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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


Training Students with Disabilities to Use Assistive Technology

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It’s as important to receive training to use assistive technology hardware and software for students with disabilities as it is to have access to them, writes Lucy Greco.
Many of my students begin college without ever having used a computer as their primary access tool, says Greco.

Image: Many of my students begin college without ever having used a computer as their primary access tool, says Greco.

There are two sides to accessible content: proper development, and knowing how to use it. The more sophisticated web interfaces today can be made accessible, but users need to know how to interact with them. Many users have limited or no training in how to use assistive technology for these new complex interfaces.

In my 10 years working with students at UC Berkeley , I am continually astounded that incredibly smart students have no understanding of how to use their gadgets and devices. Students come to me with brand new laptops bought for them by the Department of Rehabilitation with all the latest assistive technology installed. Inevitably the conversation leads to, “I have to use a website for one of my classes and it’s not accessible”. Yes, sometimes there are problems with the websites but many times the problem is that the student never received training in how to use their assistive technology.

Modern assistive technology can be as complex and powerful as every other technology we use today. HTML 5 and ARIA combined can make accessible web applications, but screen reader users need to know how to interact with them.

Many of my students begin college without ever having used a computer as their primary access tool. Blind students coming to California tend to use note takers, such as the BrailleNote from HumanWare or the Braille Sense from HIMS. Although these are excellent devices for note taking, the dependency these students have on these devices lead them to be completely unprepared for the extremely technical environment the University of California at Berkeley presents them. 

Very few of my students were introduced to screen readers and if they were at an early age, it was only for a few hours in their home or study environment. Here in California, the Department of Rehabilitation will authorize a student some training on their assistive technology, but on average it is only 9 to 12 hours, which can barely scratch the surface of achieving technological proficiency. When these students were in primary school, the teachers of students with visually impairments (TVIs) might have exposed them to a screen reader but more likely focused on academic issues instead. In most cases where students do know how to use their screen readers, they only know the bare minimum. The students typically know how to create a MS Word file and use simple accelerator keys on the Internet to jump by heading. It’s worrying to see that students do not know how to use basic table navigation and in some cases are completely confused when they need to open a .zip file.

When the students receive some training through the Department of Rehabilitation, the learning curve can be challenging. The trainers working under contract through the Department of Rehabilitation might not have advanced screen reader skills themselves, and sometimes require more training on the art of teaching technology to students (TVI's). I remember when I was a contractor myself, I was sent out on a job to train someone on a specialized application. I was not given access to the application before I showed up on the jobsite and was given a manual that said things like “we think F8 might open the menu” and “either C or R will take the action”. Luckily I had a phenomenal student in this case and they had patience with me and the poor documentation we were both given. Together, we were able to learn the application. This may not be the case for other trainers and students, and no one should ever be expected to teach something they don’t know how to use themselves or learn from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.

Recently, I have been looking at a very complex application for UC Berkeley. There are several interactions within this application that my initial instinct was to say they are inaccessible. However, with a little bit of patience and knowledge of what is possible with a screen reader, I changed my mind. The technical team for this product has been documenting instructions for students, keystroke by keystroke, to help them through this application. This application uses ARIA extensively to create many different interactions that students will not be familiar with. In reviewing some of the JAWS training materials, none of these interactions are presented. Using an ARIA tree view or interacting with tabs on a webpage are potentially foreign tasks for most screen reader users.

I am not sure how to fix these problems.  Even in the best of worlds when developers use all the best practices and create the most accessible code, individuals still have the responsibility of knowing how to use it. Our academic systems and support mechanisms that are working with persons with disabilities have obligations to teach them the most effective way to use (and adapt to) their tools. The educational support system working with students with disabilities needs to address this technical literacy problem. The assistive technology vendors also must provide better documentation and training materials for users.


Related Resources

Blog: Steady Progress Possible in Achieving ICT Accessibility Globally | Read Axel Leblois's Article.

Publication: Third Party Captioning and Copyright: G3ict Policy White Paper | Download Free PDF.

Event: AoC Accessible Learning Technology Conference, 2014 | London, UK | View Event Details.