ATU208 – Animal Watch VI (Math App for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired), Robot Sighted Guides in Train Stations, Web Accessibility and Cognitive Disabilities, Making Your Home More Wheelchair Accessible


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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show notes:

Animal Watch – Math for students who are blind or visually impaired –

Infographic: Making Your Home Wheelchair Accessible

Enhancing web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities

Transit Guide-Bots for Blind Passengers?

App: Sticky – beautiful notes for iPads


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——-transcript follows ——

>> Hi, this is Dr. Penny Rosenblum, Project Director of the Animal Watch VI Suite project at the University of Arizona, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.


>> WADE WINGLER:  Hi, this is Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project and Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana with your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up‑to‑date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Welcome to Episode No. 208 of Assistive Technology Update.  It’s scheduled to be released on May 22nd of 2015.  I’m super excited for my interview today.  We’re going to talk with the creators of Animal Watch VI, which is a math app that’s designed to help students who are blind or visually impaired; a story about robots to help people navigate transit systems like traini stations; and also, an app from Bridging Apps like Sticky, beautiful notes for iPads.  We hope you’ll check out our website at, give us some feedback on our listener line at (317) 721‑7124 or shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATA Project.

I kind of get a kick out of infographics.  Maybe it doesn’t make the most sense to talk about an infographic on an audio program, but there’s a really cool one.  I found this from one of the Resna listserves about making your home wheelchair accessible.  And the infographic was created by Smart Chair.

But it’s got a really cool picture of an upper story, a main floor and a basement home; and it talks about the garage and the kitchen and the bedroom, the internal part of the home and the exterior of the home.  And then throughout this graphic, it’s got little balloons with numbers on them.  And each one of those balloons talks about a tip for making that particular area of the home more accessible to somebody who might use a wheelchair.

So, for example, in the bedroom, they’ve got a phone or an alert system kind of positioned near the bed.  They have an overhang lift or a manual trapeze for getting in and out of the bed.  In the bathroom, there’s all kinds of stuff like having a phone available in case you fall, a bathtub lift, a commode lift, having grab bars next to the toilet.  In the kitchen, it talks about having your countertops and cabinets at an accessible height.  It talks about door widths and table heights and that kind of stuff.  And then after the graphic of the home, it gives you some general overall tips that fall into the categories of making sure you have clear pathways, adequate lighting and communication and security systems throughout your house so that you can get help when you need it.

So, anyway, maybe shame on me for talking about an infographic on an audio program, but it really is cool.  So I’m going to pop a link in the show notes.  It will take you over to Medical Design Technology’s website and you can see this really cool infographic.

We live in a world where Internet access and accessible Internet access is critically important for folks.  And when we think about the issue of website accessibility, I think a lot of us spend a lot of time thinking about putting alt tags on images and doing things that make screen readers work better on websites.

One of the things I think ‑‑ and I am guilty of this, too ‑‑ is we forget about how to make websites more accessible for people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities.

Well, an effort for increasing access for folks in that category is the fact that the WWWC, or the World Wide Web Consortium, has recently added a new member named John Rockford.  He is with the University of Massachusetts.  He works at the Eunice Kennedy Schriver Center and has spent a great deal of his career working on making websites more accessible for people who have cognitive disabilities.

Some of the things that he’s talked about is the fact that sometimes security and privacy technologies block access and prevent people with cognitive disabilities from doing things like buying goods or signing up for services.

He also talks about the fact that people in that category have challenges with attention and executive function, knowledge, language, literacy, memory, perception and reasoning.  And so he’s talking about there are a lot of things that can be done to make the websites more accessible for people who have intellectual or cognitive disabilities.  Some of the examples are making connect available by video or text‑to‑speech, writing at a fourth to sixth grade level, and trying to stay away from things like jargon and metaphors.

And the article here points out that not only is that good for folks with cognitive disabilities, but it’s kind of good for everybody, especially people who might have English as a second language or people who are deaf or hard‑of‑hearing.

So, very interesting.  And kudos to the WWWC for bringing on John Roquefort here.  And I’m going to pop a link in the show notes.  It goes over to the University of Massachusetts medical school website, and it kind of talks about John and this initiative and some of these tips for making websites accessible for people who have cognitive disabilities.  Check our show notes.

If you’ve listened to this show very often, you know I’m always a sucker for a robot story.  So I was so excited when I found a headline that reads, “Transit guide bots for blind passengers.”  So this is a story that I found at, and it’s talking about some projects where they’re trying to create robots that will basically work in areas of public transit.

And the idea is that when a blind person is traveling on a subway or a train or whatever, they get out; if it’s not an area they’re familiar with, they might need some help with orientation and mobility.

So the idea here is that you could create a robot who might be able to help ask:  “Where are you going?”  And then actually go with you and help you find that place.  Aaron Steinfeld is a professor over at Carnegie Mellon, the robotics institute there in Pittsburgh, and they are working on this project.

Now, some similar things are already happening.  There’s a lot going on with Beacon.  We’ve had some guests on the show talking about that before.  And a beacon works in a situation where you have these little electronic things on the wall or on various objects around the train station or the subway station emitting a location signal.  And then you would use a smartphone with assistive technology to figure out:  Are you near a restaurant?  Are you coming up near a restroom?  Or are you getting close to the baggage claim or those kind of things in an airport?  And those things already exist in parts of the London Underground as well as the San Francisco airport.

So the beacons are kind of getting out there and being used well with smart phones.  But that kind of requires that you have a smartphone.  And most folks probably do.  But it also requires that you understand how to use an app.

And the idea with this new idea is that a guide bot would be there and rely on speech input and speech output and basically be able to say things like “I’m here to help you find something.  How can I help?”  And then go with you or walk with you and provide assistance in getting there.

So it’s a very interesting concept.  This article is pretty cool because it talks not only about the guide bots but also includes a link to a video about these beacons and how they’re being used.  I think it’s a nice futuristic article talking about how technology might help people who are blind or visually impaired deal with this issue of navigating public transit, especially in an unfamiliar situation.  So I will pop a link in the show notes about the article and you can read more about how a robot might help you get around.

Each week, one of our partners tells us what’s happening in the ever changing world of apps.  So here’s an app worth mentioning.

>> This is Amy Barry with Bridging Apps.  And this is an app worth mentioning.  This week’s app is called Sticky, Beautiful Notebooks for iPad and iPhone.  Sticky, Beautiful Notebooks, is a simple app with a clean interface that helps users of all ages and abilities create sticky notes.

The app is easy to use and ideal for keeping notes, ideas and memories in an organized manner.  Sticky notes allows users to create pages with text and images, customized thoughts, ideas and to do’s with different colors, sizes and layouts.

This app is great for users who struggle with memory and organization.  The free version only allows the creation of two Sticky notes.

The app works like many IOS apps.  Begin by tapping the plus button to create a note.  The note starts with a gray linen background.  If the user does not like the note color, they hold their finger down and tap the icon to change the background.  In the free version, users are given 11 choices of colors and textures.

Next, double tap the screen and the user is presented four icons.  They can add a note, add a picture, add a web clip, or take a picture.  The Sticky app has become popular with Bridging Apps students.  They like its simplicity, use as an organizational tool and for reminders.

This app allows users to add visuals and words without too much clutter.  Some of the features we like are that it helps with organizational needs, benefits both working memory and visual skills, color coding and adding pictures helps increase executive functioning skills.

Sticky Beautiful Notebooks for iPad and iPhone is free in the IOS store or upgrade to the full version for $4.99.

This app is compatible with IOS devices.  For more information on this app and others like it, visit

>> WADE WINGLER:  There’s always kinds of apps when it comes to assistive technology and we talk about them on the show and I see them.  But every once in a while one kind of really grabs my attention; it jumps out as something a little bit different and kind of unique.

So I recently saw some information about an app called Animal Watch VI Suite, and it talked about working with kids who are blind or visually impaired and dealing with kind of numerical and technical information.  And I got excited about that.

So I reached out to the folks over at University of Arizona and was put in touch with Dr. Penny Rosenblum who is a professor of practice in the Department of Disability and Psycho Educational Studies over there at the University of Arizona, and she is joining me online today.

Dr. Rosenblum, are you still there?

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  I sure am.  Thank you so much for having me on the show.

>> WADE WINGLER:  You’re welcome.  And thank you for carving time out of your afternoon to spend some time with us talking about this kind of cool thing, Animal Watch VI Suite.  But before we get into that specific stuff, help me paint a little bit of the background picture about you and your work and how you became interested in the education of kids who are blind or visually impaired.

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Well, Wade, myself, I happen to have a visual impairment; and as a child, math was always a struggle for me.  I went on to become a teacher of visually impaired students.  And most of the students I worked with were multiply impaired, but the students who I met who were more academic students, which is our target audience for our materials, oftentimes ‑‑ not always ‑‑ but oftentimes found math to be a little difficult, especially because of the visual nature of math.

I went on to become a teacher trainer, so I’m at the University of Arizona where I prepare teachers of students with visual impairments.  We’re one about 30 programs in the country who does this.

And about seven years ago, my colleague, Dr. Jane Aaron and got an opportunity to meet Dr. Carol Beal, who is a cognitive psychologist.  And back in the early 90s, Dr. Beal started Animal World.  It was a stand‑alone computer program, free Internet.  Can we imagine that?  To help girls build their math word problem solving skills.  Because traditionally fewer girls go into the STEM fields; that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math for girls and boys.

And so Dr. Beal wanted to help those girls.  And through several grants she got through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, she developed this concept of Animal Watch, which takes authentic science data about endangered species and builds units that involve information about the animal and word problems about the animal with the idea of helping students through scaffolding, if they don’t know how to solve the problem, learn how to solve the problem so that they can solve these problems successfully.

And the work targets students in the fifth, sixth, seventh grade arena.  That’s the pre‑algebra group of students.  Because what we know from the literature is if a student is not successful in Algebra 1, which is typically an eighth and ninth grade course, that student is going to be much more likely to go into a STEM field.

And students with visual impairments, like other students with disabilities, are underrepresented in the STEM field.  So we want to get those students ready for algebra so they can be successful and hopefully get interested if it’s in their interest area in a STEM field.

>> WADE WINGLER:  So you’re talking about this, all of a sudden it’s hitting home to me a little bit.  Although I don’t have a visual impairment, I was and kind of continue to be one of those kids who struggle with math and was a little but intimidated about math.  But I totally dig animals.  Tell me a little bit about that animal content and how that kind of figures into this project.

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Well, you really hit the nail on the head there, Wade, because many of our students do like animals.  Dr. Beal initially started out with marine life because when she developed this, she was in Massachusetts.

But our sample unit, that helps the students get oriented to the app and the accompanying materials, is the giant panda.  Who doesn’t love a giant panda?  Come on, give me a break.

But our other animals are a range of animals.  We have the cheetah.  A cheetah runs really fast.  Some of the boys really like learning those facts about the cheetah.  Not to be gender‑biased here.  We have the hippo, we have the black rhino, the honey bee.  Lots of different animals with authentic data about those animals that do engage the students in science.

And as I’m finishing up our national intervention study, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, that is the grant we’re currently completing, I am getting to talk to the students.  I’ve talked to over 40 students around the country with visual impairments who have used the app, and several of them have commented to me about how much they like learning about the animals and they really like one of the features in the app, which is our Animals That Make Sounds.  Not all of our animals ‑‑ the Burmese python and the honey bee don’t really make a sound.  So it says “sorry, this animal doesn’t make a sound.”

But let me you, what you think a giant panda sounds like and what it really sounds like in our app are two different things.

>> WADE WINGLER:  Oh, really?  That’s fascinating.  So I want to come back to the issue of STEM and how kids who are blind or visually impaired are underrepresented in that area.

And I know that when you deal with more complex math and science, and even some of the basic stuff, a lot of that information is represented graphically and spatially.  How does the Animal Watch VI Suite kind of pull together all of that stuff and deal with the graphical nature of the data?

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  You know, that’s a great question.  Because when you are taking higher‑level math classes ‑‑ and even little kids now in second and third grade, they are starting to do graphing:  How many boys in the class and how many girls in the class.  And they are learning how to make little simple bar charts in second grade.

This is tough for a student who is blind.  How are we going to represent that information so they get the gestalt of the whole graph?  They can put their finger on one bar, but they’re not seeing the three or four or five bars on the graph or the whole layout of Europe and where a certain country might be and its size in comparison to the other countries.

So visually represented information in bar charts, in graphs, in line graphs, in pie charts is tough for students with visual impairments.  And even our students with low vision because sometimes we think well that child has some vision, so they can get up close and they can look.  Or they can use a optical aid like a magnifier to look, but they may not be getting all the pieces.  They may not see that stuff on the right side because that’s their weaker eye.

So what we’ve done to help the students have the opportunity to use graphical information to solve the problems is each math unit has six problems.  And two of those problems you have to go to the bar graph, the line graph, the circle graph, the map to get the information to be able to actually do the computation and the word problem.

One thing we’ve done is we’ve provided audio description of the graphic.  We don’t tell you what numbers are in it.  But we say something like “The Pie Chart Titled ‘Number of Frogs in Central America’ has five wedges.  Each wedge is labeled with the name of a frog and shows the percentage of frogs in that country”  or some type of audio description like that that helps the student orient to the graphic.

And our students love, love, love our graphics.  Many of them are saying hey, how can I get these graphics in my math book?  They’re made by a company called Tactile Vision out of Toronto, Canada.

>> WADE WINGLER:  Well, so you’ve hit on this a little bit, but I want to drive the point home a little bit more.  Tell me a little bit how this instruction was done in the past and how is it different with Animal Watch VI?

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Well, our instruction differs from what we call “the traditional method,” whether the students see the material in print, whatever size, whatever contrast they might need, or they’re seeing the information in Braille.

Because they can access it through the app, we have built‑in audio.  So if the student is already a proficient Voiceover user, the app works with Voiceover; but many of our low vision students aren’t Voiceover users, so they can use our unique two‑finger single tap, which will activate the audio.

We have high contrasts.  They can pick a different background and color.  So we give them access so visually they’re not struggling if they’re a visual person.

And then we have for each math problem two hints and a solution video.  So the student goes in and is solving a math problem, gets the wrong answer.  And if you do that in paper, you turn it in to the teacher, it could be days before you find out you got the wrong answer and there may not be time to show you how to get the right answer.

So what happens with our app is if you get the wrong answer, Hint 1 becomes available, and it might talk to you about what type of computation you need in this specific problem.

This is saying ‑‑ I’m having trouble coming up with an example off the top of my head, Wade.  But we’re talking about the math computation you need.  “This problem involves division.” Or “this problem involves finding the common denominator of two fractions.”

So for some students, that’s all they need.  Oh, yeah, that’s what I need to do.  They try a second time.  They get it wrong.  Hint 2 becomes available.

Hint 2 helps you find the numbers.  So in this problem, you need to multiply 60 miles times the number of cheetahs, which is 5, to find out how many miles all the cheetahs ran together, let’s say.  Our problems are more complex than that, but just as an example.  And that way the student, hopefully, then, can do the computation and get it.

If they still get it wrong, they can watch a solution video where it will actually walk them through the steps of that multiplication problem so that they can then take that information and apply it to the next problem that they do.

>> WADE WINGLER:  That’s invigorating.  I mean it sounds like cool information being presented in a way that really does make sense.

Talk to me a little about the outcomes.  Is it working?  Is it effective?  And how do we know?

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Well, we’re doing a national intervention study again funded through  the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.  This is a three‑year project that Dr. Beal and an Dr. Aaron received, and I’m the Project Director for.

And in our first year, we developed the app.  And we went around Arizona and we got students with visual impairments to help us in designing the app.

The second year we tried the app, which was last spring, with 29 students in Arizona.  Again refined the app based on their feedback.

This year we’re doing a national study.  We should have about 50 students who will finish.  It’s always hard to make sure all our students get all their sessions in, and the school year’s winding down for some folks.  But we have 46 students who have finished.

And what those students have done is after they’ve done the training unit, they’ve had eight math units to do.  And four of those units they did with the app and four of those units they did in their traditional reading medium, whether that was print or Braille.  And we alternated.

So, Wade, you might have started your first unit with the app so your first, third, fifth and seventh unit were with the app.  And my units, I might have started those same units with paper, so my first, third, fifth and seventh unit were done, let’s say, in Braille from a Braille reader.

And we’re just getting all the data in where we’re going to be able to graph and see if students got more problems correct with the app versus their traditional paper.

We’ve made up a few graphs for a few of our students who finished earlier on as I’ve been doing some national presentations on our project.  And so far for some of the students, you definitely can look at those single‑subject graphs and see a difference.  Some of our students it’s about the same.

But we’re delving further in, because we’ve asked the teachers to tell us how much support they provide to the students.  We actually designed a little iPhone app for the teachers to take data on how much support they were providing the students.  So we might need to see if students are helping students more when they’re using the app versus paper or vice versa.

I can tell you with the followup interviews I’m doing with teachers and students around the country that almost every student likes using the app because they like the features, especially the hints and the fact that it tells you if you get it right or wrong.  And our really cool, built‑in scratch pad is a big plus for the students with low vision.

And I have gotten a lot of feedback on the psychosocial aspects of using this app for students and how several of our students have become more engaged in their mainstream math class as a result of their participation in this study.

>> WADE WINGLER:  And so when we say this was a success, a few years down the road, what will the impact on this project be on STEM for kids who are blind or visually impaired?

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Well, I think the impact is going to be twofold.  We’re very pleased that the American Printing House for the Blind,, is working with us to disseminate the materials that we’ve developed.

So a lot of times when university folks do research, when the grant ends, when the funding ends, the product goes away.  But in our case, we have the American Printing House for the Blind that will make this a product.

And for my Braille friends out there, the plan is for it to be both available in Nemeth code and Unified English Braille code.  We’re making a transition in Braille codes here in the country, but that’s for another discussion day.  So APH will produce the materials in both codes.

And so students will be able to continue to use this.  Other teachers down the line will be able to use this.  So we hope that we’ll be able to continue to engage students in learning about math and science, at the same time providing remediation for students who are struggling with some of these math concepts, that students will be able to continue to build their tactile graphic reading skills through using the app or their visual reading skills if they have low vision, and that more students of teachers of students with visual impairments will have a tool in their repertoire to share with the math teacher, as well.  And hopefully we’ll see more success with our students gaining the skills they need to be successful in algebra so, therefore, more STEM fields are available to them.

>> WADE WINGLER:  Excellent.  We’re getting a little close on time here; but before we wrap up, tell me a little about the app itself.  Availability, cost, platforms, that kind of stuff.

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Sure.  This is an iPad app.  And I want to caution listeners.  Please, if you go into the app store and you type in “Animal Watch,” you will not ‑‑ N‑O‑T ‑‑ not be getting this app.  There is an app in the app store that was developed by a student of the University of Arizona, but it is not the app for this product.

Currently, this product is not available.  But as I said, the American Printing House for the Blind is going to be disseminating it.  We do not have a product release date.  I’d encourage listeners to check the website or our website which is awvis ‑‑ as in Animal Watch VI Suite ‑‑ for updates.

When the product becomes available,  the app will be in the app store as a download.  I do not know if there will be a cost.  We’re still, again, in the beginning stages with APH.

And then the booklets that accompany the app that have the graphics for low vision students and the Braille of the text and the graphics, tactile graphics for blind students, will be available from APH.

And if you’re in the field of visual impairment and you understand the Federal Quota System, this will be on quota.  Otherwise, if you’re not tied in with the federal quota program at APH, it will be available for purchase.  And I do not have a price.

>> WADE WINGLER:  Dr. Penny Rosenblum is a professor at the University of Arizona and has spent some time with us today talking about Animal Watch VI Suite.  Dr. Rosenblum, thank you so much for being with us today.

>> DR. PENNY ROSENBLUM:  Thank you so much, Wade.  It was a pleasure.

>> WADE WINGLER:  Do you have a question about assistive technology?  Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update?  Call our listener line at (317) 721‑7124.  Shoot us a note on Twitter at @INDATA Project or check us out on Facebook.

Looking for show notes from today’s show?  Head on over to  Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel.  Find other shows like this plus much more at

That was your Assistive Technology Update.  I’m Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project and Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana.