Modern assistive technology that helps people who are blind to navigate the world is nothing short of amazing.
But it’s not perfect – yet.
Try traversing a college campus, for example, through the web of winding sidewalks and grassy expanses. Even the latest gadgets, powered with GPS capabilities, can fall short in attempting to recognize intersections of walkways that aren’t known, named roads.
It’s important that people who are blind have good navigation skills in place first; they then can use these powerful, high-tech devices to enhance their travel skills.
For users who personally program their devices, or who load the powerful BlindSquare app onto their smartphones, for example, the wayfinding becomes easier.
And students in the NIU Department of Special and Early Education’s Vision Program are on the cutting-edge of understanding the tools available for orientation and mobility. That edge also includes the training of their future students and clients who are visually impaired.
“We have so much technology available today for everyone, and the same is true for people who are visually impaired, but the technology is only good if you know how to use it,” says Stacy Kelly, an associate professor. “And if you can’t see a screen, that makes it that much harder.”
Graduate students in Kelly’s intersession SEVI 551 course (Assistive Technology for Persons with Visual Impairments: Advanced Topics) are “light-years ahead” in being able to harness the power of what’s on the market.
Two days of their recent intersession course were spent in an exclusive workshop with Diane Brauner and Ed Summers, who delivered Perkins School for the Blind training on “how to use technology to enable independent travel in a variety of specific, real-world contexts … finding bus stops, planning a route, building mental models, pedestrian travel in campus environments.”
North Carolina-based Brauner, a veteran Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, and Summers, an SAS software engineer and accessibility specialist who is blind, demonstrated BlindSquare, VoiceOver, iBeacons and more.
Students, meanwhile, explored the NIU campus with their iPhones to their mouths and ears, verbally noting the names of landmarks as the satellite tracked their locations.
Later, they listened for BlindSquare to alert them as they approached or reached the same spots. A forked tree. A rock picnic table. An emergency button. A mail box. A retention pond. Cole and Reavis halls and their various doors, all of which needed their own identities.
“Our students were just like sponges. They could just follow and follow Diane and Ed and never miss a beat,” Kelly says. “Our grads are known all over the country for their competence in teaching assistive technology, and the guest presenters really saw that. I have received so many compliments on how well-prepared our students are already.”
Kelly took her class back outside the next day to work with Victor Reader Treks, handheld devices that also provides auditory assistance based on a combination of GPS technology and user input.
Students walked “the long way” from Graham Hall to a restaurant on Lucinda Avenue, telling their devices about corners, parking lot entrances and even manholes covers along the way. On a subsequent trip, the Victor Reader Treks notified the students about those things.
“The Victor Reader Treks became available close to two years ago, and the NIU Vision Program just purchased a whole new fleet of them,” says Kelly, who logged about 20 hours of testing on her Victor Reader Trek before handing the units out to students.
“I did a lot of pre-learning about this new device. I used it in a lot of different neighborhoods, like my neighborhood, all over Chicago and at a conference in Florida. I also rode in an Uber in Florida, just to get a feel of that experience,” she adds. “I did my diligence with Victor Reader Treks before I put them in front of the class.”
Exposure to several assistive technology products – emerging technology included – is foundational to the SEVI 551 course, which is required for all students in the Vision Program.
Beyond learning about each device or app, students also are able to compare and contrast.
“There’s no way you could cover it all, but we cover it very well. We don’t push one product or device. We push accessibility for the blind and giving people choices. Our students have a toolbox of resources,” says Kelly, who often “resets” her classroom during lunch breaks to teach a different technology in the afternoon.
“And we don’t just teach how to use it but how to teach how to use it: How do you make it meaningful to a person who is blind?” she adds. “There’s nothing harder than being a first-year teacher and not knowing what your students are using. You’ll never catch up.”
NIU is the first university offering a course of study toward the Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist designation from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.