[Nfbc-info] Wake Up Call: Addressing the E-Based & Web-Based Educational Gap between Sighted & Blind Students

DrV icdx at earthlink.net
Wed Aug 31 04:56:01 UTC 2011

Talk about a wake up call! I learned that not only are iPads being piloted
in the high school, but also in every school in our district. At my younger
son¹s elementary school the whole 5th grade class will be using iPads this
school year. One of the other elementary schools in our district chose to
pilot iPads at the kindergarten level! The whole district is getting wired
to phase in the electronic era. This is no longer some futurist possibility
­ the e-wave is here & will likely roll into your district before you know
it. How many TVIs & parents are ready to assure their blind K-12 students
have equal exposure to all the iPad has to offer? How many know who to link
braille-notakers to iPads?
It is with this reality in mind that I share the following thoughts.
Based on the US Department of Justice¹s & the US Department of Education¹s
joint written statements (attached), existing accessibility laws include
requirements to ensure that e-based & web-based education is accessible to
all. As such, e-based & web-based instructional materials & tools are
mandated to be not only blind student-user-friendly, but e-content must as
much as possible be equivalent to the educational experience that sighted
print reading students are privy to.
The laws & regulations seem quite clear & specifics have been well-defined
the US DOE & DOJ Joint FAQ (attached), yet surprisingly few individuals in
school districts, in the blindness education field, & in textbook
publisher¹s circles appear to be aware of the regulations, & fewer still
appear to be in compliance with regulations. Mechanisms to inform all those
that need to know, as well as mechanisms to encourage & enforce compliance
are lacking.
I know that there are individuals on these list-servs who have started to
address the issues. As a parent of 2 blind students mainstreamed in an
academically high-performing school district, I would like to share what I
perceive to be some of the main issues within the scope of this topic. I
will start with a thought-provoking theoretical scenario & then move on to
try to define specific areas of concern that not only warrant attention, but
that need to be addressed.
I am hoping those of you who have the interest, the motivation, the
connections, & the clout will take these issues not only to heart, but will
also take the lead in tackling these head-on Locally (in your school
districts & VI programs), at the State level, & Nationally.
Imagine a large-scale study spanning a decade or so which divides all
sighted students in the US into 2 groups: Study Group 1 would have full
access to the entire content of current textbooks (or iPad-based e-textbooks
if you prefer); the other half of the students, Study Group 2, would be
permitted access to only the main body text & some side text. Study Group 1
would have access to detailed maps for social science & well-done graphics
of all sorts for both science & math (e-based graphics might even be
interactive); the millions of students in Study Group 2 would have limited
access to all non-text visuals, and would have exposure to only a limited
number of make shift maps & diagrams deemed to be the ³most important ones²
created by someone locally in their district.
What would the results of such a study be? Who would score better on tests?
Who would rank higher in their class? Would their higher education & job
opportunities be affected?
ANSWER: There would be outrage over how unfair this type of study would be
well before it ever got off the ground & such an experiment could never
happen because it would be considered unethical. Yet, this does illustrate
the position blind students are or could be in.
I am a huge fan of technology & e-text & its potential to enhance the
learning experience of all, but the scope of the accessibility issues that
needs to be addressed in the area of emerging electronic education &
technology is broad & is not getting an appropriate level attention &
urgency. These issues should be addressed thoughtfully & preemptively,
rather than in the historical reactive fashion. These are not esoteric
concerns, but rather have now become concrete academic issues. It would not
be as stretch to go so far as to take the position that this may even be an
equal rights issue.
1. E-Textbooks for blind students are not an educationally equivalent
experience to standard print textbooks the sighted students are using.
The most blaring example of this is that in current e-textbooks for blind
students the pictures, charts, & diagrams are usually frequently omitted. It
is critical to understand that in state-adopted textbooks beyond the main
body of text, most textbook pages contain additional diagrams,
illustrations, graphs, pictures, charts, & links to suggested webpages.
These charts & other visuals may make up a quarter to over a half of the
relevant content on a given textbook page; as such, much of this information
is not really supplemental, but rather represents the ³key points² on what
the students are expected to learn & understand. Not only is the graphic
content NOT DESCRIBED fully in e-textbooks, but the presence/absence of the
graphics may not even noted - so the blind student may not even be aware
they are missing vital information that has been presented to sighted kids
in graphic form. As an aside, even some of the California State produced
embossed textbooks omit figures, diagrams, charts, & especially maps (under
the heading of something along of ³see teacher² for this section) ­ yet one
must wonder: ³how often does the clarification actually happen?².
The e-files are a nice supplement, they are easily searchable; they are
portable & give students ongoing access to glossaries & textbook
dictionaries. E-text affords students the opportunity to look up specifics
in other chapters easily when they don¹t have the needed embossed volume
readily available. Unlike sighted students who have the whole book in the
classroom & at home, braille readers only have real-time access to 1 or a
few volumes at time in class, & unlike their sighted peers who have a full
textbook for home use, many (if not most) don¹t have a full embossed copy of
their textbooks for home. Yes, this a real problem for many reasons: because
some teachers teach chapters out of sequence, when studying for exams
students may need access to other chapters, & importantly the textbook
glossaries & indexes are in completely separate volumes which blind students
don¹t have ready access to.
Part of the reluctance of TVIs in past years to use e-textbooks is the
argument that they are not completely ³cleaned up². Not all are fully
transcriber-proofed - at least many don¹t appear to be - having extra
symbols/markers that students need to ignore. While the formatting of
e-textbooks for blind students (or lack thereof) hasn¹t changed that much,
more & more TVIs & students realize that the e-textbooks are never-the-less
readable & as such usable. In the textbooks for blind students that I have
seen, the book is presented as a folder, the files have been ³.rtf² files,
some of which are readable in their downloaded form on a braillenotaker,
others are not readable. The files names within the folders are page
numbers, not chapter titles ­ this does not appear to have been particularly
well-thought out.
A further problem with e-textbooks (that is also an issue with embossed
textbooks, is that the supplemental or illustrative ³side text² & comments
in elementary, middle school, & high school education level textbooks is
somehow inserted between paragraphs of the main textbook text (often in what
seems to be an arbitrary way) that breaks from the main text flow. Older
students can adapt to this, but this makes it confusing & harder for
children in the younger grades, especially 4th grade and under who are
trying to follow along in passages being read in class.
The unfortunate reality is that ³Publisher Quality books² don¹t necessarily
provide the blind/visually-impaired reader an equal literary experience to
the print version, even in the educational setting. Bookshare is truly an
Amazing Resource! The last few years most of our school district¹s Summer
Reading books have been available for immediate download; the few that were
not yet available, were quickly processed by the Bookshare staff & posted
within a few weeks. The Bookshare staff & volunteers are phenomenal group of
individuals. That being said, there are however issues that may not be
obvious to all. My elder son finished one of his 9th grade Summer Reading
Books, ³The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time². The text was
overall fine, but the published print version of this book has quite number
of important visuals in the form of diagrams, puzzles, formulas & pictures,
symbols etc, that are an important part of this novel. Some of the symbols
were transcribed incorrectly, but in most cases these important components
were just omitted completely. The context of the visuals was not described &
not even referred to ­ it just wasn¹t there on the downloadable version. My
son could tell something was missing based on the context, & requested we go
to our local library to check out the print version of the book ­ we did &
described each graphic. My son contacted Bookshare to inform them of the
problem with this particular book. The response he received was: ³This is a
publisher quality book and unfortunately we cannot edit publisher quality
books.² This novel is a Summer Reading Book not only locally, but elsewhere
as well & as such is part of academic curriculums. An increasing number of
academic literary books are including graphics that are an integral part of
the stories. I am an optimist & hope that this can be eventually
appropriately addressed. Hopefully the ³Publisher Quality² textbooks that
Bookshare produces are/will be closer to a true print-equivalent experience
for our students than the above-mentioned book was.
As e-textbooks are further refined, students will still need access to
high-quality transcriber-produced & embossed textbooks for diagrams, charts,
maps, & other graphically-displayed components ­ it just is not acceptable
that such information be omitted & students need the hand-on to really
understand the graphic layouts. It is my understanding that based on the
current laws, omissions of the pertinent graphically displayed content in
state-adopted textbooks is not only ³not fair² to blind students, but in
reality, it is does not meet the legal requirements set forth by the laws of
this country. Those that produce & distribute textbooks for blind students
should pay attention to this for they may be held accountable for assuring
compliance with the law.
2. New-Generation E-Textbooks will literally prove to be a shift to an
entirely new dimension. In their current form e-books for use on braille
notetakers are basically just the straight-forward text found on book pages.
Graphics, charts, tables, maps etc are currently not adequately described &
are too frequently omitted. As State-adopted textbooks go electronic, such
as on an iPad, e-textbooks will no longer be ³2-Dimensional² (that is the
current straight text with pictures/graphs), rather it is highly likely that
specific words, concepts within the text, references & pictures will be
hyper-linked to other pages or websites that discuss those issues in more
depth & will likely include links to non-accessible video, pictures, and to
PDF files. (Since may students use braillenotekers to access materials,
access to PDFs need to somehow be made a priority for those who produce the
notetakers.) This linking will make textbooks in a sense ³3-D & perhaps even
4-Dimensional². To my knowledge there is no clear plan in place to address
this shift to the next dimension. Who is responsible & accountable for
assuring that blind students will have equal access & educational
3. The move towards electronic & web-based teaching experiences is no longer
theoretical, but is actively occurring in classrooms & curriculums all over
the country. This is happening at all grade levels, in some districts more
rapidly than others, but the shift is definitely in progress. While this has
the potential to level the playing field, the reality is that many teacher¹s
webpages, many web-based school calendar programs, and many publishers¹
webpages are not fully independently accessible. Furthermore, many
teacher/district calendars  & importantly the publisher¹s websites of many
state-adopted textbooks that students are instructed to use (to learn more
about concepts, access study guides, & take pre-tests) contain links to
materials that are not fully independently accessible. Based on the US Dept.
of Justice's & US Dept. of Education's New Accessible Technology Guidelines
(attached) these types of issues are basically illegal, yet these types of
problems are wide-spread & as commonplace as exceeding the speed limit.  It
appears that few school district personnel are even aware of the
requirements of on-line accessibly compliance. According to the guidelines,
accessibility is mandated by the law - whether or not there are any blind
students in that class/school ­ just like wheelchair accessibility is now
required irrespective of whether or not there are wheelchair users in a
school. Given that many districts are in early stages of development &
adaptation to the ³educational e-wave,² now is the most logical time to make
all districts aware so that they can take into account compliance with
accessibility requirements.
4. TVIs don¹t get enough training to be truly proficient in all the
necessary new technologies the blind/VI students need to optimally succeed &
reach their full potential. Education of our future TVIs in the various
blind/low vision technologies needs to move well beyond ³exposure level².
Students in TVI programs should have to demonstrate at least a certain level
of - not only familiarity - but rather Functional Proficiency with at least
the basic commonly used blind/low vision software, such as screen-reading
programs (such as JAWS), accessible OCR programs (such as Kurzweil), &
accessible braille/text conversion programs (such as Duxbury),  & with
hardware (note-takers such as BrailleNote or PacMate, etc.) (I realize that
specific companies & brands can¹t be focused on, I present these as
illustrative examples - it is up to individual teaching programs to sort out
the specifics). 
The technological skill level of what may have been adequate for TVI a year
ago, will no longer be adequate in the very near future. TVIs also now, or
in the very near future, will be responsible for being able to teach their
blind/VI students to use iPads & wirelessly link them to braille-displays so
that students can access their curriculums. TVIs need to be able to teach
students how to create & format WORD, EXCEL, & PowerPoint files & how to
independently handle PDFs. The reality is that very few sighted TVIs are
truly proficient with these technologies to a truly adequate degree that the
students need nowadays in order to be fully competitive with their sighted
peers.  How actively & adequately are TVI Teaching Preparation Programs
addressing these new issues?
5. In addition to really upping expectations in this area in TVI Teaching
Preparation Programs, alternate solutions should seriously be considered.
School Districts/SELPAs/LEAs may want to seriously consider consciously
partnering more with national organizations of the blind such as the NFB &
with state schools of the blind, such as in California ­ CSB (the California
School for the Blind) ­ which has a phenomenal technology program that has
run regional in-services for TVIs & has CSB campus-based week-long or so
programs for young blind/VI students in the summer & occasionally at other
times. Such opportunities are way underutilized. Their online tools for
teachers & technology users (the students) should be taken advantage of &
online teaching content should be developed further with all these factors
in mind.
An additional solution would be for all local VI programs to hire at least
one proficient blind TVI. Blind individuals will in general be the most
proficient with the various blind technologies & their functional
application for they use these tools on a daily basis. (I do realized that
there are sighted TVIs that are in fact capable of doing it all & I applaud
that, but based on my interactions with families & TVIs from around the
country, there are many TVIs who lack the needed level of proficiency with
the blind technologies.) The current concept of caseloads could be
restructured at bit, to more of a team approach when needed, where the blind
TVI focuses more on the technology aspects of each student¹s educational
needs, as well as other critical blindness skills. Having such local
expertise in each VI program would be a huge boost of resources to the
programs & the students each program is charged with educating. Furthermore
having daily access to such a blind co-worker would likely result in
enhancement of the technology skills of all the TVIs in the program.
6. While literally infants & toddlers are being exposed to iPads & iPhones
(this is not an exaggeration, I see this in my office regularly), equivalent
exposure of blind kids to similar technologies typically only begins later
in elementary school & beyond. In fact at our son¹s high school orientation
this week, the principal described how his elementary school age children &
even his 5 year old have iPads & use them to access Khan Academy
(www.khanacademy.org <http://www.khanacademy.org> ) & Rocket Math
(www.rocketmath.net <http://www.rocketmath.net> ) & he gave examples how
these programs have helped his boost his own young children¹s academic
performance. How many blind children have this type of access? If you
believe in equal expectations, why don¹t your students have such equal
If there is not an immediate educational awakening & paradigm shift in the
Blind/VI Educational Arena, very few kids at the elementarily & middle
school level will be anywhere near as proficient as their sighted peers in
technology. While I have observed a slow shift in attitudes with respect to
earlier age of exposure to technology, the gap between what sighted kids &
blind kids remains huge, & arguably with the earlier exposure of sighted
kids to iPads & iPhones & child-oriented computer programs, the gap will
likely get even bigger. This gap needs to be closed. There needs to be a
strong shift to much earlier introduction of technologies to kids & their
families. Kids /families should have access to screen readers at home
electronic games (braille-notetaker-based & computer/web-based), and other
sighted peer equivalent hardware & software.
7. Lastly, in the context of young children, the concept of what constitutes
³blind-accessible² needs to be defined. The same webpage that may
technically be accessible to a student in middle school or high school (who
has been trained in blind technologies) may very well not be independently
accessible to a student in the younger grades, for various reasons including
the technologies may not yet have been introduced, or they may not yet have
the required proficiently, or they may not have the needed software or
hardware to access required assignments at home.
The current problems & the obstacles that lay ahead have been described &
appreciated by many educators, parents, students, & leaders in industry &
the blind community, yet as I look around, I can¹t quite figure out who is
really taking the lead. There are many well-meaning & strong advocates, but
there is no clear team leader.
Some of you may be familiar with these famous lines from the poem, Invictus:
³I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.² We all have a
vested interest in this area. The web-based electronic-based educational
fleet of ships has set sail - for both charted & uncharted waters. There are
many exceptional & experienced ³sailors² & captains, but each is steering
their own ship with their own goals in mind. For the voyage to be fruitful
more coordinated course need to be charted ahead of time; we need a mission
& fleet admiral (or steering committee) to oversee the voyage & to take
responsibility for addressing the obstacles that will be encountered along
the way. A team-approach is needed locally & at the State & National levels.
This really needs to be made a priority.
Eric Vasiliauskas
1. June 29, 2010 US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter:
2. Guidelines in the form of Frequently Asked Questions:
<http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-ebook-faq-201105.html> .
3. May 26, 2011 second US DOE Dear Colleague letter stating that the same
legal obligations apply to elementary and secondary schools:

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: FAQ about the June 29, 2010 Dear Colleague Letter.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 243929 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <http://nfbnet.org/pipermail/nfbc-info_nfbnet.org/attachments/20110830/7058c980/attachment.pdf>
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: US DOE Dear Colleague Letter (DCL2) to Elementary and	Secondary Education Officials May 26, 2011.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 63295 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <http://nfbnet.org/pipermail/nfbc-info_nfbnet.org/attachments/20110830/7058c980/attachment-0001.pdf>
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: US DOE Dear Colleague Letter (DCL1) June 29, 2010.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 162711 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <http://nfbnet.org/pipermail/nfbc-info_nfbnet.org/attachments/20110830/7058c980/attachment-0002.pdf>

More information about the NFBC-Info mailing list