Spring 1997, Vol. 8 No. 2

by Theresa Lupo

When I asked Serena Cucco what the best thing about her laptop computer was, she replied emphatically, "Computer games! I like Mobius Mountain (Personal Computer Systems (PCS)), a math game. You try to solve math problems in cold, damp caves. I have another game called AnyNight Football (PCS). You get to choose the plays. I like football. I used to play T-ball, too, when I was younger. You could say I'm a big sports fan." Of course, what 13-year-old 6th grader doesn't enjoy computer games? I couldn't help but wonder, though, how do you play computer games if you can't see the screen? Serena has been blind since birth.

Computer Games for Blind Users

Serena's mother, Carol Castellano, explained that the Personal Computer Systems games use sound rather than visual displays. She described one of her family's favorites, Bowling (PCS). To a background of bowling alley noise, the player hears a tone indicating the prime stance for a strike and presses "go." Then the player listens to a series of tones and tries to match it with the first. When she identifies it and presses enter, she hears the ball roll and crash into the pins and receives a score.

"Personal Computer Systems games have been designed by blind people. My kids just adore them. The games really help develop hand-ear coordination." Carol added, "Although there are many programs that provide access to the screen for blind users, educational programs and games for the blind are relatively few."

Technology has provided Serena access to more than just computer games, however. It has contributed to her success in school, as well. She received her first low-tech piece of equipment, a manual Braille writer (Perkins), when she was 3 years old. This device allowed her to produce written text in Braille. Since the age of five she has been included in regular classes at her local public school.

Integrating a Computer in 2nd Grade

As a second-grader, Serena learned touch typing and began to operate an Apple IIe computer that was equipped with a screen reader, a speech synthesizer and a Braille printer. Her teacher printed spelling lists, writing assignments and math lessons for Serena and her classmates simultaneously by connecting the computer to both the Braille and standard printers. The classroom aide also used the system to print written materials such as announcements, Valentine's Day cards, the program for the school play, and the teacher's grading comments, which she would staple to Serena's work.

The following year, Serena began changing classes and needed a more portable method of writing. While her classmates learned handwriting, Serena learned the handwriting of the blind using a slate and stylus. This simple device enables individuals to produce Braille by hand.

At this time her parents and teachers began to consider high-tech options.

They decided on a laptop computer with screen reading software and a refreshable Braille display (TeleSensory). A laptop computer from Compaq was selected because Serena already knew the QWERTY keyboard, and having a regular screen display would enable her teachers, who could not read Braille, to follow along as she wrote. Serena's mother also thought that a laptop would be easier to integrate in the future as Serena's needs changed. "I was excited to get a computer. It was cool to have something new to use," Serena added.

"Probably the biggest problem we encountered was getting all the components to work together. I think that anyone who has a complicated computer set-up will have that problem, and most blind people do. It took us a long time to get everything to talk to each other. I expect that that will happen again as we add more things," Carol stated.

Cost was also a factor in the selection process. The laptop and screen reading software were donated by a local service organization. Both Serena and her mother received computer training through the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Equipment purchased by the Commission follows children to whatever school or program they attend, and therefore does not need to be included in the I.E.P. The school district has paid for the Braille printer.

Low-Tech Tools Also Have Value

Serena uses low-tech items provided by the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, such as a Braille ruler, Braille versions of student text books, a talking calculator, a hand-held talking dictionary, (Franklin Language Master 6000 SE), and a Braille dictionary. "With the talking dictionary she can quickly look up the definitions, but she also needs to use the Braille dictionary to learn the syllabication and pronunciation markings. You can't do that unless you can see it right under your fingers. We felt that it was important for Serena to learn to do both. The Braille dictionary stays at school. It's definitely not portable; it takes up about 20 feet of shelf space!" Carol exclaimed.

She continued, "I believe that one of the skills that Serena needs is to know when to switch to different items to accomplish different tasks. There are times when she likes to use one thing and times when she likes to use another. For reports, she might Braille her first draft, check it, then write her second draft on the computer. A lot of sighted people would do that - hand-write our first draft, then type it on the computer. Sometimes she writes on the computer, then Brailles a copy for herself. The talking computer makes writing easier because she can check and correct her own work. Before, if she made a typo, a sighted person would have to read it and correct it. It has helped to increase her independence." "I use my laptop for homework sometimes. I also like writing stories on it, just for fun," Serena added.

New Tools for Meeting Junior High Demands

Next year, Serena will begin 7th grade in the Junior High and will need to have a completely portable writing device. To facilitate this transition, she and her mother obtained a list of all the resources and goals in the Junior High. In March, they took this list to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland where they checked out extensive displays of technology and Braille-producing instruments.

They were able to select adaptive equipment that will allow Serena to access all the software and equipment she will encounter at school. Serena and her mother decided on a Braille Lite (Blazie), a small, portable note-taker with 6-key Braille input and a 40-cell refreshable Braille display. This will enable Serena to take notes in class and print them later. They were also able to preview other technology which serves the needs of blind people. "There are several items that Serena doesn't use yet like scanners for reading books. These would allow her direct access to print. Eventually, I'm sure, she'll begin using those."

The Annual Convention of the National Federation for the Blind is another place where Carol and Serena find resources. This organization is comprised of blind individuals and parents of blind children who advocate for themselves. "It's fun because you get to see prototypes of things that are being developed. You really get a sense of what direction things are going. For example, most blind people have used DOS programs which are text-based, but now everybody else is going toward Windows, so it's a question of access. Which one should we teach our kids? If you go to a convention, you can see what blind people will need to learn in the future," Carol explained.

I asked Serena what she would like to do in the future and she enthusiastically responded, "I want to be a counselor for kids with disabilities. For example, there is a kid in my karate class (karate rules!) who needs help sitting still. I'd like to try to help him listen. I like analyzing kids. Oh, yeah, they're interesting to study. I like hiking and bodysurfing in the ocean. I also like crabbing and fishing. I'd like to keep doing those things too. "

Her mother added, "She's planning to go to college. New York University is her choice at this point. She's a good student. She makes us proud. She's very studious and gets all A's on her report card."

The Role of Technology

Carol concluded, "Technology does not replace literacy. A child needs a real way of reading and writing. Just because a child can be read to, doesn't mean that they are literate. There's no other way to learn grammar, spelling and all the other things we learn by reading. It all needs to be in place first. Beyond that, technology can enhance a child's education. I think technology serves the same function as it does for everyone else. It's motivating and fun and it serves as a support. It's a tool of society. I've seen situations where teachers or evaluators or child study team members question whether the blind child can even use technology. I'd say, keep the doors open, it's an absolute necessity. Everyone else is using technology, and blind children need every opportunity to be included."

Theresa Lupo is a graduate student in the Department of Special Education at The College of New Jersey.

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