From left, Dorene Bush and John Clare listen to Freedom Scientific representative Scott Hegle talk about equipment the company makes to assist blind students and adults both in the classroom and at home, while Bush's vision-impaired daughter, Destiny Schmidt, trys out a device designed to help students learn to read braille. Hegle and another company representative recently demonstrated a variety of high-tech equipment for the blind at the Soldotna Senior Center.
Photo by Mark Harrison
Visually impaired students and their teachers recently got a firsthand demonstration of some high-tech devices that could help students in everything from learning to read Braille to navigating the Web and help teachers use classroom time more efficiently.
At the request of John Clare, director of the vision program for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, representatives of a Florida company specializing in equipment that assists the vision impaired made a special trip to Soldotna from a planned stop in Anchorage to demonstrate his company's products.
Tyler Brown and Scott Hegle of Freedom Scientific set up several laptop computers, specialized keyboards and other assisted-learning devices in a room at the Soldotna Senior Citiznes Center. About 30 teachers, students and interested members of the public showed up for the demonstration.
Brown and Hegle demonstrated a range of equipment intended for use by individuals with vision impairments, from minimal to blind.
One program helped those with poor vision navigate the Web by blowing up a Web page's individual words and images to the point they nearly filled the computer screen. The blind could use the same program to surf the Web by turning on speech recognition. In the speech mode, the program will read the words on a Web page out loud, Brown said.
Maria Maes, whose vision is extremely limited, is introduced to speech assisted learning equipment for the blind, by Carolyn Hitzler, adapted physical education specialist for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Photo by Mark Harrison
The students and teachers who attended the demonstration were especially interested in a couple of devices that used Braille and could make academic life easier. Dorene Bush and Jamie Maes, the mothers of first-graders with impaired vision, were interested in a device that could help their daughters learn to read Braille.
The speech assisted-learning device, SAL for short, teaches students to read Braille by translating the bumps on a standard page of Braille into spoken words. Students use the unit to learn how to read Braille by following lesson plans that come with the unit.
The lesson plans are written in Braille and students follow along with their fingers while the unit translates to spoken words. The lessons teach the student everything needed to be able to read Braille, including numbers, letters and how to track Braille with your fingers, according to Hegle, who is blind himself.
Whether a student is taught by a SAL or a teacher, learning Braille is difficult enough that some kind of instruction is necessary, Hegle said
"Braille is not something the average person can just sit down and learn," he said.
SAL is a useful tool for students and teachers because the device allows students to practice on their own, allowing them to learn faster and a teacher to use class time more effectively, Hegle said.
Since SAL is portable, Bush was excited about the possibility of learning Braille alongside her daughter.
"It's like Destiny's bringing the Braille teacher home. I can actually sit through the lessons with her," Bush said.
Like Destiny, Maes's daughter, Maria, has limited vision and can only see colors and shapes. Although Maria can read visually, she has to focus and concentrate so hard on each letter that she often forgets the words she read at the beginning of the sentence and has to start over. Her reading difficulty likely will mean she'll fall behind academically as she gets older if she doesn't learn Braille, Maes said.
"To be competitive academically, Maria's going to have to be a Braille reader," she said.
Scott Hegle shows Jamie Maes a "refreshable" braille keyboard. Maes's daughter, Maria, can only see colors and blurry forms.
Photo by Mark Harrison
Another device popular with students and teachers was a keyboard that allows users to read a digital document through a special "refreshable" Braille pad right on the keyboard. The keyboard translates the text of, say, a homework assignment, by configuring a row of movable bumps directly above the keys. As the keyboard reads each line of text, the "refreshable" Braille pad changes. The device saves students and teachers the time and trouble of printing out stacks of Braille hard copies, Hegle said.
There are 17 students in the borough district's vision program and all of them could benefit, in one way or another, from the equipment the Freedom Scientific representatives demonstrated, Clare said.
The problem is the equipment is expensive the refreshable keyboards go for about $5,000 each and the vision program's budget is tight. But Clare said the price tag will be higher if vision impaired students fall behind academically due to lack of support.
"The equipment's not cheap, but it's a whole lot cheaper to have these kids graduate from high school and get a job than living on welfare," Clare said.
Clare plans to approach charitable individuals and organizations to fill the budget gap and help purchase some of the equipment for the district's vision-impaired students. He said having seen the equipment first-hand will help.
"When your asking for donations and you say you haven't seen the equipment yet, you can hear the checkbooks shut," he said.
Bush and Maes said they also plan to approach charitable organizations and hold fund-raisers to come up with the money to buy their daughters each a SAL.
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