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Promoting Achievement through Technology and INstruction for all Students
Jan
18

That Big Guy at Purdue

Screen-Shot-2023-01-18-at-3.26.21-P_20230118-203012_1 Purdue logo with braille


Walking out of the Y the other day, a stranger held the door for me, and, commenting on my sweatshirt said, “It’s a great year to be a Purdue Boilermaker!”

“I know!” I replied, “you’ve heard about the microrobotics work they’re doing for accessibility then!” She looked at me, her enthusiasm switching to puzzlement, then she walked on in, and I walked to my car, shrugging.

She must have been talking about Dave Schleppenbach, giant in the field of STEM accessibility for the blind, and CEO of Tactile Engineering, right? Because the news coming out of his lab in the Purdue Research Park is what this PATINS specialist for blind and all of my teacher colleagues have been waiting to hear for two decades. He’s like some kind of superstar athlete getting double digits in all the categories. It’s like we’re going to finally have a shot at winning it all!

To give you some reference as to why this feels so monumental, when I started in this field teaching science at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 1996, electronic braille displays were brand new. Essentially, a student who used braille for literacy had an alternative to paper braille–a device that had plastic pins that mechanically popped up and down into the braille code under their fingers. The main limitation, though, was that due to the expense and size of the mechanisms needed for each braille letter, the student could only display 40 cells (letters or spaces) at a time. Usually less than one sentence.

Whole books worth of information (and soon after, access to the whole world through the web) awaited in their device, just like inside their sighted peers’ phones and tablets, but they could only access 40 cells at a time. For sighted folks it would be like 

only being able to read this much of this blog at a time.

Could you imagine taking a comprehension test visually where you had to navigate with a tunnel vision window 40 characters wide seeking a word or answer? Or try to interpret data in a table without being able to see trends instantly? 

Since that time 27 years ago, I’ve attended yearly assistive technology conferences and expos and toured the exhibit halls looking for the breakthrough in science and technology that would allow braille readers to have a full page display that cost less than a million dollars.

Promising players would appear–usually a PhD candidate who won an award for an innovative idea for haptics or air-based braille puffs. They would slam dunk their presentation and my hopes would rebound. I would get excited cheering the team on, but the person must have headed on to a more lucrative contract in a more lucrative industry, like some college basketball star heading to the NBA. Ugh. Their ideas never materialized into a device.

Little did I know, Dave and his colleagues at his company have been quietly plugging away at this problem for the past decade, producing lab equipment for the blind along the way.

They even dared to dream of a device that not only produced a full page of braille, but one that could instantly produce tactile graphics with animation. Animation? You mean the students I’m working with will be able to access games too? Time to buy that Dave Schleppenbach poster to hang on my office wall! 

The key was finding teammates in microrobotics engineering who could develop the tiny robots to build many tiny mechanisms for the braille cells. Does this sound like magic to me? Yes. Do I understand it with any depth? No. Did I just stand up and belt out the Purdue fight song for all the unsung Purdue engineer "heroes and their victories?" Yes, yes I did sing "all hail!". 

Not only will this be a game changer for students in Indiana, it will also create new jobs for Hoosiers who will control all the microrobots to make all the devices for blind folks throughout the world. The excitement must be contagious as I’ve seen so many Purdue hats, shirts, and social media posts in the last few months.

Most importantly, it will open up doors of access and independence for students with blindness who would like to pursue a career in STEM--or just be able to see a whole page of text at once! I’ll be celebrating this victory for a long time. 


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Oct
21

New, not Normal

20220128-175602IMG_1679

I stopped knitting in March of 2020. It was a small thing that happened amidst some big things. There was this new thing called a pandemic. We were all blinking like Dorothy staring out into Munchkin Land. My daughter and her family moved in with us. We had a toddler in the house and a daily wifi supply that needed to be stretched between two high schoolers, one grad-schooler, and 3 adults with full time jobs. So the knitting got shoved into a cupboard because we had to figure out grocery pick up and all the Zoom features.

Then time became blurry. The initial event felt a little thrilling like being stuck at home during the blizzard of ‘78. Then came the slump of daily reality. We stopped making homemade bread and added routines for checking the numbers in our county and the emails for school status. We’d pause while ordering another box of masks on Amazon and ask, “are we in Season 2 of the pandemic or have we moved on to Season 3?” 

In my work with PATINS and supporting teachers for the blind the pandemic has caused me to view my stakeholders in a new way. I had always known that the 140 or so itinerant teachers for the blind in Indiana struggle with feelings of isolation. When your caseload is spread over several districts or counties and you’re also educating staff about a low incidence disability, isolation comes without “unprecedented times”.  

Now they were being called to work in isolation from their students, and find ways to teach tactile skills remotely over a visual medium. They kept going, and they kept calling asking for ideas. We established some online professional learning communities to share obstacles and ways to overcome them. New strong bonds forged between teachers and families. Many who were hesitant to learn new assistive technology for braille were now forced to get a crash course, and finding they could stare down their fear of the blinking braille curser.

Many teachers and districts were forced to look at the accessibility of their online content. They worked to learn how to post and curate higher quality lessons and materials. The daily showing up to do the next impossible thing has generated better methods for future education. 

I’m trying to restart knitting. The weather is turning cooler, and life is feeling cautiously calmer. I have mastered the grocery order, which I will stick with post COVID. It saves time, I waste less food, and I’ve learned that it is much easier to leave the M&M’s out of my virtual cart than out of a real one.  I can make it to the Zoom meeting like a champion, putting on my earrings and lip gloss 2 minutes before it starts. 

I’m not sure why I’m restarting now. The daily showing up doesn’t feel much different, and I can’t say that I feel like the crisis is over. I’m hearing the phrase “new normal” lately like we used “unprecedented times” in the spring of 2020. “Normal” isn’t a real thing, right? But I can see glimpses of “new” on the daily, and will continue to look for them. 

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Jan
19

A Girl, a Frog, and Accessibility

20220120-004655frog-dissection-and-iPad-Pro A student with blue plastic gloves completes a frog dissection using an iPad to enlarge her view of the task.

Once upon a time there was a girl in middle school. She was like every other middle school girl, in that she wanted to succeed in school. She was also like every other middle school girl who wants to be noticed but is painfully averse to being singled out. 

Her inner heart cried out, “Look at me!” and “Everyone is staring at me!” at the same time. 

This fairy tale intro is one that I’ve heard throughout my years as both a PATINS specialist and a teacher for the blind before that. Adolescence is hard. Needing to use large print books that don’t fit in a backpack and using a magnifying device to see the board makes it harder. 

Most of the students I’ve worked with have been able to move past the “everyone is watching me” mindset. Once I got a teen girl to use her magnifier because she had a cute student teacher and she could see him in hunky detail with it. Another teen girl used the technology for some mean girl antics, inviting a peer to her desk and zooming in on other peers to make fun of them. This made me cry, not because she misbehaved, but because it was so normal. When you have a disability, feeling normal can be a luxury.

The advent of one to one devices and built in accessibility has been a game changer for all folks with low vision, and especially for the teenage folks feeling all the feels. Now students are able to get digital texts delivered to their devices through the Indiana Center for Accessible Materials (ICAM) and facilitated by their district’s Digital Rights Manager (DRM). And whatever is projected onto the board at the front of the room can be sent electronically to the student’s device. 

All of the platforms continue to race like a fairy tale hero on horseback to outdo each other with built in accessibility features like enlarged/bold format, enlarged mouse/cursor, special color filters for folks with color blindness, and many ways to have text converted to speech with more and more human-sounding voices

I received the cover photo for this blog from one of our stakeholders of an 8th grade girl using an iPad Pro clamped in a stand to enlarge her frog dissection in science class. She wrote, “In observing her during the frog dissection lab it was evident that her confidence and efficiency with the task grew using the tablet clamped to her lab table.” She went on to describe how the student took the lead in the dissection where before she would have been dependent on the partner to report observations. 

This also made me cry because 

  1. A CONFIDENT adolescent is more beautiful than any Disney Princess. 
  2. When I was a science teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind from 1996 - 2000 all we could do was buy the extra jumbo frogs from Carolina Biological Supply. 

This student and many others are benefitting tremendously from new technology. Here’s to their continued success and just the right amount of getting in trouble so that they can live happily ever after. 

Masked female student looking at a frog dissection through an iPad Pro


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Jan
20

Helen Keller in Color


Color photo of Helen Keller as an elderly woman. It is a head shot and her gray hair is pinned back with some waves in the front. She is wearing a white buttoned up shirt and pearl earrings, and she is looking into the camera and smiling
I am not a TikTok user. I did try to learn a dance during the early days of Covid as a way to get my family to exercise. I’ll spare you the video, but share that the teens in my house burned a bunch of calories by laughing. 

One of those teens recently shared a lie that’s been propagated on TikTok and other social media at my dinner table: “Hey, you work with people who are blind. Did you know that Helen Keller was fake?” I barely choked down whatever I was chewing along with my anger and confusion. Then, while (mostly) calmly addressing this with my foster daughter, I took the opportunity to cover truth, verification, and empathy.   

After our conversation, I did some research and found out the falsehood  originally started as a “joke”, and bloomed into full blown conspiracy theories. These theories center around the ableist notion that Helen Keller couldn’t have accomplished all that she had in her life, because of her disabilities. At their worst, they deny Keller’s existence altogether. 

With respect to all 15 year olds, I do admire healthy skepticism. In researching this blog, I discovered that Keller herself was among a minority that believed that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. While she did publish 12 books in her life, her manuscript about this topic was rejected as the fake news of her day. This astounded me as I’d always thought of Helen Keller as enlightened in every way, but she latched onto a trendy outlying academic group that saw “coded” text within the plays as a pointer to a different author. It also humbles me to challenge myself to root out any big lies I might be buying into because of my biases. 

The Niagra Falls of information flowing over our brains from the internet daily is overwhelming. We are finding for Gen Z what that deluge is doing to a generation of children expected to learn, but addicted to the consumption of screen time. This clearly mandates teaching about media consumption, and giving resources to students for finding and verifying information

This particular instance also mandates the difficult work to overcome ableism. At the heart of my foster daughter’s rejection of historical facts was her disbelief that someone having experiences so far from her sensory experiences could learn anything. I told her about my 2 summers of training as an orientation and mobility specialist under a blindfold. My brain was forced to do some very different things, but my brain was still my brain and also did the things it always does when it is learning. Here are some ways to discover your own ableism and work towards understanding differences. 

We will be listening as a family to Helen Keller’s autobiography to hear it from the source. I also told my foster daughter about some of the folks with deaf blindness whom I’ve met and taught, and about others I’ve followed on Twitter. Haben Girma just published her story of being the first person with deaf blindness to graduate from Harvard Law School. She uses braille technology to access communication, literacy, and her employment. I wonder if she has a TikTok account?

Haben Girma, a woman with light brown skin looks into the distance. Her dark hair is pulled back and she is wearing small gold earrings.
I hope that by connecting to their stories my family and others would see and respect their differences, and know their humanity is not a hoax. 


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