New world of words: Technology helps visually-impaired students in Concord area schools

  • Freshman Abby Duffy (right) talks with Concord teacher Adrienne Shoemaker, who works with the students who are blind or visually impaired, in the hallway of the high school in between classes on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord teacher Adrienne Shoemaker prints out a Braile version of Abby Duffy’s geometry work on Tuesday.

  • Freshman Abby Duffy scans the embossed pages for her advanced math class at Concord High School on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord High student Abby Duffy started losing her eyesight when she was six years old. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord high freshman Abby Duffy makes her way around the school on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Concord freshman Abby Duffy works with her Braille Edge that can plug into a laptop for her notes from class as teacher of students who are blind/visually impaired Adrienne Showmaker looks on. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Abby Duffy and Concord teacher of the blind/visually impaired Adrienne Shoemaker share a laugh as she prepares for her next class on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Teacher Adrienne Shoemaker and student Abby Duffy can communicate electronically with sound on both phones and an ipad. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pembroke student Emma Miller uses her Braille translator at school in December. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

  • Pembroke student Emma Miller uses her braille translator at the school last month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/26/2019 6:46:22 PM

By the time Emma Miller walked into her freshman English class on her first day at Pembroke Academy, she had already read almost all the books on its reading list.

The 15-year-old spent the summer devouring Of Mice and Men, which she said was so good and heartbreaking it made her cry. She fell in love with the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed experiencing a favorite Disney movie of hers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, come alive on the page.

“Everyone said it was a super hard book, so I said, ‘Why not?’ ” Miller said of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a 940-page book she digested in a few days. “I like reading ahead.”

Miller, a top student who has dreams of one day attending Harvard Law School, said English is her favorite subject.

But reading used to be a lot more challenging to Miller, who lost most of her vision due to a tumor on her optic nerve that was discovered when she was six.

Hard copy Braille books are cumbersome – one Harry Potter book is around 13 volumes – and she could only access one or two new books every few months.

But now, with her new BrailleSense Polaris, a device that functions like a laptop for the visually impaired, she can access up to 100 books at once.

The 5.5-by-9.5-inch Polaris is portable and she can use it in class – teachers share assignments or notes with her online.

Most of the time she uses it on its own, but the Polaris can hook up to an iPad or a laptop if she needs to share work with a teacher or other students. As Miller types on it in Braille, her writing is translated to English, and as her peers type in English, it’s translated through the Polaris to Braille.

“Teachers can share documents directly with Emma, and then she can access them through the technology, whereas before, she was getting a lot of her documents on paper Braille, 10 pages for every one,” said Amy Bickford, a teacher who works with visually impaired students. “Students used to have these huge notebooks; it’s so much more efficient now.”

‘Just another computer’

Before technology for writing in Braille like the Polaris, iPads and laptops, students had to rely mostly on Perkins Braillers, 10-pound metal machines that look like typewriters.

Students would use the Perkins Braillers to type out assignments in Braille, and then they would be translated to English by TVIs, or teachers who work with visually impaired students. Then, the work would be handed into teachers.

Miller said she felt self-conscious using the Perkins Brailler, which she used in her classes regularly until sixth grade; sometimes, she would move out of the room to type, she said.

“The Brailler is just so big and loud that it makes it hard to actually join in activities. (The Polaris), because I can use it just like a laptop with everyone else, it just makes being part of a class easier,” Miller said, showing off the device. “You don’t have to worry about loud typing or having to organize a million papers for a class assignment.”

And if carrying around Braille volumes of novels is challenging, textbooks are even worse: Miller said her math textbook this year comes in 59 volumes of Braille.

She said she still uses hard-copy textbooks for classes like math and does her math or science homework by hand or with the Brailler because it’s easier to navigate.

But for classes like English and social studies, the Polaris is where Miller types and stores all of her notes. One morning late last semester, she was sorting through notes on Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam for the Asia section of her Global Studies course.

“It’s all right here – easy for me to access,” she said.

Miller said she doesn’t feel self-conscious in class anymore. She said she likes that other students are interested in the technology she uses.

“They think it’s really cool,” Miller said. “They’re always asking me how it works.”

With the technology that has become so commonplace in the classroom, Miller’s Polaris doesn’t stand out, Bickford said.

“Everyone has a laptop that they’re working on – it’s just another computer,” Bickford said of the Polaris. “It just looks a little different.”

Old and new technology

Like Miller uses older technology for math assignments, Abby Duffy, a freshman at Concord High School, said she uses the Brailler or handwriting for math.

Duffy has also been blind since she was six and developed a condition where the optic nerves, which connect the eyeball to the brain, have withered, limiting her to only peripheral vision where she can still see contrast and motion.

She can see outlines of Sharpies on paper, which she will use sometimes when labeling shapes in advanced geometry class. Schoemaker said they will use the Brailler sometimes to label over Duffy’s Sharpie notes with Braille to make sure she is able to understand it.

For most of her school work, Duffy uses a device called a Braille Edge that unlike Miller’s Polaris, needs to be paired with a laptop or iPad to connect to the internet. Duffy said she prefers keyboards to typing in Braille on the device.

Her iPad is also set up to speak aloud to her as she explores its settings.

On Tuesday morning, she was listening to the first chapter of Hamlet while spinning around an office chair in her TVI, Adrienne Shoemaker’s office.

“I have a lot of stuff that talks,” she said, smiling and pointing to an iPhone and talking Texas Instruments calculator on her desk.

The Concord School District was able to purchase Duffy’s calculator – which speaks aloud when she presses buttons – and JAWS-screen reading, a Miscrosoft program that allows blind or visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display, through the New Hampshire Accessible Educational Materials program.

Workforce shortage

A lot of visually impaired students rely on TVIs like Bickford and Shoemaker to help them obtain and navigate new technology.

TVIs come into the school to work with students a few days a week, and often much of the work they do together centers around learning how devices work and how to use them efficiently in class.

Those who work in the field say there’s a huge workforce shortage for teachers. Bickford said it probably has to do with a lack of awareness for blind students and the intimidating nature of the work.

“It’s a big field to learn, the technology is huge,” Bickford said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed.”

There are only four school districts in the state that have TVIs employed full-time – Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Bedford. Usually, they contract out with organizations like Future In Sight, where Bickford works.

Bickford said it makes sense that every district doesn’t hire a full-time TVI – there isn’t always a need, she said.

Even so, there aren’t enough TVIs to be contracted out to work in every school, according to Bickford.

Bickford has 14 students on her caseload that she meets with in different parts of the state. Most go to school near the Lakes Region, where she lives.

“I think a lot of students go without their needs being met. I know with all of us, our caseloads are overwhelmingly full,” Bickford said. “We get calls and some of us have to say no.”

There are also a few programs that offer courses to become a TVI. The University of Massachusetts-Boston, however, has a program that is grant funded – so it’s mostly free to students – and almost exclusively online.

Shoemaker – who works with 25 students in the Concord School District – said that’s the program she did, more than 10 years ago.

Big dreams

Bickford said while its a TVI’s job to show students how to use technology to get work done, Miller has done a lot of self-teaching, out of her own interest in the Polaris.

“Emma independently just took off and became savvy,” she said. “She’s blown us away and is way ahead of where we thought she would be.”

Both Miller and Duffy are used to working hard and being high-achievers.

Miller will be one of only a few freshman students to ever assistant teach Global Studies this semester. Next year, she wants to take all honors classes.

“I’m worried about keeping up with her,” Bickford said, smiling.

Duffy, a violinist in Concord High’s orchestra who is also on the rowing and alpine ski teams, said she wants to go to the Paralympics in 2022 for ski racing. She said she’d also like to row in college.

“I know that I can do anything I set my mind to,” she said. “I just want to learn and have fun.”

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