Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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Blind Teens and Technology

by Stephen Toth

Stephen Toth examines the Vietnam War Memorial.From the Editor: With texting, iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter, technology is almost a life source for most teens. Blind teens can be adept at using technology at school and beyond, as Stephen Toth explains.

I met my best friend, David, at the 2007 convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Atlanta, Georgia. We met while we were trying to distinguish our canes; we couldn't tell them apart. We argued over whose cane was whose and seemed to hate each other from the beginning. We didn't know that we would be together just a few weeks later at the summer camp run by the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

David and I quickly discovered that we had a lot in common. We are both technology geeks, and spent much of our time at the LCB talking about old notetakers. A notetaker is a personal digital assistant (PDA) similar to a laptop, but adapted for the blind and visually impaired. It has synthesized speech to let the user know what is happening in the computer and a Braille display with moveable electronic pins that form Braille characters. David's school had provided him with a BrailleLite Millennium 20, a notetaker that was manufactured by Blazie Engineering. I had a BrailleLite 2000 18, made by Blazie as well. At the time, David wanted a BrailleNote, a device manufactured by HumanWare. My school had given me a BrailleNote QERTY, a BrailleNote with a standard keyboard. I told David keyboard combinations for it, though he later decided to get the BrailleNote BT instead, which has a keyboard similar to that of a Perkins Brailler. I also have a PacMate, which is manufactured by Freedom Scientific. A PacMate is a notetaker that includes Microsoft Office. PacMate also comes equipped with JAWS, the Windows version of screen reading software, which allows the user to access third-party applications such as Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype.

I used notetakers for doing schoolwork until the middle of seventh grade, when my dad purchased a laptop that I could take with me to class. I installed JAWS on the laptop so that I could have access to the Internet applications I like to use.

Gmail is very important to me because it is the main way I have written communication with my classmates and teachers. Prior to this year, I used a flash drive to transfer my school assignments from my teacher's computer to my personal computer. Flash drives work fine, but they are small and can get lost easily. I've had several go through the wash and come out of the dryer not working. Once I lost my flash drive and had to use floppy disks in order to get my schoolwork. Luckily that's all behind me now. My teachers, classmates, and I can collaborate by sending documents as email attachments. My teachers email me my homework and other assignments that require completion at home. I complete the assignments and either print them out or send them back via email. Some students do not have Internet or email addresses at home, so when I get a group assignment I work on it orally in class with my peers. If a group project requires writing or research on my part, then I work on it at home and print it for the rest of my group to see.

I did not have a computer or notetaker in elementary school, and had to use a Perkins Brailler instead. A Brailler looks a bit like a miniature typewriter with fewer keys. Thick paper is fed through the machine, and multiple styluses are used to make raised dots on the page to form Braille symbols. It took me one-and-a-half times longer than a sighted student to complete my work, and I had trouble keeping track of my assignments.

When I was in fourth grade, my mom and the disabilities coordinator for my school requested that the school board provide me with a notetaker and a Braille printer, also known as a Braille embosser. The school district sent us an old VersaPoint Duo embosser and two Braille 'n' Speak notetakers, neither of which had a charger with it! The embosser is still being used today, but the Braille 'n' Speak was made in the eighties and nineties, so it is a very outdated piece of technology. While the Braille 'n' Speak is considered a notetaker, it has no Braille display and no USB port. Because there is no way to transport information from the Braille 'n' Speak to a computer, this device is very impractical for a student. My mother had to request specifically that I be given a BrailleNote. She told me later that she had to threaten to take legal action before she got the school board's cooperation.

Using technological devices in the classroom is a big responsibility. It is much easier to play a game or text a friend than to pay attention in class. It is also hard to keep computers up to date and running properly. My first computer, an old IBM Thinkpad that my dad passed down to me, ran on Windows XP. It had no antivirus software, and it got a virus and crashed at the end of my sixth grade year. It probably didn't help any that I ran a magnet over the hard disk drive, destroying it completely! My uncle gave me his 2007 Lenovo Thinkpad at the beginning of this school year. I use it to write reports, finish classwork and homework, and even to record my answers to tests. The computer has helped me out because it keeps all of my work together, so my assignments cannot get misplaced. While Brailled work has to be transcribed, organized, and stored, the computer saves everything in one place. Aside from math, which I do orally, I use my laptop for all of my assignments. The only time I need to read hardcopy Braille for school is when my teacher uses a Braille printer to emboss graphics for mathematics classes. With tactile graphics I can get an idea of what shapes and graphs are supposed to look like.

Most of my textbooks are available to me on my computer, which allows me to read chapters quickly. When I want to look up something in my text, I can use a word search tool and find what I'm looking for much faster than I could find it in a hardcopy Braille book.

David and I have both come a long way in our use of technology in the classroom. While it sometimes can be distracting, it is also very helpful. The faster the machine, the faster we can finish our assignments, and the more free time we have to talk to each other on the phone.

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