Editor’s Note: The plethora of technology available for blind students today is both wonderful and confusing. With options come choices, and with choices, questions: What piece of technology should a child get, and when? What skills do they need before they start learning specific technology? What factors are most important to consider when making these decisions? The following email exchange addresses a couple of these important technology questions. The exchange is between the parent of a middle school student and Curtis Chong. Readers may remember Chong (a blind leader in the NFB in Computer Science Division) from previous articles he has written for Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor. Curtis Chong is one of those technologically savvy blind adults who compete successfully in today’s work environment. Born blind, Chong also cares deeply about the education of blind children today. On a number of occasions I have asked him to respond to letters and other inquiries from parents about technology matters. Here is the latest email request I asked him to handle, beginning with the letter from the parent and concluding with Chong’s response:
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Can you forward this email to someone at NFB that can answer my questions on technology for middle school children? I would appreciate it.
I have a twelve year old, seventh grader, who reads and writes grade II (contracted) Braille, uses a BrailleNote very efficiently, and started typing over the summer. His typing skills came extremely quickly. He used the Talking Typer program and he has gone all the way up through all the letters, most of the punctuation, all the numbers, and other various keys: braces, brackets, slant bar. He doesn’t know upper case numbers and the plus, minus, and dash keys as of yet. His speed on sentences is 18 words per minute with 96 percent accuracy and on individual key lessons it is 95 percent accuracy at 38 words per minute. He’s so awesome on this typing. He has typing goals in his IEP for June 2005 that he has mastered (obviously I need a new IEP), but before that IEP is rewritten I have some questions.
1. What keyboarding/typing proficiency does a child need to have before moving on to learn JAWS? [NOTE: JAWS is a software access program that allows a blind person to access a computer with speech output and the use of keyboard commands instead of a mouse.]
2. Is JAWS the next logical technology piece or should it be Kurzweil? I don’t know anything about Kurzweil but I do know what JAWS can do for him, i.e., Internet access which is a must for high school. He’s fast approaching ninth grade! My opinion is that it is JAWS!
3. What keys on the keyboard does he NOT need to know before moving on to JAWS? Are there any? There are 105 keys on a keyboard (according to his vision teacher), the alphabet being 52 (26 upper and lower). He knows about 80 of these keys, and the F1 through F12 keys will be simple for my son because they are in obvious positions on a keyboard. So, I’m confident that he could be proficient with about 92 keys in a week. He will continue to work on the few keys that he doesn’t know, but I want to move on to JAWS.
4. Would the NFB send someone into my son’s public school to do a technology assessment, that I would pay for, and how much would that cost?
I guess that is it in a nutshell. I appreciate your time and assistance.
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Dear Mrs. _______ :
I am pleased to have received an emailed message from you to Barbara Cheadle. You raise a number of important questions, and I welcome this opportunity to share a few of my thoughts about something which matters a great deal to me—that is, ensuring that blind children obtain the very best education and skills training.
As a totally blind person who has worked for more than thirty years in the field of information technology—for the sighted as well as the blind—let me take a stab at some of the questions you raised. As I understand it, your twelve-year-old son became blind some three years ago. The fact that he is now using a BrailleNote very efficiently is, I believe, very fortunate indeed. This would seem to indicate that he has facility with Braille—both in reading and writing. This facility should be encouraged to flourish as he progresses through high school. In the long run, this will enable him to be truly successful. You know, according to a number of research studies, the majority of employed people who are blind use Braille.
You mention in your message to Barbara that your son recently started learning how to type. I myself started learning to type when I was eight years old, and by the time I was twelve, I was clocked at 58 words per minute. While I do not expect your son to be able to type this quickly given that he only started this last summer, I do believe that within six months, he should have full knowledge of every key on the keyboard, and his typing speed should be pushed to at least 30 or 40 words per minute. Moreover, within nine months, he should give serious thought to preparing his written assignments using the computer instead of the BrailleNote.
What this recommendation implies is that for your son, JAWS for Windows is the very next logical step. The Kurzweil 1000 program is used to convert printed information into speech and is a logical complement to the basic use of the computer. However, unless a blind student masters JAWS, it will be difficult indeed to use the computer to produce written documents, send and receive email, browse the World Wide Web, or install software. Once these basic activities are mastered, then consideration can be given to using Kurzweil 1000 to read some printed material. Mastery of Kurzweil 1000 is much more quickly achieved if one starts out with full knowledge of the keyboard and facility with a screen access program such as JAWS for Windows.
In order to use JAWS, knowledge of every key on the keyboard is vital. However, typing speed is not. At your son’s current rate of typing (18 words per minute), he can start to learn JAWS as soon as he demonstrates that he knows all of the keys on the keyboard: the alphanumeric (normal typewriter) section, the center section (containing the cursoring keys), the numeric keypad on the right, and the function keys (located at the top of the keyboard). However, you should understand that along with learning JAWS, your son will need to learn some basic concepts that are important for computer users to know: the basics of the Windows operating system, the Windows Start Menu and Desktop, managing files on your computer’s hard drive, and so on. He will also need to learn how to prepare documents on the computer using Microsoft Word, email using Outlook Express, and browsing the Web using Internet Explorer. These should be specified in any IEP you develop from here on out.
I hope this information is helpful to you. Unfortunately, I am not in a good position to recommend someone who could perform a reliable technology skills assessment for your son. However, I would be pleased to elaborate on what I have said here in a future communication should you find it helpful.
Curtis Chong, President
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND in Computer Science