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The 'Saint Barnabas' School for the Blind
Nicosia, Cyprus
 
 The use of technology at The 'Saint Barnabas' School for the Blind

 Introduction - Historical overview

Many of the problems stemming from Visual Impairment as a sensory handicap can, to a high degree, find solutions in modern technology. Since the Ď60s different kinds of devices have been introduced which, in the beginning, aimed at helping the blind to deal with mobility and become more self-reliant, but later on to gain access to reading ordinary writing as well.

With the rapid world-wide expansion of Personal Computers (PCs), after the 1980s, great importance was given to the production of software and hardware that aimed at not only making PCs accessible to individuals with VI so that they are on an equal basis with everyone else, but also solving specific problems concerning mobility and access to written information in particular.

The significance of using all these products in Education and Vocational training of VI individuals, was realized fairly early, at the St. Barnabas School for the Blind, and thus from the beginning of the '70s, such products, mainly manufactured in developed countries, were used in the special curriculum. Such devices included Optacton (Optical toy Tactile Converter), VersaBraille and CCTVs (Closed Circuit TeleVisions). The Optacon reading device transformed normal printed characters into embossed ones on a special tactile screen, enabling a blind person to recognize them by touch, using her/his index finger. VersaBraille was a data processor used to store and retrieve information through sound and in braille form. CCTVs, which are still in use today, in a variety of brands and models, gave access to information (such as documents, pictures, books etc) to partially sighted individuals. Whilst CCTVs are still widely used today, VersaBraille and Optacon have been abandoned.

 New devices

Effective use of new technology actually began in the late '80s as a result of the wide use of PCs using accessibility software and specially designed peripherals for VI users, combined with the newly developed assistive devices.

At the St. Barnabas School for the Blind, Information Technology Services are provided for the education of students and adults with VI, but also for supporting the integrated students with technological means. Furthermore, it supports the Text Transcription and Adaptation Services of the School, as well as the libraries of Audio and Braille books.

For blind students

Braille N'Print

This device (a computer actually), when attached to the Perkins Brailler and a common ink-jet printer, can transcribe braille texts into normal print, by transforming the Braillerís key strokes into information compatible with the printerís software. Through training, students are taught a number of commands that allow them to format their work (paragraph and font formatting). Apart from basic word processing they can also store their work (using any one of the four data storage BníP provides) for later printing. This device gives the teacher, who has no knowledge of braille, access to the blind studentís work.

The BníP was, for a long time, the only solution for VI students that attended mainstream schools, since it gives the possibility of printing in Greek, as well.

By a decision of the State, every student attending mainstream secondary institutions should be provided with a BníP.

Nevertheless, because of its size and thus the extensive space that it needs to stand on, and its weight that makes it difficult to carry, it is gradually being replaced by other devices such as laptops properly adapted for the use of VI people.

 PCs and note-takers designed for Blind individuals

Such devices, like the ones illustrated below, have been designed especially for individuals with no residual vision, who are mostly Braille users. Most of these devices can function as independent personal laptop computers, having synthetic voices or braille displays, instead of normal screens. They provide internet access, or access to local nets (LAN), word processing and other software, peripheral use options and they can even be attached to a normal PC. Some of them use normal keyboards and screens being thus accessible to teachers/trainers that have no knowledge of braille, or eight-dot braille, whilst the option of using both is available.

Even though there is no Greek version for these devices as yet, their use can be helpful, especially to blind individuals who fluently speak a foreign language, such as English, French or German. Beside the fact that they are designed with their special use as the primary concern, they have the great advantage of providing feedback in braille, which can be extremely useful in retaining braille reading speed, spelling and literacy skills and also privacy!

 Word processing

Children start using PCs at around 9 or 10 years of age. At first, the lessons aim at giving them significant skills in keyboard use, in learning basic commands for using the operating system (Windows) and in being able to use a word processor as a tool for school work.

What they produce with the word processor can then be either printed on a normal printer or on a braille embosser. Children with no residual vision that use braille but also students with extremely low vision, come across the problem of not being able to have access to what is happening on their PCís screen. In order to deal with this problem, there are two solutions: a) the Braille Display and b) Speech Synthesis/ Screen Magnification.

In recent years, secondary school students deal with the everyday problems they encounter in the classroom by using laptop PCs with great success. For students with low vision that have some access to the screen and do not use braille, this appears to be the ideal solution. Nevertheless, for braille readers, this solution conceals the danger of illiteracy and decreases reading skills, since they will gradually depend on sound information and not practise their braille reading and writing. Fortunately, this is a problem that can be effectively avoided with the use of the Braille Display.

Many of these students attend afternoon computer application lessons at the School, using their own laptop PCs in order to acquire the necessary skills for using them independently in class.

Adults also attend such lessons by request, depending always on personal needs, interests and of course skills, by either using their own laptops or working on those provided in the two labs of the School.

Generally, Computer training includes as well as demands training on the following software, hardware and/ or peripherals:

 Braille Display/Line

A tactile reading screen with 80 (or/and 70, 40 or 20) braille cells attached to a PC able to reproduce in braille, what is on the line where the cursor appears on the PCís screen (according to its size). The user can therefore, read in braille what is on the screen, using thus the PC in a silent, quiet way, avoiding disturbing the others with the sound of the synthetic voice or being isolated by using headphones.

 Speech Synthesis and Screen Readers

This software allows a blind user to keep track of commands given or texts written on the PC, by listening to them. Users can also listen to a text stored or written on their PC, manage their files and generally take advantage of computer services.

The system consists of: a) the section that produces the speech synthesis- which is in fact special software that uses its own synthetic voice (e.g. Orpheus, Presenter, Aphrodite) through the sound card of the computer and b) the synthesizer access manager (e.g. Hal or Jaws). This software supports as well as allows the use of the Braille Display. Training for the more effective use of the system is essential and it should start at the early stages along with the training in the use of the word processor.

 Screen Magnification software

Many individuals with low vision are able to get access to their PCís screen and make good use of their residual vision using such software. In order to be able to do this, large screens are required (19Ē-21Ē) as well as screen magnifiers such as Lunar, LunarPlus, Zoomtext and Supernova. Using this software allows them to enlarge the content of the screen many times, change or reverse the colours and generally to adapt the image depending on the userís needs.

The software Supernova can be used both as reading software and as a screen magnifier, since it offers a combination of all the above mentioned. It can therefore, be used as a reading screen, a Braille Display support and a screen magnifier. It is usually used by people with very low vision when hearing and residual vision are both required. In addition, it is used when the necessity arises for the computer to be accessible to individuals with different kinds of visual impairment just as it happens at the laboratories of the School for the Blind.

People with no residual vision who do not use the screen magnifier should use other kind of software like Hal. On the other hand, people who can have access to the screen, by using some assistance, should use software that can employ only this function (Lunar, Zoomtext, BigShot) or they occasionally should use software for partial screen reading (Lunar Plus, Zoomtext Reader)*

  OCR Software (Optical Character Recognition)

OCR software is used for recognizing scanned or PDF documents by transforming images into texts (through recognizing individual characters).

Computer application training includes the use of scanners in conjunction with this software, in order to allow VI people access to a wider number of texts which they can read or process with their PCs.

This is also one of the procedures used by the Text Transcription and Adaptation Services of the St. Barnabas School for the Blind, for covering adultsí and studentsí needs in written material more effectively.

 Individuals with residual vision also use:

Closed Circuit Television-CCTV
These devices are actually a system of close circuit TVs- as indicated by their names- like the ones used for building surveillances (e.g. banks). More specifically they consist of a video camera that receives the image and transfers it to a screen and a system of inserted lenses that allows the enlargement of the image. One can find different kinds of CCTVs according to the size of the device, the screen (embodied or not) and the additional functions they can perform (e.g. change of colours, distant-receiving, split screen, connection to a PC).

People with low vision who use normal print in their work find that this system solves mainly their studying problem. They usually use a simple type of CCTV, which has its own screen, with a camera and a tray underneath to make the transferring of the texts easier. This device allows the users not only to read ordinary books but also to write on them (do their homework) and in their notebooks.

Small, light, portable CCTVs, with a small of about 8 inches screen that can be carried easily around are mainly used by adults in various ways: for example the completion of application forms for positions in the public sector or the reading of the labels on various products etc.

One of the latest types of CCTVs provides a solution to one of the most difficult problems confronted by pupils and students: Distant viewing (e.g. a classroomís blackboard or the teacherís desk). This type of CCTV is portable (small and light) and can receive images from a distance, giving thus the opportunity to a VI person to gain access to information written on a blackboard, projected on a screen or even projected by the teacher (e.g. in a laboratory) This device- MagniLink Student- can be connected to a portable PC, a regular television or a computer screen and be used independently or simultaneously with a PC. It can be carried easily around, it is simple to use and functions exactly as any other CCTV does.

The main advantage of this system is that it replaces all the other devices a student with low vision has been using so far at home and at school, becoming thus more independent rather than a technology slave, isolated from his/her peers because of the size of the device and the space it occupies, or the time needed for its transference from one classroom to another.

 Mimio

Mimio, a relatively low cost device, can be attached easily to any whiteboard and, connected with the pupilís PC, can thus transfer everything written on the board to her/his screen. In this way the student with low vision, can access information written by the teacher on the whiteboard, like any other student, assisted by accessibility software installed on the computer for enlarging the image (Lunar, Zoomtext etc). The student can then either store this information for later use, or can process and reproduce the material.

In addition, connecting this unit to a video projector automatically turns it into a tool for the benefit of the whole class, not only the VI student. The teacher can operate the computer from the whiteboard, which is transformed into a touch screen with the use of simple software, thus making it an educational tool for all students.

The fact that the device is of low cost is of great significance, since it is not a special device for visually impaired people, but one used in presentations, seminars and conferences usually by people in the higher and tertiary education.

 Daisy- Digital Accessible Information System

The DAISY books constitute the new generation of Audio Books which are gradually replacing the ordinary CD audio books which had in their turn replaced the cassettes. They are sound records in the MP3, digital form, and their basic difference from the previous ones is that they offer the listener the ability to navigate. In other words, the sound record is formed in such a way that it is possible to browse as easily as one may, a written passage and with even greater detail. More specifically, one may move from one chapter to another, at specific pages, subdivisions, paragraphs or/and phrases. The user can also place Ďbookmarksí, in other words, marks on the passage where one may return to, later on. The user is also able to hear the title of the record or/and the subdivisions, and to adjust the speed and the volume of the reading.

A library of Audio and Daisy Books has been organized at the School, where individuals with VI can borrow literary books and enjoy them by listening to them at home, or by using the specialized devices at the specific place at the School for the Blind.

The Library is supported by the Information Technology Services of the School. The infrastructure for the production of the Daisy audio books in the Greek language was necessary to be created, since there are no such books in Greek for sale yet, and to achieve this aim the School is closely cooperating with the Library of the University of Cyprus. A great number of books recorded on cassettes have already been transferred into the digital form so as to facilitate their recording on compact discs. A specialized seminar has been organized by the School and lectures were given by special instructors of the Royal Institute for the Blind (RNIB) from Britain to train those involved in their production.

Today the Information Technology Services of the School operate a Local Computer Network divided in two laboratories which consist of PCs with 21 inches flat screens and with continuous online connection to the Internet (DSL). Through this local network users can get access to Laser-jet printers- one of which offers the possibility of printing on A3 size paper- colour ink-jet printers, scanners and braille embossers.

All the computers of the network are equipped with accessibility software (Supernova) to meet the needs of any visual situation, Microsoft Windows and Office XP, software OCR and Braille Translators- software that transcribes ordinary texts into braille- Two of the computers are additionally equipped with a Braille Line (80 and 40 cells) so that access to the Pc is far more accurate.

The Text Transcription and Adaptation Services are connected to the network so as to make the transference and transcription of the files and the technical support of the Servicesí equipment easier.

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