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Caption: School districts have plenty of assistive technology options to help the learning experience of students with disabilities.

Students with vision problems now have a number of tools at their disposal to help keep up in the classroom, they just need to be implemented correctly.

Luis Perez, a Florida-based digital accessibility consultant, said in an interview with R&D Magazine that the tools are available and affordable for school districts, but more work needs to be done to ensure that educators are properly trained to effectively use the platforms.

“There is definitely more work that needs to be done, I think there has been a slow transition from those who work with students with visual impairment,” Perez said. “I think more professional development is needed, more awareness.”

“My experience has been that educators are not always aware of what’s available and also there is still the misconception that you have to buy additional software,” he added. “It can’t just be providing the tools, there needs to be ongoing professional development. It has to go hand-in-hand, providing the access to the tools, but also providing the training and support to get the most out of it.”

Perez, who also suffers from a visual impairment, regularly visits school districts and higher education institutions to advocate for assistive technology for not only visually-impaired students, but also for students with other disabilities. His hope is that the technology can help improve the learning experience for everyone.

He said one constant is that while educators may have the technology available to help students with disabilities, they are not always properly trained on the full capabilities of the technology.

For example, when interactive whiteboards first started appearing in the classroom, Perez said the teachers were often untrained on all the features and possibilities of the technology.

Perez has been an advocate for Universal Design for Learning—an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.

He also said one advancement that has led to cost-savings for school districts is the advent of text-to-speech technology available in many platforms and tools.

Text-to-speech enables a computer to convert written text and read it aloud. According to Perez, the tool is now available for a number of different applications designed to help students with visual impairments, as well as students with dyslexia and students who are not native English speakers.

Perez said that many computers and tablets now have text-to-speech options built in as a standard option.

“Because I have some vision left I still rely on text-to-speech quite a bit, just to give my vision a rest,” he said.

Other features Perez has mentioned as being beneficial include text enlargement options, Google voice typing and other screen readers that can be customized to an individual student.

According to Perez, one of the challenges is that there will always be different needs for different individuals with disabilities.

“It depends on the person and the need, that will determine the tool that is the best,” Perez said. “It is always important to match that need and what the tool can do.”

“Each individual visually-impaired student is different, there is a broad range from those like myself who still have some vision to those who are completely blind,” he added.

Perez said one of his jobs as an advocate for the technology is to work with developers of improving and creating new tools for disabled students.

He said he works with both big companies like Microsoft or Apple and independent developers looking to create their own applications.

While there are issues in implementing the technology and ensuring that it is used correctly and to its full potential, Perez said advancements in the future will continue.

“I think we will continue in the direction of even more universal design,” he said. “I think the move to mobile devices kind of encourages that because on a mobile device you are not only sitting in a nicely lit, comfortable environment, you are often accessing content on the go.”

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