What Sesame Street Has to Do with Accessible Technology

Many years ago, just a couple of years after “Sesame Street” began on public television, some researchers associated with PBS were interested in learning whether the show was accomplishing its stated goal; that is, was it providing educational benefit to disadvantaged children or was it just a cute, entertaining program for the preschool set?

The researchers distinguished between two groups of children, the “communication rich” and the “communication poor.” The communication rich were households where the parents emphasized education and gave the children access to lots of educationally-related materials. The communication poor were households where little emphasis was given to education and where there were few educationally-related materials available.

What the researchers learned had implications for more than Sesame Street. They generalized to the introduction of any new communication technology – television, computers, cell phones – it didn’t matter.

The research said that, when a new communication technology is introduced, 1. both the communication rich and the communication poor benefit but 2. the communication rich benefit more and, therefore,
3. the gap between the communication rich and communication poor, barring some special intervention, increases.

Conversations I’ve had with about a half dozen blind and visually-impaired friends in the last week have left me thinking about these axioms, especially the last one. All of these people are struggling with mastering Zoom for their jobs. As one of them said, “My sighted coworkers just don’t understand why I’m having such a hard time learning this.” This isn’t whining.

Think of it this way. In order to learn Zoom, they
1. first need to know how to operate their computer like everyone else.
2. Need to know how to use whatever accessible technology they are using to interact with the computer. This takes at least, and perhaps, more time than to learn the computer in the first place. 3. Learn how to use Zoom like everybody else.
4. Must master the specialized accessible technology that is specific to Zoom. Again, this will take more time and effort than just learning Zoom like their peers. For example, they need to learn how to schedule meetings, invite others to a meeting, post slides, record meetings, set default settings to avoid Zoom bombing, and much more. Because this is for work, it is much more complicated than just visiting with the family. And, once they have done all this, they may have to master other similar software like Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, etc. Generally speaking, it’s much easier to learn new software than it is to learn the assistive technology that goes with it.

Yes, they will benefit from learning this new communication technology, but, unless they are extremely proficient, it’s going to be a challenge to learn it as quickly or as thoroughly as their peers. Consequently, the technology gap will increase – maybe a lot, maybe a little – but they will fall further behind.

As discouraging as this may sound, this is a tale that, I think, has special significance for blind and visually-impaired children. When it comes to their education, they are running a race in which their peers not only have a built-in head-start but are running on the inside lane. Mastering technology, which has become the key to their future education and their probable employment, is vastly more challenging for them. Yet, if they want to be professionally successful in life, they must do it.

This is not to say that it is impossible. This means, and I can’t emphasize this enough, they must work harder and longer than their peers at mastering technology. When I say “technology,” I mean far more than a smart phone. That’s just the beginning.

To get just a general idea of the types of technology high-school and college students need to master in today’s environment, I recently asked a friend who works in the Office of Disability Services at a large university what were the basic things, in her experience, students needed to know. She listed the following off the top-of-her head:
* Be sure there is a clear method for taking notes in class. For most people, this is using speech with a laptop. Even if a student is more comfortable with Braille, unless they are extremely proficient, keyboarding on a laptop is just faster.
* Learn to use the calendar app on your phone, or something similar, so you can keep track of assignments, appointments, due dates, etc. Many students who are new to college are not accustomed to doing this.
* Be as proficient in internet searching as possible. This includes being able to complete forms, etc. Being able to do this is a large part of a student’s success or failure.
* It probably would be a good idea to have some knowledge of Facebook since some group projects and class discussion make use of this.
* Check to see what type of e-mail program the college uses. In her experience, colleges frequently establish one particular e-mail client, such as Outlook or Google, and expect all students to use this, regardless what they may use personally.
* Be sure you are signed up with Bookshare and Learning Ally and know how to use them since they will be a primary source for getting textbooks. Also, practice getting use to listening to them as fast as you can since this will save time and make you more efficient doing your assignments. Believe it or not, this is not nearly as difficult as it might appear at first. * Know Drop Box
* Know how to use the features in Google Docs.
* It’s not essential, but a very good idea, to download and know how to use the Kindle app on your iPhone since this is another way of getting books for your classes, to say nothing of books you can use for doing research and writing papers.
* Be familiar with the campus-wide software system the college uses. This is probably not going to be completely accessible but try to be as knowledgeable as you can. * Perhaps add Excel to this list.

It’s not unlikely that there will be more things to add to this list, depending on what a student plans to study, but these provide some idea of the basics.

If all of this sounds depressing, there is a positive message. You will note that when I described the virtual inevitability of the communication gap increasing, there was a qualifier: barring some special intervention.

The paralysis to the educational system because of the Covid-19 virus provides an opportunity, should a student choose to take advantage of it, to close the technology gap by engaging in some special intervention. That is, take advantage of this time to become more proficient in using adaptive technology.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog (and you are a regular reader, aren’t you?) know what a huge fan I am of Veronica Lewis’s accessible technology blog. To help students become more successful users of adaptive technology, I’m going to repost several of her blogs in the next few days. I hope these will be especially useful for parents, teachers, and students, but even general readers of this blog may find it interesting to see how, if used properly, adaptive technology may be used to actually close the technology gap and make for a much more successful educational experience.

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