Saturday, October 07, 2006

New software to allow visually impaired students to meet their goals

For most FC students typing out an assignment, interpreting a chart, or viewing a PowerPoint presentation for a class is a task that is viewed as boring or even torturous. Visually impaired or hearing disabled students, on the other hand, find these tasks nearly impossible to accomplish. This is about to change.Software that allows visually and hearing-impaired students to enjoy the same learning experience as the rest of their fellow classmates is making access to classroom material more universal.

Job Access with Speech is a software program that translates strokes of the keyboard into real-time auditory signals. As a student types an assignment, a converter ends a signal to a set of headphones. The student then hears the letters as the words and punctuation are being typed. For visually-impaired students this is a major benefit.Patricia Quintero, a Cal State Fullerton graduate, lost her vision due to complications from diabetes.

As a result, Quintero was plunged into a world of darkness. Thanks to the JAWS program, however, the Spanish/Latin American studies graduate is able to type an assignment for her playwriting class."[JAWS] enables me to listen to what I'm typing and I am able to use some of the programs that did before I lost my vision," Quintero explained.Quintero ticked away on the keyboard as she worked on her play. Her actions were translated into spoken letters and punctuation marks by a robotic voice via the headphones.

For Quintero, the ability to write has given her a way of reaching out and connecting with her environment, something that would not be possible without the JAWS program. "After my vision loss I've always liked writing and I use it as an instrument. As a matter of fact I keep my diary using JAWS… Christmas is coming so I'll probably be coming over here and doing my Christmas cards," she said.Paul McKinley, Disabled Student Services lab instructor, welcomed this technology.

He explained that in addition to the JAWS program, a newly acquired Microsoft Web Accessibility program will enable students who are visually impaired to access PowerPoint presentations, charts, or any other visual aids that are used in the classroom. The new software is compatible with the Excel, PowerPoint and Microsoft Word programs.

"[Instructors] can take a PowerPoint display and with a little bit of manipulation they can make accessible to visually impaired students," McKinley said.The MWA program simply requires that instructors write a title for the presentation, a brief description of the visual aid, and they outline any key points. McKinley prepared a brief presentation in less than five minutes using MWA to write a pseudo description of class project."How do I get the point across to a blind student? Visually you can see it.

So what [instructors] do is go to the 'Save As' feature and you'll notice it has a 'Save as an Accessible Web Page.' That's new and that's because I have the new [MWA] software," McKinley explained. The program is flexible and allows instructors to customize the settings to "Text Only" (for students who are blind), and "Text Mostly" (for students with some vision). In the past, instructors were reluctant to adapt the new technology since it meant that all students would have access to the visually-impaired version of the lecture.

For students who were not visually impaired it meant sacrificing visual aids. That, however, will no longer be a problem."Here's the beauty of [MWA]… this is where instructors used to fight us on it, but now they don't because now [instructors] can have two links. One link can have the regular PowerPoint display and the other link can have the [MWA] version," he said. McKinley saw the new software as a way to extend distance learning through online courses.

This, he said, could encourage students who are visually impaired to pursue their educational goals from the comfort of their home. "If you were a visually impaired student," he asked, "would you rather travel to Fullerton College, traverse the campus on a rainy wet day, with construction going on; or would you rather sit in the comfort of your home and take an online course? 95 percent of the blind population would like to do that," McKinley said.

McKinley has scheduled a training session for instructors on October 17 from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. He pointed out that FC has made great strides, but that "faculty still needs to come up to standard." McKinley estimates that 750 are registered in the DSS program, but that overall figures indicate that disabled students make up as much as 10 percent of the student population at FC.Cindy Vyskocil, Director of Equity and Diversity, agreed that the online benefits of the new software would boost enrollment for disabled students.

"Certainly, with this type of access, students will be able to take advantage of [FC's] programs and courses at their convenience. If [visually impaired] students take the classes and are successful that will encourage more [enrollment]," she said. One of the upcoming upgrades to FC's classrooms is a closed caption decoder for "The problem is that unlike the old televisions and VCRs that we had on campus, which had a [closed caption decoder], the newer overhead projectors do not have them," Vyskocil explained.

She worked with FC President, Dr. Kathleen Hodge, and Janet Portolan, Vice President of Operations, to asses the nature of the problem and to come up with a solution. Vyskocil stated that the closed caption decoders should be in the classroom by the end of this semester, or by the beginning of next semester.

For Vyskocil, being able to serve disabled students is something that makes her job rewarding."Truthfully, working with our disabled population that's always been where my heart is. I love trying to meet those accommodations and trying to improve access. That's always been not just a great source of pride for me, but that's probably one of the best parts of my job," she said.


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