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Students gain access with Assistive Technology

Online generation uses technology increasingly to commnicate and complete assignments

TCOE's Assistive Technology program

Last month, Jesse Ruiz, TCOE’s lead assistive technology specialist, paid a visit to Chase Carpenter, a junior at Granite Hills High School. Mr. Ruiz caught up with the young man in his AP Journalism class to assess how he was utilizing a new Bluetooth switch designed to provide increased mobility on his iPad. Mr. Ruiz was hoping that the new smaller switch would help Chase, who has cerebral palsy, better “click” or select items as he browsed the internet. What he discovered was that the switch was not being used at all.

Instead of using the switch, which is tedious for him, Chase prefers to dictate his journalism assignments to his aide, Paul Vera, a behavior intervention specialist with Porterville Unified. Chase recently completed an article about the Porterville Art Walk for the school’s online newspaper, The Daily Roar, by dictating, listening to it read by Mr. Vera and then revising his work.

Observing Chase, Mr. Ruiz noticed that his verbal skills had improved dramatically, which Mr. Vera theorized might be attributed to Chase’s involvement in choir. This led Mr. Ruiz to suggest that Chase try some of the latest “speech to text” applications, such as Talkitt. Chase was very enthusiastic about the idea.

TCOE's Assistive Technology program

The visit with Chase illustrates the work of the Assistive Technology (AT) team, which is led by Jesse Ruiz and Rachel Weaver, program manager. From research, occasional design input and procurement to training, encouragement and trouble-shooting, the AT team works with students in districts throughout the county to find appropriate devices and technologies so they can better access educational resources. “Providing access to learning for students with special needs underlies all that we do,” said Ms. Weaver. “Whether the disability affects speech, mobility, vision or hearing, we take care of it all in partnership with Tulare County districts.”

Chase, like many students who utilize assistive technology in regular education settings, is leaving his proprietary equipment in favor of off-the-shelf devices such as the iPad. “Students want to utilize what their peers are using,” said Mr. Ruiz. “Our challenge is to provide the applications to make these devices work for them in terms of connectivity. Ultimately, we want our students to be as independent as possible in and out of the classroom.”

In building 21st century learners that have strong collaboration and communication skills, teachers are moving increasingly toward online assignments. Accessing these assignments for students with special needs is a challenge, whether their disability affects vision or motor ability. Mr. Ruiz and Ms. Weaver report that Apple and Google are both making substantial investments in the AT market for older adults who have vision, hearing and dexterity issues. The tech giants’ foray into assistive technology will mean big gains for students with special needs.

TCOE's Assistive Technology program

TCOE AT works with teachers, and increasingly their district Information Technology personnel, to assess students’ needs. The process usually involves the recommendation of an existing technology or equipment, followed by further assessment. “For some students, I’m able to visit their classroom and observe without their awareness,” said Mr. Ruiz. “This helps me see if the device is effective, or if we need to make modifications.”

Mr. Ruiz and Ms. Weaver continually search the market for new devices and applications, communicating with the engineers and developers to suggest modifications when necessary. While some students need complex AT, others may have their needs met with something as simple as a keyboard with large, 1”x1” letters.

Brody Correia is an active three-year-old who attends the TCOE Sound Beginnings preschool in Tulare. Brody has cochlear implants (CI) and is learning to interpret the sounds he hears. To assist him in focusing on teacher instruction, his teacher, Mary Leal, wears a hearing assistive technology (HAT) device. The device acts as a microphone, sending her voice through an FM channel, directly to Brody’s CI. “While at Sound Beginnings, we’re teaching Brody to rely on his hearing, rather than signing or gestures,” said Ms. Weaver. “As he transitions to kindergarten, his regular education teacher can wear a similar device so that he can focus on her voice over the noise from his classmates.”

TCOE's Assistive Technology program At Oak Grove Elementary in Visalia, eighth-grade students Gloria Martinez and Ivonne Luna work on an audio story assignment about outer space. Despite each of their visual impairments, the girls are searching the internet for sound effect files to include in the stories they are writing. Ivonne uses her BrailleNote device, which translates the text on a webpage into braille that she can read on the device’s keys. The BrailleNote can pull information directly from the iPad, wirelessly. It can also connect to other devices, such as a computer. This allows Ivonne to navigate Google Docs, while minimizing the need for additional equipment.

“For Gloria and Ivonne, the experience of exploring the Windows operating system is completely different than it is for the sighted,” said Mr. Ruiz. “But theirs is the online generation. This is where all students get information and communicate with one another. Our role is to support students with special needs by providing an online experience that is as seamless and accessible as possible.” Soon, visually-impaired students will have access to BrailleTouch, an iPad-like device, which creates an electronic braille keyboard on its screen in response to the placement of the user’s fingers.

Back at her desk, Gloria uses her iPad to search the internet for sound effects to insert into her audio story, laughing at the odd sound files she discovers – just like the rest of her classmates sitting around her.

For more information on the Assistive Technology program, contact Rachel Weaver at (559) 730-2910, extension 5146.


Photos above:
~ Brody Correia, a student at TCOE’s Sound Beginnings preschool listens to teacher Mary Leal, who communicates with him using a hearing assistive technology device.
~ Granite Hills High School junior Chase Carpenter is pictured in his AP Journalism class. Chase is working to transition to a “speech to text” application that will interface with his iPad to assist him with his writing assignments.
~ Oak Grove Elementary (Visalia) eighth-grade student Ivonne Luna listens to sound files she found on the internet using her BrailleNote device. She is pictured with her aide, Debra Guenley.
~ The Assistive Technology Program routinely offers device and application trainings to teachers throughout Tulare County. Sharon Kyle Kuhn is a classroom audio consultant with Lightspeed, maker of the Redcat Access audio system. She met with district personnel in November to talk about advances made in her company’s systems to aid teachers with students with hearing impairments.