Simple things you can do to help make computers accessible to every student
Recent changes to the SEN framework for mainstream schools are unequivocal. Schools are not only urged to “use their best endeavours” for children with SEN, they are also made responsible for identifying and making appropriate special educational provision for children whether or not they have a statement.
It is a sad fact that many students only receive a proper diagnosis of conditions like dyslexia when they enter higher education. Many universities now offer extensive screening services and pick up problems which were not identified or even detected earlier in an individual’s educational career.
It’s a bitter-sweet experience for a young man or woman to discover that the difficulties that s/he has been struggling with for years when reading and recording information could have been solved quite easily with the right piece of hardware or software. What’s more, there is state funding available to help them.
Small changes matter
Of course, if schools are vigilant enough, the problem of failing to recognise pupils’ conditions should rarely, if ever, occur. But what can schools do to avoid these issues and the attendant psychological and social problems that often accompany unrecognised special needs? The charity AbilityNet recently sampled a number of schools to find out how many students had as yet undisclosed problems with vision, hearing, reading, spelling and mouse control. The results were dramatic and revealed that only the minority of pupils (roughly 25 per cent) required no adjustments to be made of any kind.
The vast majority of students who required some sort of adjustment, however – some 40 per cent of those sampled – needed only minor modifications: the kind of changes that are simple to make but transformative in their outcomes in terms of both comfort and productivity. In other words, there could be large numbers of children in every classroom who would benefit from minor adjustments to their ICT setup.
So what adaptations qualify as minor when it comes to ICT and what can be achieved easily without specialist knowledge or expensive equipment?
Fit the users, whatever their needs
For pupils who present with physical or vision impairments, dyslexia or cognitive difficulties, or perhaps a combination of several issues, there may not be a single discrete solution providing the answer for their particular computing situation. A combination of approaches may be called for. At the same time, students’ needs can also change over time due to both their condition and the demands of their course of study.
Digital technology itself has become a very fluid phenomenon: we’re no longer restricted to a static desktop PC or laptop, or the standard keyboard, mouse and screen. Students often carry a variety of their own devices, including tablets of various sizes and smartphones with different operating systems.
All these different devices can be personalised or adjusted in some way, customising them to suit individual preferences and needs. This includes the way the device itself works as well as the content being used and the programmes used to manipulate it, such as web browsers or word processors. And what can be convenience features for the able-bodied can convert a previously unusable piece of equipment (be it a desktop, laptop, tablet or smart phone) into something enabling and empowering for those with impairments, often without spending a penny, provided we know how to adapt them to suit the user’s needs.
Adapt your approach
Don’t be too prescriptive about a pupil’s requirements. One size doesn’t fit all and some adaptations can be useful in a number of different settings. A pupil with a vision impairment may need to increase text size as well as the dimensions of various icons, such as the corner “close window” button. A child with cerebral palsy may also struggle to hit small targets with a mouse because of lack of control over fine motor movements, and may benefit equally from icon or button enlargement.
Children with dyslexia will often find symbols easier to deal with than words, so encouraging them to use the icon-based instructions on the toolbar, rather than the drop down menu-based options, will be a much more effective means of working.
Simply changing the colour scheme of the screen can make a huge difference for children with a vision impairment or dyslexia. Experiment with different colour combinations of background and text to find the one that suits the student the best.
Make it bigger
If enlarging text or icons via the browser or operating system isn’t enough, then the next step is to magnify either the whole screen or the part containing the information/image in question. Recent versions of the main operating systems on most devices include magnification software, “zoom” or magnification gestures which enable users to get a closer look at screen content.
Change the text style
Some pupils can find certain text styles or fonts difficult to read, particularly serif typefaces such as Times New Roman or cluttered scripts such as Helvetica Narrow. However, browser fonts can usually be changed to a sans serif style, which is almost always easier to read. You could also think about using fonts like Courier, which has equally spaced letters so the length of the word reflects the number of characters it contains. This can lessen the confusion significantly for many readers.
Hunt the mouse
“Hunt the mouse” is not a game a vision-impaired child enjoys. Avoid wasting time by improving the visibility of the mouse pointer on screen; you can enlarge it, add pointer trails or use the mouse locator feature. If you can’t make it big enough, you can download additional large or high contrast mouse pointers for your PC or laptop.
Make the device speak back
When a child has trouble reading text on the screen – either due to visual impairment or literacy difficulties – text to speech software can be helpful. Try using the speech functions that are built in to many operating systems, or experiment with one of the third-party screen readers or text-to-speech software applications available. A range of free devices can be downloaded online and a wide range of commercial software and hardware options is also available.
Combating motor impairments
For a child with severe motor impairments, switches can be used to provide an alternative means of input to the ICT device, while still allowing access to all the usual functions.
If a child finds the fine hand movements demanded by mouse use difficult, you can dispense with the mouse altogether. In fact, not only can your computer be operated entirely from the keyboard, doing so can often be speedier and easier. You can navigate a web page, fill in forms and use drop down menus without a mouse and there are a lot of keyboard shortcuts to execute tasks that would ordinarily take far longer to complete.
Customise your mouse
For those who want to use a mouse but struggle with some of its features, there are a number of ways it can be customised to make it more user friendly. If the cause of difficulty is the speed at which the pointer travels on the screen, this can easily be slowed down, as can the speed at which you are required to double click. Button functions can also be switched around to suit left-handed users and others who work better with an alternative layout.
For a variety of reasons, many students experience difficulties using the standard computer keyboard. Some find that they have held down a key for too long and get a string of unwanted characters; others accidentally press the wrong keys on a regular basis. This is because the standard keyboard’s default settings are very sensitive. Again, these settings can easily be adapted to suit individual needs if a child has motor difficulties that interfere with his/her capacity to use a standard keyboard.
Customise your keyboard
Some children with motor difficulties use a keyboard with one hand, with a typing wand grasped in a fist, or a mouth stick. This can cause problems with programs and commands that require the user to press two or three keys at one time; basic tasks such as saving a document can be difficult, uncomfortable or even impossible. Help is at hand though: most computers have a useful feature called “StickyKeys” which allows the user to press one key at a time instead of having to press more than one key simultaneously.
For other children, using a keyboard at all can be very difficult and they can find a mouse or mouse equivalent much easier to handle. In these cases, using an on-screen keyboard may be the best way to input information. As on many mobile phones, an on-screen keyboard looks just like a picture of a keyboard on the screen; letters can be selected from the keyboard using a mouse, a single switch or a joystick that is plugged into the serial, parallel or game port of the computer.
Help with spelling
For students with literacy difficulties, there are some helpful techniques to aid accuracy. Using autocorrect and autotext in a wordprocessor and other programs will automatically correct any misspellings, though it can be important to check that these “corrections” are actually producing the intended words. Users can even add their own shortcuts to the word bank so that the computer remembers what they mean if they type a short-cut to a word or phrase. This can be invaluable when repeating the same word or expression frequently.
Getting the most from your budget
Clearly not all difficulties accessing and using ICT effectively can be overcome with free adjustments; there is a huge range of adaptations on the market which can help, including more sophisticated versions of the free techniques mentioned above. Text-to-speech packages, word prediction software, mouse alternatives, and keyguards are just some of the products you may want to explore. However, you can avoid confusion and unnecessary expense by seeking expert and impartial advice before committing to a purchase. Before you finalise the use of your valuable ICT budget, examine the options carefully and think about exactly what you are trying to achieve, and how the proposed solution will help you to do this. After all, there may be a far more cost-effective method of achieving your objectives.
Robin Christopherson is Head of Digital Inclusion at national technology and disability charity AbilityNet. The charity’s guide, My Computer, My Way, provides helpful hints and guidelines to enable teachers and parents to customise students’ ICT independently: