says. “It’s really important that the teachers themselves keep these accessibility issues in mind to create an inclusive learning environment.”

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