Assistive Technology and the LD Resources Foundation provide students with LD a better chance to succeed
By Jason Luchs, Director
Student Disability Services at The New School
Assistive Technology has become synonymous with success for students with disabilities in higher education. Without many of the programs that are familiar to those in the disability services field, a multitude of students with documented learning disabilities would be unable to appropriately access their course work. Some of the most notable software programs that are designed to assist this population are:
• Kurzweil 3000 (K3000)
• Premier Assistive Technology’s Key to Access
• Texthelp’s Read and Write Gold
• Dragon Naturally Speaking and MacSpeech Dictate by Nuance
There are more programs available than these, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on these to narrow the discussion, and also because I have working knowledge and experience with them. I don’t specifically endorse or recommend any program over another.
Learning Disability Assistive technology Software
The first three programs listed have very similar goals and capabilities. They are designed to assist individuals with reading or writing problems due to a learning disability or other condition that affects reading and writing, such as attention based disorders (ADD or ADHD). Each program has a robust feature set that includes options to highlight words while reading them aloud to the user. Predictive text and talking word processing capability are also shared by each of the programs. K3000 differs from Premier’s and Texthelp’s software in that the program opens in a new window and does not use a floating toolbar design like the Key to Access or Read and Write Gold.
Each of the programs can assist students with learning disabilities, but I have seen some preferences among students. There are students who prefer using a word processing program they are comfortable with like Microsoft Word, while being able to have the floating toolbar of either Read and Write Gold or Key to Access available when they need it. With K3000, the user must type directly into the program interface to use its features. However, it is worth noting that with new updates to each program, more user-friendly methods of interaction become available which in the future may include a floating toolbar and opening the program in a new window.
Given the choice, I’d guess more students in higher education would choose either Read and Write Gold or Premier AT over K3000 because it seems to be geared more towards younger students. Read and Write Gold and Premier AT suite can be used discretely in open labs via a floating toolbar and the student can pick and choose which portion of the technology they need whereas K3000 must be fully open.
I have recently demonstrated Premier AT for students and they have been most interested in its ability to read PDF documents and e-text aloud. College students are increasingly required to access electronic articles via the web or interfaces like Blackboard and a hard copy may not be available. These students also have an interest in being able to convert text to audio, but this is better in theory than in practice. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) still has some work to do before it can accurately recognize all words and properly pronounce them, especially homonyms or words that may have different pronunciation depending on context, such as “I like to read (reed) often” or “I read (red) the book yesterday.” Additionally, some of the voices sound much too monotone, synthetic, or distracting to be useful. Developers are continuing to improve the voices associated with their respective programs, but none of them are totally human-sounding at this point. Currently, I think that artificial voices by Cepstral, a leader in synthetic voice development are some of the better ones available as they do a relatively good job of approximating human speech. While I am not discussing Mac accessibility in depth here, it is worth noting that the Mac OSX accessibility features are quite robust and the included voice-over feature dubbed “Alex” is excellent.
Cost and Alternatives to Purchasing – LD Resources Foundation Awards Program
The cost of assistive technology can be daunting for the individual as well as a disability services office with a modest budget. Many times it can be the determining factor as to what technology is available for student use. K3000 is the most expensive out of the three program suites discussed here, followed by Read and Write Gold and Premier AT Key to Access or Accessibility Suite. Since the cost of these products can be problematic for some students, trying to acquire a demo version via the product website is a good first step. Some university disability services offices have demo versions or lending programs available as well. I highly recommend checking vendor websites to see if trial versions of their products are available. Each of us have different preferences and levels of computer savvy, especially students who may have not used assistive technology before so it’s a good idea to give software a test run.
Students who may not be able to acquire software on their own should also look into the awards program offered by LD Resources Foundation (LDRF). Based on economic need and disability status, the LDRF awards program seeks to assist students who are most likely to need assistance acquiring software that can help them succeed in college. During my tenure at The New School, LDRF has awarded the Key to Access program to approximately ten students, with more applying for awards each semester. Students who aren’t sure if they will qualify for an award are encouraged to still apply because LDRF works on a sliding scale. The goal of the organization is to try to provide awards and assistance to as many students as possible, so they have flexible guidelines that allow them to work with individuals with all kinds of backgrounds, and will even provide assistance in completing an application.
In the past three years, LDRF has made 35 presentations and awarded portable assistive technology and tools to over 100 students in multiple universities. Over 60 permanent assistive technology systems were provided to libraries as well. Most recently, LDRF added speech recognition software to their list of AT products available. Students can apply for the Speech Recognition award and request Dragon Naturally Speaking for PC or MacSpeech Dictate for Mac. Both are excellent products developed by Nuance and with minimal training, the user can dictate papers, emails and even control some navigation functions on their computer. Students interested in completing an application for an award can find it via http://www.ldrfa.org/awardprogram.php on the LDRF website. The application is available to print out and complete by hand, or in a fillable PDF that can be emailed or printed.
Voice Recognition and Dictation Software
Dragon Naturally Speaking has undergone many improvements with recent versions, most notably with version 10. The training time is now minimal and voice recognition is very accurate, even for students with accents or limited computer experience. I demonstrated this software for a number of students who cited difficulty with typing or handwriting assignments but who had a much easier time verbally expressing themselves. One student recently told me that he thinks the use of a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking could significantly change his life. He was unaware of the existence of voice dictation software and when I demonstrated the program for him, he said it would definitely be helpful. The student has difficulty writing or typing as a result of dyslexia, but he can express himself quite well verbally. This is exactly the type of student who can excel using voice recognition software. Using a good quality noise canceling microphone like an Andrea or Plantronics headset, a user who types around 40 words per minute can possibly double or triple that speed with dictation.
What the Future Holds for Assistive Technology
This is a very exciting time for those of us interested in new developments in assistive technology. Not only are existing programs regularly updated, but new and previously unseen technology is on-route to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. With the advent of e-book readers like the Kindle, Sony E-reader, and most recently the Nook released by Barnes and Noble, there could be another wave of new methods for people with learning disabilities and other conditions to access books. While not all of the devices have text-to-speech capability, some of them do, and if it proves useful, other producers of e-book readers will probably follow suit and adopt that utility.
Resources for acquiring electronic textbooks
The usefulness of Assistive Technology programs for students is directly tethered to the availability of appropriate electronic text resources. In a forthcoming article, the Co-Founder of www.ldrfa.org, Zahavit Paz and I will be exploring the many directions that students can take to acquire electronic texts that are compatible with their AT program of choice.