Computers in Our Classrooms

Wendy L. Buckley, M.Ed.
Computer Teacher/Specialist
Perkins School for the Blind, Deafblind Program.

Emphasis on technology in schools has made computers available to children in educational programs throughout the country. Books are brought to life on the screen,and children explore the world from their desktops via the World Wide Web.

With modifications of hardware and software, teachers of children who are deafblind can take advantage of this exciting technology to enhance communication development, educational activities, and leisure time.

A child's physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities play important roles in determining appropriate computer activities. Although all three areas overlap, computer input and output methods are primarily determined by physical and sensory abilities; selection of educational software programs is determined by a child's cognitive abilities and educational objectives.

This article presents an overview of computer modifications, adaptive equipment, and selected software programs used with children in the Deafblind Program at Perkins School for the Blind. Many other modifications and software programs are available that are appropriate for deafblind children. The examples and ideas presented here can be applied to a variety of other types of computer equipment and programs. For additional information, see the resources listed at the end of the article.

Input Methods

Most computer systems use a keyboard and/or mouse for input to the computer. These devices present a barrier for many deafblind children because of visual or physical limitations. The following suggestions address how to work with a standard keyboard or mouse as well as alternatives to these devices.

Using a Mouse or Mouse Replacement

The use of a standard mouse requires good visual and motor skills. Children who are deafblind may be able to use a standard mouse with some modifications or they may need an alternative device.

Promoting mouse skill development. If it is physically possible for the child to use a mouse, design activities that encourage development of this skill. A drawing program, for example, may provide an enjoyable and rewarding activity that a child can use to learn control of the mouse. Popular drawing programs such as Kid Pix (Broderbund) and Kid Works Deluxe (Knowledge Adventure) add an auditory component to the drawing activity and provide a wide array of colors and drawing features.

Mouse placement. Placing the mouse on something such as a box brings it closer to the screen and makes it easier for the child to see the direct relationship between the movement of the mouse and the movement of the pointer on the screen. Placing the mouse on a slanted surface such as an empty three-ring binder helps reinforce the concept that pushing the mouse up or down moves the screen pointer up or down.

Pointer enlargement. Enlargement of the pointer will help the child locate and follow it on the screen. The size of the pointer can be increased through the mouse control panel in Windows. For Macintosh computers, mouse control panels such as Biggy (R.J. Cooper) can be added to the system software. There are also other settings that can be used to enhance mouse visibility. For example, in Windows you can set the mouse to leave a "trail" as it moves across the screen for easier tracking and to show the location of the pointer when you hit the control key.

Tactile or visual mouse cues. A tactile "reminder" such as a small fuzzy piece of velcro on the mouse button helps the child locate the button and reminds him where to press. On a mouse with two buttons, the velcro pad or a colored dot helps the child discriminate between the two buttons.

Tracking speed. Mouse tracking speed and double-click settings can be controlled using the mouse control panel in existing system software. A very slow setting prevents the pointer from moving too quickly across the screen.

Trackballs. A trackball is a mouse alternative that looks like a mouse turned upside down. The ball is rolled within its socket to move the pointer. This requires less arm movement than moving a mouse around, making it easier for a child with limited motor abilities to use. Some trackballs such as Penny Giles rollerball Light and Penny Giles Trackball Plus (Don Johnston) and SAM-Trackball (R.J. Cooper), have utility programs that allow for control of cursor speed and other functions.

Joysticks. A joystick mouse allows the child to control the pointer by moving the joystick in the desired direction. A foam covering can be added for those with limited grasp abilities. SAM-Joystick (R.J. Cooper) and Penny Giles Joystick (Don Johnston) have a tracking speed that is considerably slower than a traditional mouse and the buttons can be set to perform specific functions such as click, double-click, and lock-button-down for drag.

Touch screens. A touch screen allows a child to interact directly with the computer program by using his or her finger to point to objects on the screen as a replacement for mouse actions. Examples of touch screens include TouchWindow (Edmark), which attaches to a monitor with velcro, and Troll Touch, monitors with built-in touch screens.

Hot spots. A hot spot is an active location on the screen where the user might "point and click," resulting in action within the program. For example, in an interactive storybook, children can click on characters or objects resulting in animation, music or sounds. Once identified, the hot spot can be accessed through an alternative keyboard or with a switch. ClickIt! (IntelliTools) and Discover:Switch (Don Johnston) are examples of software programs used to create hot spots.

Keyboard Adaptations and Alternatives

Standard computer keyboards present a challenge for many children. The letters and keys are small and contain numerous characters, and the keys are highly sensitive. For children with good motor skills and cognitive ability, learning keyboarding skills is a reasonable goal. Many children who are deafblind, however, will need a keyboard alternative.

Keyboard labels. Keyboard labels are stickers that can be placed directly on the keys. Zoom Caps (Don Johnston) are available in large print with high contrast.

Keyguards. Keyguards (Don Johnston, TASH) have corresponding holes for each key and are used to prevent unwanted key presses. They are usually made from plexiglass and attach to standard keyboards with heavy duty velcro. A keyguard also makes it possible for children with limited motor abilities to use keys such as shift and control which require two fingers, by providing a latch for each of these keys.

Slant boards. A slant board can be used to position the keyboard at a different angle or bring it closer to the screen. They are good for children with motor difficulties who use a head- or mouth-stick and may fatigue quickly if the keyboard is flat on the table. They are also useful for children with limited vision who do not have touch typing skills and may tire easily or lose their place because they constantly have to shift their focus from the screen to find letters on the keyboard. A slant board can be constructed from lightweight plywood or TriWall, a heavyweight triple layer corrugated cardboard.

Expanded or membrane keyboards. Expanded or membrane keyboards can have keys of any size printed on overlays. Each overlay may consist of letters, numbers, words, phrases, pictures or combinations thereof, customized for each child to specific software programs. Individual keys may perform multiple-step functions such as printing, saving, or moving to a different file or program. IntelliKeys (IntelliTools) comes with a standard set of overlays. Custom overlays can be created using Overlay Maker (IntelliTools). Other expanded keyboards include Discover:Board and Key Largo (Don Johnston).

On-screen keyboards. On-screen keyboards work well for children with low vision who do not have keyboarding skills because they allow the child to keep his or her head upright and focused on the screen, eliminating the need to look from the screen to the keyboard to search for letters. OnScreen (R.J. Cooper) uses standard alphanumeric keyboard characters. Discover:Screen (Don Johnston) lets the user design different keyboards containing letters, words, phrases, and pictures.

Word-prediction programs. Word-prediction programs are useful for children with limited physical abilities, poor spelling, or slow typing skills. The program attempts to guess each word as the child types the beginning of a word and presents the guesses in a numbered list. The child then selects the correct word from the list and the word prediction program transfers the word into the application. This reduces the number of keystrokes required to enter text and provides correctly spelled words. Co:Writer (Don Johnston) is one word-prediction software program.

Switches. Children with physical limitations may not have sufficient motor control to access a mouse or keyboard. If the child is able to produce a reliable motor movement, he or she may use a switch (Don Johnston, Ablenet, TASH) as a substitute. One of the most commonly used switches looks like a large button which the child presses to activate. Other switches are available with a variety of specifications to meet different fine and gross motor abilities. Software programs used to help children learn the concept of cause and effect generally require switch input for interaction with the program. Switches are also utilized in scanning, an input method for children who are unable to use direct selection. A switch interface is required to connect a switch to the computer.

Output Methods

Visual output is a major component of most computer activities for children. Many programs contain colorful graphics, animation, and QuickTime movies. Recent software programs also integrate sounds, digitized speech, and music. A child who is deafblind may have difficulty accessing these programs due to visual limitations and may not have sufficient hearing to benefit from the sound component.

Visual Output

Monitor positioning. The monitor should be positioned at eye level for the child. For some children this may mean placing the monitor on a table instead of on the CPU, or using an adjustable chair or table. Monitor arms, available at most office and computer supply centers, allow the monitor to be easily adjusted.

Monitor size. Typical monitors have a 13- or 14-inch screen, but monitors are available with screens up to 21 inches. Larger monitors increase the size of the viewing area. This can be beneficial when using a screen-enlargement program.

Font size. The font size of labels for applications and documents can be increased using the Views control panel on Macintosh computers or Accessibility Options in Windows 95 or 98. Large fonts make it easier for children with low vision to locate their documents and programs on the desktop.

Screen-enlargement software. Screen-enlargement software performs adjustments such as screen magnification, cursor tracking, inversion of screen colors, split screen viewing, and screen review. Screen navigation is possible through the use of keyboard commands or the mouse. Examples include ZoomText Xtra (Ai Squared) and MAGic (Henter-Joyce) for Windows and inLarge (Alva Access) for the Macintosh.

Braille displays and screen readers. Braille readers can use a refreshable braille display such as PowerBraille (Blazie) on Windows computers to access the screen. A screen reader translates the information on the screen for output to a speech synthesizer for children who can understand speech. Some screen readers include support for braille displays. Window-Eyes (GW-Micro) and Jaws for Windows (Henter-Joyce) are two popular screen readers.


Built-in speakers. Most computers have built-in speakers for sound output. Children who wear hearing aids may be able to hear sounds produced by the built-in speakers if the quality of the speakers is good.

Amplified speakers. Volume and vibration can be increased significantly with the use of amplified speakers. Amplified speakers are sometimes included in computer packages. They are also available from computer stores, computer mail order companies, and some electronics stores. The Interactor Cushion (AURA) is a seat cushion with a built-in amplified speaker that provides outstanding vibrational feedback of music software programs that have a heavy bass component.

FM systems. Children who use an FM Auditory Trainer can use the headphone jack in the computer and FM unit to directly receive sounds in the FM unit.

Educational Software Programs

There are hundreds of educational software programs available that address learning activities such as understanding cause and effect, choice making, language development, reading and writing, math, science, creative thinking, and communication. The selection of software programs for children who are deafblind depends upon each child's cognitive level, educational objectives, and sensory abilities.

Individual software programs can be adapted using some of the input and output methods described above to meet the learning needs of children of a variety of ages and cognitive abilities. Listed below are four different types of software programs along with examples of how each can be modified to meet different needs. Many of these ideas can be applied to other software programs to customize activities for children who are deafblind.

Art/Creativity Software

Kid Pix Studio Deluxe (Broderbund) is a multimedia drawing program. It has a wide array of tools for drawing; making lines, boxes, and circles; stamping graphics; and entering text. This program is appropriate for children as young as preschool age, yet can be fun for teenagers too. The following examples show some of the ways this program can be used.

An initial computer activity for young children. Use with a touch screen as a means of introducing very young children to the computer. The teacher makes color and other drawing selections using the mouse as the child scribbles on the screen with his or her finger to create a picture. As the child becomes familiar with the program, wonderful opportunities arise for encouraging the use of language for activities such as requesting color changes and labeling objects and pictures.

Teaching about cause and effect. One of the drawing tools available is a mixer tool that shakes up the picture on the screen. It can be used with a touch screen or switch to teach cause-and-effect activities to children of any age. Create a random drawing on the screen, select the mixer tool and place the pointer somewhere on the drawing. Each time the child touches the screen or presses the switch, the screen will change according to the mixer setting. Some settings produce a dramatic change, creating a rewarding cause-and-effect activity. There is also an eraser tool with several choices that produce dramatic screen actions.

Mouse or joystick training. Use a trackball or adapted joystick with the button locked down. Select a colorful paintbrush and place the pointer in the drawing area. As the child moves the trackball or joystick, large colorful graphics appear on the screen. Children who can use the mouse learn to "drag" or hold the mouse button down as they move it.

Teaching choice making. Drawing activities can be used as a way to help learn other skills such as with the use of a picture communication system. Give the child picture symbols associated with particular drawing tool functions (e.g., color, shape) or place them on an overlay for an expanded keyboard. The teacher then draws the picture according to the choices made by the child. Some children actually enjoy watching a picture being created more than drawing it themselves.

Interactive Story Books

A number of popular children's books have been transformed into interactive, animated stories on CD-ROM. Examples include The Cat in the Hat, Arthur's Reading Race, Little Monster at School, and Sheila Rae the Brave (Living Books/Broderbund). Although the programs are labeled appropriate for children from Kindergarten through Grade Four, meaningful activities can be created for children of other ages as well, when used with appropriate modifications.

Cause-and-effect activities. Each "page" of the book contains objects and/or characters that animate when the user mouse-clicks on them. Create hot spots for each active area on the screen. Use the scanning option with highlighting turned off to have the hot spots scanned invisibly. Each time the child presses the switch, a different hot spot is activated resulting in a random cause-and-effect activity. Language activities.

Word processing programs that have large print options and speech output include IntelliTalk (IntelliTools) and Write:OutLoud (Don Johnston). Each has options that allow the user to change text, background colors, font size, and voice. In addition to the option of creating cause-and-effect activities using "off-the-shelf" software as described in some of the previous examples, anumber of programs are available that were created specifically to encourage cause-and-effect learning using switch access.

RadSounds (R.J. Cooper). Intended for teenage users, this program has 20 choices of music, ranging from heavy rock and roll to popular songs. Colorful dancers appear on the screen accompanied by music. Amplified speakers or the Interactor Cushion (AURA), which provides feedback through vibration, allow children with limited hearing to enjoy the program.

UKanDu Switches, Too! (Don Johnston) is a series of cause-and-effect programs with large colorful graphics for young children. The programs provide the opportunity for simple sequencing to be addressed in a story format. When the switch is pressed, the story progresses one step until completion. For example, in Mary Wore Her Red Dress (Eensy Friends), the child helps Mary dress by pressing the switch to add dress, socks, shoes, and hat, one at a time.

Switch Basics (SoftTouch) is another single-switch program with large clear graphics. The program contains nine different activities that use sounds, music, photographs, and colorful graphics to address simple switch use, turn-taking and scanning skills.

Press to Play (Don Johnston) is a series of switch-activated programs that progress from simple cause-and-effect activities to beginning scanning skills training. The programs present a single picture cue on a black background with a large colorful graphic reward for each switch activation.

Computers in Our Classrooms was originally published in Workshop Proceedings of the 1997 National Conference on Deafblindness: The Individual in a Changing Society, Washington, DC June 6-9, 1997, Watertown, MA: Hilton Perkins Program.

It has been revised and reprinted in this issue of Deaf-Blind Perspectives with permission. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Teaching Research Division or the U.S. Department of Education.

This article was published in the Deaf-Blind Perspectives - Winter 1999-2000 Volume Seven, Issue Two.

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