Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Digital Book Resources Provide Reading Options for Students

by Tara Bakken

Digital books are electronic files that make reading materials accessible for students who have print disabilities. Visual impairments, specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and other disabilities can make it difficult to read a print book. Digital books give students the ability to access and navigate reading materials in an alternative format.

Two of the most popular digital book formats are electronic text (e-books) and audio (audio books or talking books). An electronic text format is text without audio, while the audio format does not include text. These digital book formats are available in different files types. Common files for the text format are: PDF, .txt, .html, RTF, and .xml, while common audio file types include: .wav, mp3, .ogg, and .aa. A special file structure, or markup, called DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) adds navigation abilities to digital books and can be in text or audio format. A student using a DAISY book, for example, would be able to quickly find and jump to a specified page number within the digital book.

If this sounds too technical, don’t worry. You don’t need to know all of the file types to use digital books. The most important thing to know is that you must match your digital book formats and file types with your digital book player. Players differ in their compatibility with digital book formats, files, and the DAISY structure, so finding the right fit is vital. Digital book players range from software programs on the computer to portable hardware devices. You can read an electronic text digital book, for example, using text-to-speech software or a scan and read program, or listen to audio books using a DAISY player, portable media player, or digital media software such as Windows Media Player.

So, what digital book formats, file types, and structure should you look for? Consider:
• Will the student access reading materials best through audio, visual, or visual paired with auditory supports?
• Is there a preferred type of audio support: human narration or synthesized speech (computer/electronic speech output)?
• Are navigation abilities an important feature to include for the student’s reading and study needs?
• Is the digital book compatible with the appropriate digital book player(s) for the student?

For help finding digital books, see the “Resources for Digital Literature” handout at pacer.org/publications/stc.asp. It lists resources and the formats, options and requirements for using them, and information on how to acquire them. Some digital books are available to the public at no cost. Keep in mind that they are typically out of copyright and often include classics and some reference material.

Two resources are especially helpful. Bookshare and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) have collections of DAISY-structured digital books, including textbooks. Bookshare has electronic text DAISY files, while RFB&D has audio DAISY files in human narration. Both organizations require proof of a qualifying disability for a membership. Bookshare membership is free for qualifying students; RFB&D membership requires a fee.

For more information on digital books and resources, please call 952-838-9000, e-mail stc@pacer.org, or visit PACER.org/stc.

Children Smile in the Same Language: Making a Difference with Assistive Technology

by Bridget Gilormini

As I reflect back on 10 amazing days in India, I have but two conclusions: 1) Children everywhere smile in the same language and 2) assistive technology WILL change the landscape of possibilities for children and adults with disabilities in India. What began as a vacation to India in 2005 for Paula Goldberg, Executive Director of PACER Center grew into a vision of possibilities eventually resulting in first a national conference on assistive technology including an overview of a model AT center.

Eventually a training would take place in which 120 pieces of assistive technology software and devices would be donated to line the shelves of the newly designated assistive technology center. This center is the first of its kind in India and will be housed on the 5 acre campus of the Spastics Society of Karnataka (SSK), a nonprofit agency located in Bangalore, India. It began two years ago when Paula was invited to “visit” India with Paul Ackerman. A series of connections and conversations resulted in plans for a joint technology conference. Out of this conference many organizations in India began to envision a technology center similar to PACER Center’s Simon Technology Center.

In December of 2006, PACER partnered with India's National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped to cosponsor a joint technology conference. The Indo-U.S. Conference on Information Technology Uses for Adults and Children with Disabilities was held Dec. 5 – 6, 2006 in Bangalore, India. Paula Goldberg, from PACER, along with Gretchen Godfrey and Kristi Hansen, traveled with other experts in the field of assistive technology such as Joy Zabala and Janet Peters. They traveled to India to share best practice information and current trends in assistive technology with parents and professionals in India. While assistive technology is not totally unknown in India, the breadth and scope has generally been undiscovered. Assistive Technologies have predominantly been available for people with visual impairments. Parents and professionals, out of necessity and invention have created some simple technologies but widely undiscovered are technologies that would have an immediate impact in the lives of so many more people, technologies such as communication devices, word prediction, text to speech, and more.

An outcome of this conference was interest in creating a model assistive technology center in the city of Bangalore. Many expressed an interest partnering with PACER but out of the many interested organizations, PACER partnered with a non governmental agency, the Spastics Society of Karnataka (SSK). Recently celebrating their 25th anniversary with a wide range of activities, the SSK provides many services to children and young adults with disabilities. Assistive technology is the missing ingredient in a recipe that already tastes pretty good but with some key ingredients could be even better. Rabidran Isaac, Rehabilitation Professional and Occupational Therapist at the SSK said, “With some of our students, we have taken them as far as we can (educationally). Assistive technology will help us to take them to the next step.”

Over the course of the next year, IBM executive, Kristi Wieser facilitated phone conferences with representatives from the SSK in India and representatives from PACER in Minnesota. Loose thoughts and plans began to take shape. Details were worked out and reciprocal visits were planned for myself and my counterpart in India, Rabidran Isaac. Passports were readied, Visa’s obtained and plane tickets purchased. A journey would soon begin and lives would soon be changed.

I made phone calls, wrote letters, composed emails and conversed with many. Assistive technology vendors were contacted regarding participating in this new model AT center in India. The response was overwhelmingly positive and thus far 21 vendors have made software and equipment donations totaling approximately $18,000.00 to this new center in Bangalore. IBM India donated 11 PC computers, 4 Young Explorers and tech support for the first year of the center. IBM on demand volunteers from IBM India have also expressed an interest in volunteering at the SSK. As international interest and awareness of assistive technology has grown vendors are making efforts to reach out to our friends in other countries. AbleNet is one such company. The PACER and the SSK became one of the recipient of AbleNet’s first international grant. AbleNet is offering five such grants in the amount of $2,000.00 each towards AbleNet products. The goal of the grant project is to reach parts of the world that have not been touched yet by assistive technology.

In October of 2007, I traveled to Bangalore to train select staff of the SSK on the donated software and devices. In a whirlwind 8 days I trained the SSK staff on approximately 80 different programs and devices. The staff receiving the training at the SSK quickly learned a vast amount of information in a short amount of time. Representing a variety of professional disciplines, they began to think about how the tools they were learning might impact the education of the students they worked with. As the training wrapped up, a three year plan unfolded that includes: training additional staff members at the SSK, developing parent trainings, conducting individual assistive technology consultations, and networking with other disability organizations to make the impact of assistive technology felt at a local, regional and eventually national level.

The highly talented teachers participating in the training included: Rabidran Isaac – OT; Priya Rao – EC Special Educator; Anitha Suresh – OT; Geetha Shankar – Transition Special Educator; Shoba Sundar – Medico Social Worker; and Gopinath – IT Specialist. As they learned the variety of tools introduced they began to think about how each applied to their area of specialization. They began to make it personal and identify children with disabilities that might benefit from the tools they were learning about. They began to become an assistive technology team. The training was at times overwhelming but generally training sessions were filled with enthusiasm and excitement.

Another note of excitement came when First Lady of Minnesota, Mary Pawlenty stopped by the Center for a tour and a visit. It was a matter of great timing that my training visit would coincide with the Governor’s trade mission to India. In anticipation of the First Lady’s visit to the SSK, Paula Goldberg, PACER Center Executive Director, extended an invitation for her to visit PACER and tour the Simon Technology Center to better understand the vision for brining assistive technology to India and helping the SSK establish this new state of the art AT center. The First Lady graciously accepted and impressed many at PACER with her warmth and generosity.

The First Lady’s visit began with a traditional greeting ceremony where she was given a traditional bindi (red dot). Children from the school sang “It’s a Small World”. She was absolutely charmed by the children and the music they played. Participants at the ceremony were charmed by the First Lady’s interaction with the children of the SSK. After touring the new technology center, the crowd was ushered to conference room where guests made celebratory remarks about the new center. Mary Pawlenty spoke eloquently and passionately about the relationship between PACER and the SSK and praised the efforts of Minnesota representatives. She next asked Charlie Weaver, businessman and PACER board member, to speak as a parent of a child with a disability to the parents at the SSK. Guests, such as Paula Prahl from Best Buy, were then treated to cookies baked in the school bakery by transition students before touring the rest of the campus and visiting with staff and students at the SSK. Before taking their leave, I heard one delegate remark that “their time at the SSK was the highlight of their visit”.

During my visit to Bangalore, I also had the opportunity to introduce assistive technology to a variety of young men with disabilities who had previously attended school at the SSK. They had minimal or unintelligible speech and very little but functional communication strategies. They were all literate or text based communicators. They were effectively limited by their physical disabilities. The impact of introducing programs with features such as word prediction and text to speech was immediate! It brought tears to my eyes to see the excitement in their eyes and to know that the future was so bright with possibilities. That is the whole point of assistive technology, making a positive difference in the life of someone who has a need. Assistive Technology has the potential to change the landscape of possibilities for people with disabilities not only in Bangalore but in all of India.

As the training drew to a close I was filled with awe at the many adventures I had squeezed into 8 days. I will forever remember traffic in Bangalore, the wonderful Indian food, the similarities and differences between Minnesota and India, and the warmth and generosity of the parents, staff and students at the SSK. When I initially met with the staff chosen to attend the assistive technology training, I was meeting with six talented educational professionals. When I went through the gates leaving the school on my last day I was leaving behind the six new friends I had made. Something very special was happening and it did not end with my return to Minnesota.

In November of 2007, a week after my return from India, Rabidran Isaac, Rehabilitation Specialist and Coordinator of the SSK Assistive Technology Center, journeyed to Minnesota to continue the training started in India. During his two week visit to Minnesota, Rabi attended a variety of PACER workshops, met with local assistive technology vendors, visited with parent advocates and much more. Highlights of his visit include volunteering at PACER’s Family Fun Day, celebrating Thanksgiving with STC staff, and visiting with Minnesota’s State Assistive Technology Team. While in Minnesota, Rabi not only furthered his vision regarding assistive technology but he gathered information about parent advocacy, inclusive education and more.

The future of this new technology center is bright. The team at SSK continues to learn about the tools in their new library. Using Adaptive Solutions AT Tracker Plus the team has inventoried their assistive technology. Features of the program will also allow them to gather data and track usage of assistive technology. It will also help them track their inventory especially as their inventory grows and they acquire more assistive technology. The 120+ AT items that they have represent the tip of the iceberg. As they continue to grow as assistive technology specialists they will develop trainings and train others on principals of quality assistive technology services along with in-service trainings on specific tools and strategies. An official opening is planned for summer of 2008 at which time they will open their doors to other non governmental and non profit agencies who want to learn about assistive technology software and tools to meet the needs of the people with disabilities that they work with.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Visual Strategies: A Comparison of Software Tools

by Meghan Kunz

When at a fast food restaurant, do you read the menu or look at the pictures? Do you remember what you have on your schedule at the end of the week or do you use a calendar to help you remember? Do you know what groceries you need but still make a grocery list before you go to the store? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a visual learner who benefits from the use of visual supports.

Visual supports can benefit all learners, especially those with disabilities. When implemented correctly visual supports can gain a student’s attention, improve understanding, decrease anxiety, improve communication, provide skill support, and reduce challenging behaviors.

Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, once said, “I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.”

Visual strategies create a visually friendly environment. Visual supports can be created using pencil and paper, pictures and photographs cut and pasted together, and computer software programs that allow quick customization to meet individual needs. Identifying the need for visual strategies often involves looking at one’s schedule for events that cause recurring frustrations and breaking that interaction into smaller steps. Learners often benefit from a daily schedule of events and even mini-schedules where each event is broken down into manageable chunks.

Case Study 1

Johnny is an eight year old boy with autism. When he gets off the bus from school, he is supposed to use the bathroom and wash his hands before having a snack. When Johnny gets off the bus, meltdowns often occur. Johnny’s parents are looking for ways to eliminate Johnny’s frustration and help him with this transition time.


Upon closer examination it appears that Johnny is having a difficult time predicting what is expected of him when he arrives home from school. To help Johnny be more successful during this transition time, a visual schedule was made. This schedule clearly labels and provides picture supports for Johnny’s routine (off of bus, bathroom, wash hands, snack). The schedule was made by inserting photographs and corresponding step by step directions onto a piece of paper and printing it out. Variations might be laminated for more durable use, or include Velcro and check marks that Johnny could manipulate as he goes through the schedule and completes each task.

In addition, a direction board could be made to further break down the steps for using the bathroom and washing hands (turn on water, check the temperature, apply soap, rub hands together while singing the ABC’s). This board might be mounted in the bathroom near the sink and would be a simple visual for Johnny to follow. To provide even further support, picture choices could be used when offering Johnny his after school snack.

Breaking down Johnny’s afterschool routine into smaller steps with visual supports helps Johnny predict what is required of him. It prepares him for the transition, and provides him communication supports to use if necessary. As Johnny becomes more familiar with using visual supports he can become more responsible for setting up his calendar and sequence of events which will help him to become more independent.

When the time comes to create your own visual supports, there are several products to choose from. A comparison grid of software tools that can be used to make visual supports can be found online at: www.pacer.org/stc/pubs/ComparisonGrid_09.pdf. This comparison grid explores seven different board making tools and contrasts the different features of each. This grid can help people creating visual supports compare features of programs to find the one that best meets their needs.

For more information about the programs listed in this comparison grid, please contact the Simon Technology Center at 952-838-9000.

Early Childhood Corner: Early Connections

Early Connections Web site helps parents and professional connect technology with the way young children learn. The site provides resources and information for educators and care providers on how and when technology best fits into the learning of young children.

The Early Connections site is organized according to the settings where educators and care providers work with young children. Parents are invited to explore areas of interest to their families.

Main focus areas include:

Child care



Primary grades

Before/after-school program

Within each of the above areas, subtopics provide information relevant to that group:

Learning & Technology connects technology with the learning needs of children at this stage

Technology & Curriculum ties effective uses of technology to the curriculum

Classroom Arrangement defines elements for successful placement of computers and other technology in the classroom

Software Selection provides guidance on how to select and evaluate software, as well as links to evaluation and review resources

Health & Safety offers ergonomic and Internet guidelines for physical and online safety

Hardware contains information on many different types of technology that can be used with young children, and things to consider when planning for technology

Resources provides links to useful sources of information and research on technology use with young children

Early Connections provides a basic understanding of young children’s learning development, then connects technology to those essential learning skills. Visit it online at: www.netc.org/earlyconnections.

Early Childhood Corner: Tots-n-Tech Newsletters

The Tots-n-Tech is an inter-university collaboration whose mission is to provide up-to-date information and resources about AT use with infants and toddlers to early intervention professionals and families across the country. Tots-n-Tech's January 2009 issue is all about switches while the March 2009 issue takes you deeper into augmentative alternative communication. The May 2009 Newsletter focuses on the basics of positioning and mobility, how they relate to one another, and AT devices that can help infants and toddlers interact with their environment. In addition, low-tech ideas are provided to help parents and professionals use positioning and mobility equipment during activities and routines. Additional resources are also included. To subscribe to receive the TNT Newsletter Email Jill at jill.mcleod@jefferson.edu.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Early Childhood Corner: Center for Early Literacy Learning CELL

The Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) is a research based technical assistance center funded by the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

The goal of CELL is to promote the use of evidence-based early literacy learning practices by early childhood professionals and parents of young children birth to five years of age with disabilities.

The CELL website (www.earlyliteracylearning.org) has an extensive collection of best-practice activities to help parents and early childhood professionals develop important early literacy skills in their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. These practice guides can be used by parents to provide their little ones with fun and exciting literacy learning experiences and opportunities, or by practitioners who are working with parents to promote the use of literacy learning activities with their children.

Many of these activities can be adapted to include assistive technology strategies and devices. For example, in the practice guide section for preschoolers, the activity “Read It Again!” could be adapted to include a voice-output device. A parent could record the story into the device and the child could activate the device to read each page aloud. This would allow the child access to have the book read whenever he/she would like and to have each page read at his/her own pace.

Look for more CELL activities with assistive technology suggestions and adaptations in upcoming editions of STC Technotes. Technotes are electronically delivered once and month and carry information about upcoming workshops and Webinars, staff picks and much more. Subscribe to have helpful assistive technology information delivered to your inbox.

When Words Talk Back: Text-to-Speech Technology Helps Students with Reading Challenges

by Annette Cerreta

Text-to-speech technology is software that enables a computer to read text aloud with a computer voice. For many users, it enhances sight word recognition, builds understanding of grammar, improves comprehension, and increases reading efficiency and independence. It can greatly benefit students who have disabilities that affect reading, writing, and learning.

Many text-to-speech programs are available. Some are relatively simple and inexpensive ($50 or less). These basic text-reading programs, such as Natural Reader and Text Aloud, will read a variety of file formats (Word, PDF, rich text, and others) as well as most Internet pages and e-mail if you use the recommended browsers and e-mail applications. These programs also can help students listen for spelling and grammar errors in their typed text. For more information on text-reading programs and their features, see the PACER handout “Comparison of Text-to-Speech Programs.

More sophisticated and expensive text-to-speech software programs ($300 to $1,500) allow you to scan magazines, books, and other print documents directly into the program. Many such programs, including Kurzweil and Read and Write Gold, are bundled with other literacy and learning supports, such as word prediction, color highlighting, talking dictionaries, visual outlining tools, and homonym support. For more information on multifunction text-to-speech programs that scan and read, see the PACER handout “Comparing Technology for Scan and Read Tools.” Another useful comparison tool is the Tech Matrix created and maintained by the National Center for Technology Innnovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) and which allows you to compare multiple products and features.

With so many choices, you may wonder how to determine which program might be the right fit for your child. One effective approach is to make a list of the features your child needs most—such as the ability to scan or read the Internet—and then compare programs to see which ones best match your criteria. Here is a checklist of considerations when shopping for a text-to-speech software program.

Do you need the program to:

  • Read e-mail and the Internet as well as documents?
  • Scan printed materials into the computer to be read aloud?
  • Read in its own window and/or read in other applications?
  • Highlight text as it is read aloud?
  • Run on a Windows, Macintosh, or other operating system?
  • Come with computer voices that appeal to your child?
  • Include additional learning supports? Which ones?

Once you have your answers, an assistive technology (AT) specialist from the Simon Technology Center (STC) can help you find vendors that sell such programs. Most vendors offer free trial versions. If you prefer, you can schedule a free consultation with an AT specialist to show you and your child a variety of text-to-speech programs.

For more information on text-to-speech programs or these STC services, please call 952-838-9000, send an e-mail to stc@PACER.org, or visit www.PACER.org/stc/consultations.

Text-to-speech technology can provide much-needed support for students who find reading challenging. With such an array of products, prices, and resources, you can begin to explore the possibilities for your child today.

Product Spotlight: iPod Touch with Proloquo2Go

By Apple and AssistiveWare

Proloquo2Go is a new product from AssistiveWare that provides a full-featured communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking. It brings natural sounding text-to-speech voices, up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, a default vocabulary of over 7000 items, full expandability and extreme ease of use to Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch.

While Proloquo2Go has a lot of advanced features, the basics are extremely simple and easy. Use the Grid or List view to quickly tap items that optionally speak as they get inserted into the message window. Tap the message window to speak your sentence. Hit the plus button to permanently add the sentence to your vocabulary in a category of choice. Select the Recents view and have Proloquo2Go speak one of the things you said an hour ago. Select a symbol for your new item in the Symbol Chooser or pick a photo from your library. Go to the Typing view and use the iPhone keyboard to type a paragraph. Hit save and your text is auto-magically symbolized. If you know how to use an iPhone or iPod Touch, you know how to use Proloquo2Go!

The iPod Touch with Proloquo2Go is now available for demonstration at the Simon Technology Center Library. Please stop in during STC Library hours: Tuesdays noon to 6 p.m. or Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on the iTouch and Proloquo2Go, visit www.apple.com/ipodtouch or www.proloquo2go.com.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Product Spotlight: BIG Button iPod Remote

By R.J. Cooper & Associates

big button ipod remote.The BIG Button iPod Remote gives accessibility to iPod listening functions. This accessible control for iPods features a large green “play” button that is 1 ¾ “ and 4 smaller buttons that are 1 ¼”. The smaller buttons control volume and allow the listener to select the previous or next song listed on the iPod. The buttons are raised and slightly convex.

The BIG Button iPod Remote also has switch inputs on the rear for performing button functions. The entire face of the Remote is angled at about 20 degrees. The BIG Button Remote weighs about 1 pound and the outer dimensions are 8" wide x 5" deep x 3" tall. Inside the Remote is an RF (radio frequency) remote - since it's not IR (InfraRed), it does not have to be lined up with the iPod.

The BIG Button iPod Remote is now available for demonstration at the Simon Technology Center Library. Please stop in during STC Library hours: Tuesdays noon to 6 p.m. or Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on the BIG Button iPod Remote visit www.rjcooper.com

Say What? Choose the Speech Recognition Software That’s Right for You

wheelchair at computerby Katrina Gearhart

Speech recognition software is a powerful technology that lets people use their voice to control computer functions and dictate text. It can be beneficial to people with a variety of disabilities. People who cannot use a standard keyboard and mouse, for example, can use their voice to navigate the computer and create documents. People with certain learning disabilities may find it a useful support for spelling and writing. Individuals with speech impairments may use the software as a therapeutic tool to improve vocal quality. People with overuse or repetitive stress injuries also may benefit from using the technology to operate their computers hands free. What’s more, speech recognition software is affordable, ranging in price from free to about $200, depending on the program.

Not all programs are alike, however. Some are for PCs only, some are designed for people with specific disabilities, and each offers unique features. If you’re considering speech recognition software, here’s what you should know about four popular programs.

1) Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance is considered by many to be the cream of the crop among speech recognition programs. It has it all: multiple training options depending on the user’s age and ability, voice editing, speech playback, navigation commands, and more. Dragon Naturally Speaking also offers a variety of price options and versions, from basic to advanced. It works on PC computers only.

2) PC computers with Windows Vista have a free, built-in speech recognition program that offers voice editing and navigation commands. There’s a training tutorial, but it includes only one text option to train the computer to recognize the user’s voice. For students who struggle with reading, it may be helpful to have someone present during training to help with difficult words in the text.

3) SpeakQ by Quillsoft is another PC option. Designed specifically for students with learning disabilities, it offers unique features. First, it can be paired with word prediction, so the student can identify the correct word or sentence from a list before entering it into the word processing document. No speech recognition program is 100 percent accurate, so this feature helps students control what is entered into their document through direct selection and limits frustrations associated with inaccurate recognitions. It also comes with a text-to-speech option for playback. SpeakQ uses the same recognition software that comes with Vista.

4) MacSpeech Dictate is one option for Mac users. With the most recent upgrade in May 2009, users can now control the mouse by speaking, train the program to recognize specific words, and have it spell proper names. MacSpeech Dictate is the fastest-evolving speech recognition program, with four version upgrades in the past 10 months.

All speech recognition programs require a quality microphone. Microphones advertised as noise-canceling are good options because they help filter out background sounds that may decrease recognition accuracy. Microphones with volume controls can be muted easily for students who think aloud.

A comparison grid of these programs is available on the publications page at PACER. For more information on speech recognition programs, please contact PACER’s Simon Technology Center at 952-838-9000.