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Information and communication technology in the education visually impaired pupils: A way to integration

School Years: Access and Information Technologies

Henk Snetselaar

ICT co-ordinator

Bartiméus Education

Utrechtseweg 84

3702 AD  Zeist

The Netherlands

+31-30 69 82 350



In a technology-based society, it is important for people to learn to use technology in order to (continue to) play a full part in that society. This also applies to Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The ability to participate in the 'cyber community' gives an individual the skills to enter the world of digital information supply, on-line shopping, Internet banking, on-line voting, 'cyber entertainment' and much more.

For people with a visual impairment, however, ICT skills are even more important, since the digital revolution has made some of these information exchange applications available to them for the first time. For example, it is now much easier for them to study at regular education institutes, to read the latest newspapers and magazines, to cast their votes and to communicate with the rest of the world without the other person knowing that they are visually handicapped.

Educational institutes for people with a visual impairment have a key role to play in this process. They must organise the education they provide in such a way that integration into society, regular education opportunities and meaningful activity in the form of work or other occupations is possible.

Vocational training in Information and Communication Technology and the use of ICT in education must be geared to integrating visually impaired pupils into society.

This presentation briefly describes the organisation of teaching and the use of ICT at the Bartiméus Institution and the role of ICT in the social integration of people with a visual impairment.

The definition of ‘integration’ we use is a broad one. It covers both the integration of visually impaired pupils into regular education and also more generally the integration of visually impaired people of all ages into society.

The following topics are covered:

Special education

Special education must be special if this assists the personal development of the pupil, and should encourage integration wherever possible. This certainly applies to Information and Communication Technology (ICT). In recent years, ICT has done a great deal to integrate pupils into regular education and people with a visual impairment into society. When planning education and the use of ICT in special education, it is crucial to ensure that computers and ancillary equipment are not only used at the special school itself, but also at home, in clubs, at friends’ houses, in follow-on education and in the individual’s subsequent job.

The choice between “special if this assists development” and “encourage integration where possible” is not always an easy one to make, since it is also important to take into account the development capacities and age of the pupils. Or rather, their prospects for integration.

Four facets of ICT policy

When developing an ICT policy in education, it is important to coordinate the following:

These four elements must be properly balanced if ICT is to be successfully integrated into education. This means that all four elements must be given equal attention. If this balance is absent, the least developed aspect will determine the level attained.

This presentation does not examine the broader education strategy or the expertise of teaching staff in any further detail, but concentrates instead on the practical organisation of ICT in special education for pupils with a visual impairment.

There are various stages at which a decision can be taken on the use of ICT in special education for people with a visual impairment, and various factors on which such decisions should be based. These factors are:

1. Starting out at school: age six

Don’t skip the traditional route; learning to read and write on paper in the traditional way is also crucial for blind and partially-sighted pupils.

The form of the characters, both in braille and in ordinary print, and the ability to form them is best learned if the pupil creates them for himself on paper.

The structure of a text in lines and sentences, paragraphs and pages must be experienced through the pupil forming them himself. This is even more important to gain a good understanding of the structure of texts if the pupil’s field of vision is limited to just one or two sentences.

We must not forget that in the use of digital processing methods, software developers try to apply concepts and structures that are familiar to the sighted user, in order to provide him with a user-friendly programme. The recycling bin, the desktop and the storage of frequently used documents on a desktop are all examples of this. To teach the blind to work with equipment designed for sighted people, it is often necessary to teach them to think like sighted people. It is therefore important for people with a visual impairment to become familiar with ‘sighted’ concepts.

2. Starting to work with the computer

'Teach them young’ is a familiar proverb. People don’t tend to forget the things they’ve learned when they are young. As soon as pupils have acquired the necessary skills to read and write, they can start to learn how to use a computer. Exceptions can be made for sight-impaired pupils if writing causes them great difficulty due to their visual and/or physical limitations. If computers are to be used for processing texts and other information and as a means of communication, pupils can start learning how to use them from the age of six to eight.

3. Standard or special computer equipment

A choice must be made as to whether to use standard computer equipment or computer equipment that has been specially developed for people with a visual handicap. The special equipment is often better matched to the needs and abilities of pupils with a visual impairment, but because these are special products, they are designed to provide far less support for the concept of integration. One disadvantage of regular equipment for young pupils with a visual impairment can sometimes be the complexity of such equipment and the fact that they present pupils with an ‘overkill’ of possibilities in the early years of computer use. A full computer keyboard and a complex word processor can also be daunting and off-putting for a young pupil.

The development capacity and age of the pupil will need to be considered when such choices are being made. During a limited initial period, rather than use a full keyboard, it may be better to work with a keyboard that has a smaller number of keys and a special keyboard control programme. These days, pupils with a visual impairment come into contact with a wide range of electronic equipment at an increasingly early age, and are often helped early on by having family members who use a computer. These children are therefore already more familiar with complex equipment than they used to be and the many options this equipment affords them at a young age will not tend to ‘phase’ them.

Pupils with multiple handicaps may need specially developed equipment for other reasons. As a result, integration may have to be given a lower priority. However, this is not the target group we are considering at present.

4. The choice of the type of computer for pupils with a visual impairment

The desire to promote integration will also play a role in the choice of equipment that the educational institution acquires for special education. For example, should it form part of a network, should it be a laptop or a desktop, etc?

In making these choices, it must be borne in mind that pupils may at some stage move into regular education. What equipment will they be expected to use when they leave their current school? In the Netherlands, blind pupils will generally use a laptop and partially sighted pupils will use either a laptop or a desktop, depending on their field of vision. At the Bartiméus Institution, blind pupils use laptops and partially-sighted pupils use desktops.

The blind pupils need a computer for almost all subjects. A laptop enables them to be in a sighted group without the monitor screen obstructing the view of their fellow students or their teachers. Moreover, this avoids the far from ideal situation in which pupils can hide behind their large computer monitors.

Because blind pupils need a computer far more often and in different places due to its prosthetic function, a laptop is also preferable due to its ease of mobility. In such cases, special equipment, in the form of, say, an electronic note-taker, can also prove invaluable, although there are very few pupils who have access to both a computer and a note-taker.

In a school where pupils frequently have to change classrooms, a cordless network is one way of avoiding having to constantly log on and off the network.

5. The availability of infrastructure

The objectives of ICT education and the use of ICT in educational establishments defines the degree to which ICT equipment must be available for pupils. Integrated computer use, in which pupils use digital workbooks instead of traditional textbooks and where a high degree of integration is being pursued, requires good ICT skills on the part of pupils and a high deployability of the available infrastructure.

The following aspects are important in realising a digital school for pupils with a visual impairment:

·       One or two ICT lessons a week are not enough to teach the skills required; these skills must be applied for many hours each week.

·       If all the textbooks are supplied in digital form, this means that the computers must be available for every lesson.

·       If information has to be exchanged digitally between teachers and pupils, e.g. via internal e-mail, access to the network must always be available.

·       The concept of the digital school assumes that this infrastructure is also available at other locations, e.g. at home or in school-based residential units, so that the pupil can carry on working in the same way out of the classroom.

6. Use of 'own' computer

Where possible, it is also a good idea, especially for blind pupils, to have a personal computer in the school. This makes it easier for personal settings, such as in the screen reader, to be permanently adjusted to the pupil’s own requirements. Although good modern network facilities are making it increasingly possible to set up a personal profile via the network, this is more difficult and it means that the pupil always has to have access to a network, wherever he is working and whatever he is doing. This reduces his mobility. Pupils in any case have to learn how to use, manage and care for a personal computer.

7. What services are available to assist integration?

People with a visual impairment have always been at a disadvantage in terms of information and communication, because information has not been available in an accessible form and because blind people in particular have their own written alphabet. Digitisation has made great strides forward in both these areas, which means that the services provided will now have a duty to remove this disadvantage. The services must also dovetail with other facilities that are set up for the target group. For example, pupils can download the textbooks they need for their studies from the Internet. This gives Internet use a higher priority in education. Examples of information include digital books, the Internet, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, newspapers and magazines.

Examples of communication include e-mail, the exchange of same-format texts and chat-boxes.

Opportunities for integration through ICT

The use of ICT in special schools can make the difference between a pupil being able or unable to integrate.

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