Knowing how to use one software program or device is no longer enough. Though you may prefer using only magnification on a computer or your braille notetaker, and even though these devices can accomplish more and more as they are updated, one technological solution will not encompass the enormous task of succeeding in college. Our research has demonstrated that the most successful college students have a variety of low-tech and high-tech tools at their disposal. Our mentors shared the processes which they use most commonly and the technological challenges they faced when they were new college students. We hope these vignettes will give you a sense of the range of possibilities for which technology can be utilized. We also hope that you will seek out training or connections with other students who are blind or visually impaired to increase your technological proficiency.
I used a lot of tools during my undergraduate degree, and continue to use them along with learning about new tools during grad school.
The most common tool I use is my laptop with the JAWS screen reader. Now that most work is assigned and completed electronically, laptops with or without the screen reader are likely to be everyone’s most common tool for success in college.
Another tool I used as an undergraduate is my BrailleNote. I comprehend braille much more easily, and I can read out loud while reading braille. If I have to read something and only have access to a screen reader, I ask a classmate to read for me. Braille displays allow me to get braille immediately and access to information in the format in which I initially learned to read. I also like to emboss some documents using hard copy braille. Hard copy braille is great if you don’t want to read line by line on a braille display. For example, if you have prepared a presentation, a braille display can be great to confirm to you which slide you are on, and certainly saves space if the podium doesn’t have much room, but I like to read the contents of my slides or other, longer out-loud reading from hard copy braille. To translate my print documents into braille, I use the Duxbury Braille Translator.
The final specialized technology that I use most frequently is an OCR or Optical Character Recognition program. OCR software allows blind students to scan materials and convert them into a more readable format for a screen reader or braille display. I used to use Kurzweil but recently got ABBYY Fine Reader and like it quite a lot. Adobe’s built-in OCR program works for a lot of PDF’s, but I have the proprietary OCR software as a backup in case the PDF’s are not accessible, or in case I need to scan hard copy printed material.
The technological process that I use most often does not necessarily have to do with accessibility but is relevant for many students. I collaborate with Google Apps for Education a lot. Whether my task is brainstorming in a doc or creating a presentation in slides, or simply downloading an assignment from Google Drive, I use Google every day. Although accessibility is improving, spending time to learn the workarounds is paramount to being an affective collaborator in today’s classroom. A lot of the tricks for using google products as a blind student may not be intuitive to you if, like me, you were educated with state dollars, and state dollars paid for JAWS contracts and trainers who only knew how to teach JAWS.
Technology is wonderful, but it comes with many challenges, which all boil down to one rhetorical question. Why should I have to try two or three screen readers, internet browsers, or OCR programs to get access when a sighted person is reading it right away? This question makes me constantly traverse my toolbox for workarounds when I encounter accessibility barriers.
Learning Google Apps for Education continues to be difficult. I always encourage screen reader users to connect with the few people I know who are savvy with Google Apps and to take time during summer or a break to learn how to use them. OCR-ing books and papers is sometimes difficult. Kurzweil works kind of slowly, and I can’t use my computer while it OCR’s. This may be due to the fact that I have an old computer, but you should keep in mind that sometimes you will run into accessibility frustrations. Always plan for a task to take longer than it does for sighted people so that you’ve built in time for tinkering with equipment and don’t feel rushed.
Similar to Cindy, my laptop with Jaws and Kurzweil was most important to me. Because I have low vision and don’t read braille, the laptop was my primary tool for taking notes in class, completing homework and studying for exams. I used Jaws to read the content out loud, and I used Kurzweil to scan documents and to convert them into Word documents. My department of vocational rehabilitation bought me a standard printer and scanner combination which worked well for what I needed.
I also used a wonderful website, Censusaccess, that converted pdf's into document files. This was important because all the articles that I had to read were in pdf's which Jaws struggles with sometimes.
School websites and course discussion platforms can be a challenge to learn. Some teachers wanted to do everything on Smartsite, our university’s platform for online courses, and it wasn't always accessible. I spent extra time with a technology expert in the disability center to learn how to navigate the site. Always build extra time into your schedule to learn new technology or to cushion you just in case a technological process takes longer than you thought it would.
Technology was a big part of my college experience. Learning how to use it efficiently and successfully was one of the things I found the most challenging on a day to day basis. I mainly used my BrailleNote Apex to carry out school related tasks, such as notetaking. In addition, I used Jaws and Kurzweil on my laptop for the completion of more complicated tasks, such as writing papers and internet research. Jaws helped me to read the screen on documents and websites. I also use Kurzweil to scan documents and to convert them into a document format I can read easily with Jaws or my BrailleNote. When I scan documents, I use a standard scanner from a mainstream store.
I learned to build a lot of extra time into my schedule for technology. More often than not, I would find myself spending extra time with Kurzweil and my scanner to help me to prepare files before I even read them. Even now as a graduate student, I spend a lot of time scanning materials or converting file types. I am also constantly changing the visual layouts of documents, particularly for science courses.
During the completion of my Psychology major, I took a lot of time to teach myself how to use SPSS software for statistical analysis. Throughout that process, I found that it was easier to navigate technology by being flexible and trying things out using multiple platforms.