New assistive technology is changing education for blind students

Assistive technology has come a long way in the last decade, but there are still many obstacles students face in a society that’s currently saturated with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But revolutionary new games, software, and teaching programs are helping students tackle their achievement potential.

One of the technologies receiving the most hype is a new game designed to catch childhood vision problems.

(Next page: Visual screening game)

The game, EyeSpy 20/20, screens visual acuity and depth perception. For vision problems, it can catch near and farsightedness, eye misalignment, cataracts, astigmatism, and amblyopia (lazy eye)–often undetectable to untrained personnel and can be missed with traditional eye tests, such as the eye chart. According to the creators of EyeSpy20/20, if caught too late, amblyopia can cause a permanent percentage of lost vision in adulthood.

“Amblyopia is the poster child for pediatric ophthalmology,” Dr. James O’Neil, M.D. said in an interview with Nearby News. “It’s a condition that happens only in children and has to be treated in childhood while the vision system is still undergoing its development to be properly treated.”

In addition to visual acuity, the game incorporates an analysis of binocular function. O’Neil thought that video games might help kids better react to a vision test, and decided to partner with his longtime friend, Richard Tirendi, an electrical and computer engineer.

The creators also understood that computers are readily available in most schools in the U.S., and vision screening software is easily distributed. Computer software applications also allow for the standardization of logic protocols for vision screenings. In addition, the video game format allows for automated testing, which eliminates the need for training and certification of vision-screening.

O’Neil and Tirendi worked for more than 10 years developing this game and founded a nonprofit to develop, validate, and distribute the program. According to the developers, EyeSpy 20/20 came together as a vision evaluation tool as the technology evolved over the course of a decade.

“I jumped in with both feet,” Tirendi said to Nearby News. Tirendi was temporarily blinded as a child. He embraced the chance to develop the video game and spent time learning about children’s vision, related disorders, and the biology of the eye.

The game was tested at the Storm Eye Institute in South Carolina for scientific validation and, after a few years, it received extremely positive reviews, correctly and accurately performing vision screenings of more than 160,000 children.

The founders and creators explain the process of developing VisionQuest 20/20 (a nonprofit set up to help schools, government agencies and other special groups get access to affordable and effective childhood vision screenings using the EyeSpy 20/20 video game):

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Watch an introductory video to EyeSpy 20/20 (VisionQuest 20/20) here.

(Next page: STEM for the visually impaired)

Beyond diagnosis

For students who are blind and visually impaired, one of the main areas they struggle with in school is STEM, due to the subjects’ visual nature and teaching limitations.

However, two University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) assistant professors of education, Derrick Smith and Erica Slate-Young, are working with gh, LLC, an assistive technology company that helps people with disabilities access printed information in order to change how blind and visually impaired students learn math.

For the first time, blind and visually impaired students will be able to remotely communicate with their teachers in math’s “precise written symbolic language,” explained a UAH press release, “using an easily accessible, accurate two-way system.”

The two assistant professors obtained a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program to prove the concept and study the impact on students who are provided a computerized means of interaction with teachers instead of traditional teaching methods for the visually impaired.

Smith and Slate-Young have also developed an online class to address the challenges of teaching blind students math.

Both the software and the class allow blind and visually impaired students to type math using regular keystrokes on a regular keyboard, according to  Previously, blind students needed to know Mathematical Markup Language (MathML)—a special type of computer coding—to type math.

However, there was no mechanism for students to write mathematics and get that information back to the teacher.

Nationally, 85 percent of visually impaired students are in general classrooms but the number of teachers trained to teach visually impaired students math is limited. An easily accessible tool for written math communication would open the doors to more access to advanced STEM courses through long-distance learning.

“Our goal is to make sure that the online learning environment is, number one, accessible to the students, and number two, that it is at least equal to the traditional classroom,” Smith explained in the press release.

The primary objectives are to develop an online teaching platform that incorporates existing assistive technologies for students with visual impairments with open-source learning media software, and to shed light on how online technology with audio input can impact learning of math for students with visual impairments.

Read here for more information.

(Next page: Learning how to navigate the internet)

Online and blind

Perhaps most revolutionary is a new program—the first of its kind in the country—that is helping people of all ages with visual impairments accurately use and navigate the internet.

The program is designed to foster greater independence for the blind, who can now access and use devices—iPhone and iPads—so ubiquitous, they’ve become nearly a necessity.

The program, created by the New Jersey Foundation for the Blind helps the visually impaired learn to navigate the internet and, with the added help of a GPS app and an audible screen reader, hometown streets.

Participants learn how to send eMails and texts, scan texts, more easily identify currency, and download and use numerous mobile apps, including mapping software.

“It’s giving them equal access to technology and the world around them. It’s great,” said Laura Gardner-Lang, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, in an interview with

Gardner-Lang, who has lost nearly all of her vision, sat in on several of the sessions during the eight-week pilot. She came away impressed, she said.

A 13-week program is now part of the foundation’s health-and-wellness curriculum.

Funding for the program comes from individual and corporate contributions as well as grants. “We make sure every student has their own iPad or iPhone,” said Kathy Caviston, the foundation’s director of development and public relations.

The program was created because even though Apple is known for accessibility software, the tools and the motions needed to steer around the interface are nuanced.

But as good as it is, the technology is imperfect, just as it is for sighted people.

“Search results can be off-target, and going through the list can be confounding. And since the interface is sensitive, accidental taps can confuse the machine, as can the abbreviations used by sighted people,” explained

“There will be a lot to learn, but it’s very exciting,” said Mary Ann Speenburg, a participant of the program. “It definitely is going to do all I need it to do. This is finally going to put us in the 21st century.”

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