Generally, when we think of edtech and students with disabilities, we think of assistive technology that helps individuals overcome challenges and provides access to areas of learning and independence.
However, technology is not always designed with people of all abilities in mind, and even something as fundamental as learning to type can become a barrier to overcome without proper instruction and understanding of the diverse needs of students with disabilities.
At the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind (SCSDB), we have a diverse population of students who represent every county in our state. They may not share the same abilities or needs, but they all seek to acquire the necessary skills to be creative, self-directed, and innovative in an ever-changing technological landscape. Students with sensory impairments will need to be able to interact with technology as effortlessly and naturally as their peers.
Making technology assistive
As the assistive technology coach for SCSDB, I work with students in grades pre-K–12, with an extra focus on students in grades six and below. I support teachers in their implementation of the South Carolina state standards for computer science and digital literacy, and facilitate participation in online courses such as World Languages.
I train faculty, staff, and students to use assistive technology, which we consider any technology students need to access the curriculum. I support teachers in developing and implementing technology goals in students’ Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs).
Why keyboarding is key
One thing all of our students need to learn, whether it is part of their IEP or not, is how to type. It is such a fundamental skill in today’s world, and we need to make sure that all students, even those with low vision or blindness, have an opportunity to develop this ability. It does help that we are a 1:1 school, so our students are familiar with devices and have usually had access to a keyboard for exploration, even if they have never had formal keyboard training.
Our students learn and practice keyboarding using a number of keyboarding programs including TypeTastic, which we were introduced to by the South Carolina State Department of Education as part of their virtual typing curriculum. At first, we had some concerns about accessibility for our low-vision and blind students, but the company was happy to sit down and talk with us about our needs. TypeTastic developed a demo that I explored with 5th-grade students.
Right now, we can access larger print, which is great for my low-vision students, but the company is also working to create a component for auditory feedback to support students who rely on screen readers to navigate a computer. This will include sound effects that let students who are blind know if they have typed something incorrectly or need additional guidance. For now, those students use a different program, but I’m looking forward to providing them access to TypeTastic as well to support keyboarding mastery.
Teaching students with low vision or blindness how to type requires the same instructional strategies as those implemented for their sighted peers. Instruction begins with using the correct posture, identifying correct hand position, anchoring on the home row, and practicing strengthening hand exercises.
Our young students begin keyboard exploration using large-print keyboards or keyboards with braille to support letter and layout recognition. From there, we focus on basic skill-building including typing their names or days of the week, and using vocabulary words to create meaningful sentences.
Using standards to improve self-confidence
When it comes to standards for keyboarding, we adhere to the South Carolina state standards for computer science and digital literacy. For example, 5th-grade students need to demonstrate proper keyboarding technique when keying letters, numbers, and symbols at a rate of 15 words per minute.
If there is a physical impairment or some other factor that makes that standard unattainable, we will adjust the expectation to meet the needs of the student and continue practicing. We use those robust state standards to guide instructional practice with an emphasis on daily improvement, independence, and perseverance.
I have observed growth in self-esteem as my students learn to type and successfully complete tasks on their own. It’s a big deal for me when students believe in themselves and are equipped with skills that foster a positive self-image. It starts with them saying, “Hey, I was doing five words per minute, now I’m doing seven words per minute.” From there, some of our students become more willing to take risks, embrace critical thinking, and improve technology skills.
This year I have a couple of students who in the past needed me to stand right beside them for positive affirmation, but now they have become peer leaders and demonstrate autonomy They are content to throw their hand up and know that I’m monitoring them on my computer from nearby, ready to help if they need me. Other students who were hesitant about touch-typing now look forward to keyboarding and are engaged because of the accessible tools that are available to help them prepare for the future.