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The American Foundation for the Blind 
Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum

From the Results of the National Survey
Conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind
Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum's
Electronic Files and Research and Development Work Group

Dr. Robert Wall, Vanderbilt University, and Mary Ann Siller, AFB

January 2002

More and more schools are adopting textbooks that include multimedia presentations. However, these textbooks are not accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired. To determine the current use of technology in accessing multimedia formats, in the spring of 2000 the AFB Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum conducted a national survey of teachers who instruct students with visual impairments. We were interested in determining the access challenges these teachers face and solutions they are using in the classroom.

The AFB Solutions Forum is a collaborative national effort on the part of textbook publishers; access technology specialists; producers of braille, large print, and audio; parents; educators; and consumers. The AFB Solutions Forum is a project of AFB's National Education Programs.

A wide array of technology currently is used in America's public schools. For students with a perceptual impairment, the range of technology is often increased by the need for alternate information media and the ability to present and access these alternate media. For students with visual impairments, the provision and access of information through braille, large print, and speech can involve many different pieces of technology.

A total of 410 teachers from 44 states and four provinces responded to the survey, which produced the following significant findings.

Demographic features of respondents

  • 93.1% were teacher of students with visual impairments (TVIs)
  • 57.2% were AER members
  • 79.7% were itinerant teachers
  • 15.1% worked in Local Education Authorities (LEAs)
  • 4.9% worked in special schools for the blind
  • 30% of TVIs were the only TVI in their LEA

Most of the teachers surveyed felt more comfortable using general technology than  technology designed specifically for students with visual impairments. From 70 to 90 percent of the respondents felt they had a working knowledge of word processors, closed circuit television, e-mail, and the Internet. Only 50 to 60 percent felt they had a working knowledge of optical devices, braille transcription software, braille note takers, or screen readers.

This response raises questions concerning how much expertise can be expected of a teacher with a given piece of assistive technology and where training in its use is available. More training in general and specialized technology use is needed for both teachers and students.

Patterns of general technology use for blind and low vision students are similar, but low vision students seem to be more facile with a wider range of technologies. More than 80 percent of both groups use some form of word processing and a PC platform on a daily basis. Over 50 percent of both groups access the Internet regularly. About 25 percent of each group uses e-mail regularly. Low vision students use the PC platform as often as blind students, but are more likely to also use the Mac platform. Only 27 percent of blind students use a Mac platform regularly, compared with 48 percent of low vision students. Slightly more low vision students use CD-ROMs regularly (51% compared to 39% for blind students).

Blind and low vision students have very different patterns in the use of access technology. Blind students are more likely to use braille-based systems (over 60 percent use a portable braille note taker, screen reader, or speech synthesizer), while low vision students are more likely to use optical devices or a system that enhances the visual presentation of material (over 60 percent use optical devices, closed circuit television, or screen magnification software). However, a moderate percentage of each group (up to 16 percent for blind students and 11 percent for low vision students) uses technology primarily aimed at the other group. This might reflect students with low vision who read in both print and braille and are classified as being "blind" or "low vision" based on their level of acuity.

General technologies are being used similarly by blind and low vision students whether they are in public schools, in special schools for the blind, or under supervision of itinerant teachers. However, PC computers are used more often in special schools. While teachers in special schools might use PC computers with both groups of students, they tend to use them to access a wider variety of informational venues for blind students than for low vision students.

Blind students are more likely to use braille output devices for computers if they are in a special school. However, low vision students use several pieces of access technology less in all situations than would be expected. This is understandable for braille-based technologies but surprising for screen readers and speech synthesizers, which low vision students would be expected to use. A low vision student is least likely to be using these particular access technologies in the public school classroom.

While a wide range of technologies is used by blind and low vision students to access multimedia presentations, blind students also use verbal description as often as any specific piece of technology. Low vision students are slightly less likely to rely on verbal description. The pattern of technology use by blind and low vision students is similar for various school districts, regardless of whether or not they have adopted texts with multimedia formats. However, the use of most technologies is higher in those districts that have adopted at least one text with a multimedia format. This might reflect school divisions with a more aggressive technology development policy, teachers who use technology more with their students, or states with more funds allocated for technology dissemination and training.

Of the teachers surveyed, 67 percent consider their own lack of knowledge and training one of the greatest obstacles to effective student use of technology. Other obstacles cited include inaccessible content (40 percent) and insufficient time with students (40 percent). Solutions proposed by teachers include more technical training for teachers (39 percent), more funding for software, equipment, and upgrades (37 percent), and reducing the numbers of students in a teacher's caseload (12 percent). To get students in regular education classes more involved, teachers of students with visual impairments suggested more one-on-one instruction, making applicable software such as Zoomtext and JAWS readily available, pre-teaching required computer skills, and engaging the cooperation and enthusiasm of the regular education teacher.

Many ideas were expressed on how to involve students more and increase their effective use of technology. An appropriate starting point would be to determine the specific technological needs and abilities of each student. The total group of teachers surveyed noted that slightly less than one-third of their students to date have received an assistive technology assessment. For 28 percent of the respondents, none of their students had ever had an assistive technology assessment.

The teachers were presented with scenarios that might require the use of multimedia in regular education classes and asked to indicate what modifications would be needed. They tended to rely on one of two technologies, enlarging software (e.g., Zoomtext) or speech software (e.g., JAWS). When faced with a scenario that did not have an obvious access solution, a majority of teachers relied on verbal description. Most suggestions to increase the effective use of technology by students with visual impairments involved increased training for teachers and/or students.

Percentages of teachers making various recommendations

  • 23.8%             local and state in-service or summer training for staff and students
  • 12.9%             hands-on computer training for TVIs
  •   8.8%             training targeted to professionals with statewide responsibilities for VI students
  •   6.7%             more time allocated for training
  •   2.9%             certification standards for TVIs in technology
  • 13.3%             more technology specialists
  • 12.1%             increased funding for computers and equipment
  •   8.4%             increased accessibility of software and websites
  •   7.1%             increase in places to access tech support, e.g., 800 numbers
  •   6.7%             increased number of tech labs
  •   6.7%             curriculum for teaching technology skills

While the availability of training in existing and emerging technologies is paramount at the state and local levels, making informational venues more accessible for students with visual impairments is also important. WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) is one such program that is developing guidelines for making software and multimedia presentations more accessible. However, even with these guidelines, funding sources must be created to channel technology to students so they can readily access the information.

Selected Readings

Rothberg,. M. Wlodkowski, T. (2000). Making Educational Software Accessible:  Design Guidelines Including Math and Science Solutions.  Boston: WGBH/NCAM
Available online at

Selected Resources

American Foundation for the Blind
National Education Programs
260 Treadway Plaza
Dallas, Texas 75235

AFB Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum
Electronic Files and Research and Development Work Group

Complete Analysis of the AFB Solutions Forum Survey of Multimedia Presentations for Students with Visual Impairments 


American Foundation for the Blind
National Literacy Center
100 Peachtree Street, Suite 620
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
FAX:  404-659-6957

The technology component of the AFB National Literacy Center seeks to encourage the use of technology to develop, enhance and maintain literacy skills for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

Center for Applied Special Technology, Inc. (CAST)
39 Cross Street, Suite 201
Peabody, MA 01960
978 531-8555 Telephone
978 538-3110 TTY
FAX:  978 531-0192

Closing the Gap
P.O. Box 668
Henderson, MN 56044


Trace Research and Development Center
5901 Research Park Blvd.
Madison, WI 53719
608-263-3827 and 608-263-5408
FAX:  608-263-8848

WGBH-National Center on Accessible Media (NCAM)
125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134


Upshaw Institute for the Blind
16625 Grand River Avenue
Detroit, MI 48227

In keeping with AFB's mission to achieve equality of access to information for people who are blind or visually impaired, this document is available, upon request, in one or more of the following formats: electronic file.