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Education: Past, Present and Future

Editor's Note: Antonina Caruana is an AEBC member. She has attended both McGill University and the University of Montreal, and is a licensed social worker.

Many changes have occurred over the last two to three decades for students who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Personal computers, adaptive software, the internet, note-taking devices, and texts available in various formats have all helped to transform the ways in which blind people access course materials, take tests and complete assignments. Along with improved public attitudes towards inclusion, these technological advances have meant that more and more students with vision impairments are being integrated into the regular classroom--from the elementary and high school levels right through university and continuing education classes. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) has also played a part. Since its founding in 1992, the consumer group has advocated for increased braille instruction, timely conversion of textbooks into alternative formats, availability of accessible materials in libraries, and for increased website accessibility. But its advocacy is ongoing, as the education system is still not truly inclusive.

In the mid 1980s, blind students who did not attend segregated schools had to adapt to a “sighted” classroom with whatever support or technology was on hand, as adaptive devices such as talking computers and scanners were not yet available. They read large-print enhancements or braille transcriptions of printed documents, and listened to audiocassette recordings of classes. Texts were read onto tape by volunteers and submitted assignments were typewritten. Exams, on the other hand, were administered orally, or dictated by someone, then transcribed onto paper. Even though such learning methods increased students’ workloads, it was the only way they could be integrated into the regular classroom. At the time, there were no groups like the AEBC to advocate on behalf of blind students.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, when computers with screen readers and scanning software finally made their way into the education system, blind students were using pre-recorded textbooks, available through Recording for the Blind in the United States and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, as well as volunteer readers who would tape otherwise unavailable class materials onto cassette. But both methods could be problematic. Often the pre-recorded textbooks that were available were older editions than those currently being used. In addition, it was not uncommon for there to be too few readers to record materials for each course. When readers could not be found, texts often went unread, putting a student’s ability to keep up with exams and assignments in jeopardy. Also, as the internet had not yet appeared, blind students required research assistants. Research material then had to be brailled or recorded onto cassette before a blind student could access it--this on top of their usual course materials. And, if there was a shortage of texts on cassette, one can only imagine what was available in braille. Braille transcription can be a costly and lengthy process, and many students turned to readers, computers or other devices for their educational needs, though braille devotees usually incorporate the code into their studies somehow.

With the 1990s came screen-reading programs such as VERT, Screen Reader and JAWS, as well as scanning software like Kurzweil and Open Book. Operating systems like Windows also began making an appearance. For braille users, devices like the Braille Mate were much improved. Scanning course materials onto disc so that they could be read with a speech program became an integral part of one’s research and studies. Such technological advances permitted greater independence for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students, and encouraged more to pursue higher learning and complete their post-secondary programs, not to mention entertain career aspirations equal to their sighted peers.

With the advent of the 21st century, advancements in adaptive software and, of course, the rise of the internet, spelled increased independence and success for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students. For example, they were incorporating Power Point into their class presentations, something unheard of just ten years earlier. Emailing notes and assignments became as integral as using a tape recorder or brailler. Using the internet to download one’s own materials, conduct research, and read articles, journals etc. meant that they could independently complete class requirements. Being able to access books online, or through interlibrary loan, no longer meant sifting through hours of printed materials with a research assistant and then having them converted to cassette or braille. Even though computers and software programs have become such an important part of a blind person’s life, both in and out of the classroom, many still often choose to combine both braille and computers in their studies. Once computers became a fundamental part of a student’s education, organizations like the AEBC began advocating for improved website usability, timely access to alternative-format textbooks, and increased financial assistance for students in acquiring adaptive technologies. It also began offering scholarships to post-secondary students in the late 1990s.

Today, blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students are much more easily integrated into the classroom, not to mention prepared for course requirements, than they were just 20 to 30 years ago. Third-party software programs, braille devices, scanners, note takers, reading and recording equipment, and video magnification devices have given people with sight impairments incentives to pursue education at all levels. The World Wide Web, access to internet sites, online courses and the use of interlibrary loans has also given students academic independence for advanced studies and research. Downloading and uploading texts, obtaining books on CD, using the Victor Reader and recordings on the Victor Stream, are a far cry from having to rely on cassettes, out-of-date textbooks, and volunteer readers. From elementary school to continuing education classes, inclusion is slowly becoming a reality.

A far greater number of persons with vision impairments are now in an integrative educational environment than 30 years ago. No longer does print have to be an inevitable hindrance in achieving higher education and career aspirations, as it can now be accessed in many ways. Consumer groups like the AEBC are on stride, but more needs to be done to increase accessibility and then to translate that into true inclusion. In the end, it comes down to one thing: full integration and accessibility are possible if society’s attitudes towards blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people and their abilities can be improved, and if all stakeholders have the willingness to see it through.

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