Category Archives: Disability

Replacing human readers in examinations

We have completed phase 1 of investigating the possibility of replacing human readers in examinations. This involved analysing past exam papers for suitability with text-to-speech applications (i.e. TextHelp).

  • Some subjects are unproblematic for TextHelp.These subjects are Anthrolopogy, Applied Social Studies, Business & Law, Education, English, Philosophy, Politics and Sociology. A couple have minor issues as a result of formatting (e.g tables reading down instead of across).
  • Some are completely unsuitable (e.g. scientific formulae, computer-language syntax, language not English). These subjects are Nua Ghaeilge, Chemistry, German, Electronic Engineering, French, Computer Science, Mathematics, Experimental Physics, Maths Physics and Spanish.

I suggest that with both of these sets of subjects, no further investigation or testing is required. Several subjects show potential and need to be further examined: History, Media Studies, Ancient Classics, Geography, Biology, Finance, Economics and Music. These subjects are ambiguous for several reasons;

  • Some comprises of unproblematic papers and problematic papers (e.g. Music – text-based papers OK, papers with musical notation unsuitable).
  • Some have a mix of text with significant use of mathematical or other symbols within questions (e.g. Economics, Biology).
  • Some have heavy use of Latin words both within questions and as part of other parts of questions (Ancient Classics).

Our next move is to work out what risks are associated with using technology to read the papers? We will need to consult both the departments and student-users on this. For example, if a candidate uses TextHelp to read a question with, say, the symbol for infinity, the software won’t read that symbol correctly. We need to establish whether this is a serious issue for the candidate on two fronts:

1. Exam integrity: Could a misunderstanding occur which would result in a candidate making a avoidable error in the exam. How would it be different if a (non-specialist) human reader was present? (Academic Dept/Exams Office)

2. Effect of SLD/disability. Can we reasonably say that a candidate with an SLD would be aware that he/she would need to pay special attention to items such as these, but yet benefit from the technology with the remaining text in the paper which is unproblematic? Could awareness of the limitations of the software be part of the training they receive from us? Are there issues around exam stress/anxiety that need to be considered? (Yes, I’d imagine)

Interesting times!  As we have a site licence for TextHelp, we need to go with that (and PDFAloud as it helpfully pops itself into Acrobat) until we are able to consider others software combinations.

Ira Socol’s 2009: The Year of Universal Access

We could do away with 90% of “special needs” today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time “this way” would make education work better than “the old way.” Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities.

…we don’t call those wearing eyeglasses “special needs.” […] we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings – not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Ira has a fantastic couple of posts over at SpeEdChange at the moment on Universal Access {part 1 and part 2}. 

In the Disability Office here, our mantra is that we are trying to make ourselves redundant by making the university environment inclusive to all from the outset, effectively making the category of ‘special needs’ redundant.

Ira explains it far better than I could, so the posts are very much worth your time if you are involved at any level in the delivery or consumption of content in education. Staff at NUIM might like to take a look at some of the resources in our staff area or have a look through our links in delicious.

Text-to-speech – to speak?

I am a laryngectomee and cannot speak except with a Servox electronic gizmo. Do you know of any software that will instantaneously convert my keystrokes to spoken word with both reasonable volume and natural tone? Everything I read about text-to-speech seems to be about mobile phone SMS or dyslexia, and local computer stores are useless.
Steve Rowlands 

Necessity is the mother of invention. People do find amazing things to do with technology.


Wheeling in Second Life

A fellow student sent me this clip on youtube this morning. It shows a person with cerebral palsy explaining how she uses Second Life as a way of socialising. In the clip. She goes to a nightclub in SL called Wheelies and meets Simon, the man who started the club.

At the moment in H809, we are looking at the developing research on Second Life. As fledgling researchers, we are to look critically at the material published. Is it from a peer-reviewed publication? Is it adding anything new? What methodologies are being used? What are the theoretical frameworks? And so on.

Much of the little I’ve found so far comes from Computer Science or other technical fields, but a trend is emerging for papers concerning libraries in Second Life. Quite a few libraries have been ‘built’ there and looking at the clip above, it’s not hard to see why. Cheap, ubiquitous technology is facilitating access to resources previously restricted by geography and time.

In Ireland, we have seen a 50% increase in the number of students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia attending university. Many of these learners are tech savvy and quickly take to the tools that we are embedding in the university environment. In fact, at NUIM we expect not to have much dealings with students with milder forms of dyslexia in the future as, through technology and good practice, the environment becomes less hostile.

So, great work has been done to get this far. Persuasion, legislation, reason (and some manipulation and cajoling!) have been used to get educational institutions to take accessibility seriously and to take teaching and learning seriously. The traditional chalk ‘n talk model has its dogged adherents. Maybe they could be persuaded to spend an hour in Wheelies to talk about that?

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day. Head over to Diary of a Goldfish for a round up of posts to mark the day.

1st May: Blogging Against Disablism Day


Logo for Blogging Against Disablism dayBlogging Against Disablism Day will be on 1st May 2008

Blogging Against Disablism Day is an annual event in which disabled and non-disabled bloggers throughout the world unite in the cause of equality. On May 1st, bloggers shall write about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination (disablism, sometimes ableism) and what we might do about it.


Head over to Diary of a Goldfish to learn more.


Where it’s AT?

Students watching a tutor demonstrate a Chemistry experimentLocation, location, location.  I’ll soon have a chance to restructure the location and method of assistive technology delivery on campus and I’m interested in feedback.

At the moment, we have a good-sized Assitive Technology Centre with 12 computers, CCTV, wireless projector, two offices, two small rooms (no natural light, a litle small), several scanners, Inspiration, TextHelp. JAWS, Dragon, Kurzweil 3000 & 1000, ZoomText (all local installations). This is where we give students training and where many students registered with the Disability Office like to work.

Our Library are planning an expansion and a rethink of the services they offer. They want to encourage users to see the library less a place of ‘silent reference’ and more of a collaborative learning space. They already have a small room with two PCs with assistive technology, but I reckon we have an opportunity to be more imaginative.

Next semester we will have TextHelp and Inspiration on every PC across the campus. As these are our most popular applications, I reckon that by mainstreaming their availability, the needs of a lot of students will be taken care of. Students with mild dyslexia for example won’t need to use the current ATC.

So, what shall we do? We still need a space to train all students in the use of assistive technology, whether that be in small groups or individually. We need somewhere to house the less network-friendly applications such as JAWS, and we need a place to develop our production of alternate format media. We also need a space for students to receive learning support in small groups and ideally we’d like to have a space with technology where students can collaborate.

Right now, I think there is an opportunity for the Library to build a small Learning Lab where students can receive training in the use of educational technology (Moodle, how to use electronic research resources, RefWorks, EndNote), general ICT (using Word, internet, file management, ECDL) and maybe the mainstreamed AT titles (Inspiration & TextHelp). We could also have some scanners for students to create their own altformat material (what better place than the library?).

The existing ATC then could be where the heavy-duty assistive technology is located. The Higher Education Authority in Ireland have set targets for us to double our intake of students with sensory disabilities, so I anticipate a greater need for JAWS, ZoomText and Kurzweil 1000. These more-specialist titles could be housed in the existing ATC to facilitate these learners for whom it’s impractical to have to track down free space in the general computer labs and where there is a dedicated AT specialist who can be on hand to quickly troubleshoot and support.

I see the production of altformat as being located in the library too. They are currently engaged in converting material into digital format so they have the tools and the know-how. We can work with them to ensure that the material they are producing meets standards of accessibility and take advantage of their clout as librarians to deals with publishers and copyright issues. They also have superb means of storage and distribution.

I’m interested in any feedback from those of you who may already have gone through this, users of assistive technology or any objective opinion.

Text-to-speech- for free!

My colleague Martha alerted me to the presence of pediaphon, a site which will create an mp3 of a wikipedia entry. The voice is a little annoying, but it could be a useful way to get your hands on some listening material if you are away from the ATC or Assistive Technology Room in the Library.

Another very useful site is Scribd. On this site, you can upload virtually any text and have it converted to a range of different formats for download, storage or sharing. So, you could upload your say in Word format and have it converted to pdf. Or you could upload a PowerPoint presentation and convert it to mp3 for listening in the site or for download.

Norway to switch to open standards

The Norwegian government are to make it mandatory from 2009 for all documents published on their websites to be in open standard formats, reports The Inquirer.

From then, all documents will have to available in HTML, PDF (if layout must be preserved) or ODF (if the document is to be edited by the user e.g. a form). “Everybody should have equal access to public information. From 2009 the citizens will be able to chose which software to use in order to gain access to public information” said IT mister Heidi Grande Røys.

This is a good example of good practice in universal design. By making material available in these open standards, it is less likely that users will be unable to access the information. Similarly, this makes the information more easily accessible to those who use assistive technology such as screenreaders. The Access Office at NUIM strives to make all critical information available in HTML or PDF. We currently use rtf for editable text documents, but we are looking into ODF as a replacement.

Keyboard & Mouse R.I.P.?

Bill Gates Time MagazineBill Gates is predicting that the ‘second digital decade’ will ‘be more focused on connecting people’ and see machines being trained to react as people do as well as ‘natural user interfaces’ responsive to speech and touch. The era of the keyboard and mouse, the ‘first digital decade’, is over, he claimed at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last Sunday.

Whatever you think of the outgoing chairman of Microsoft, he is worth listening to. After all, when he addressed the ICES for the first time in 1994, he made the bold prediction that entertainment would move to being delivered through the home computer. At that time, very few people has a computer in their homes and the Internet was in its infancy.

I was lucky enough to get an iPod Touch for Christmas and I’ve been very impressed by the touchscreen capabilities. So much so, that even now using a keyboard and mouse to navigate the web seems slightly less practical! Bill is on to something.

Read more Gates logs out, predicting new digital era in The Guardian, January 8, 2008.

Hello NUIM

MAP logo

I’m opening the blog up to NUIM-related entries.

The Access Office, where I work as Assistive Technology Advisor, is having a new website developed and one of the features is a blog. The new site will be an interactive respository of information as well as a record of activities involving three main groups; mature students, students with disabilities and students entering through various non-traditional programmes.

The idea is that any blog entries that I tag with ‘NUIM‘ here will appear live on the opening page of the new site. Additionally anything I tag with ‘NUIM” and ‘disability’ should also appear on the relevant section on the site.

OU readers may be interested in some of the entries as I’m all about elearning, social networking as a pedagogical tool, etc etc.

There will probably not be any LOLcats. Pity.