Writer: Tiffany Whisner, Coles Marketing
It’s time to head back to school! The heat of summer still lingers, but students and their families are buying school supplies, packing backpacks and getting ready for another school year.
The transition from summer to school can be tough — and even more difficult for students with disabilities or special needs. But a variety of assistive technology devices and a strong support system can help make that transition a smooth one.
Reaching Her Full Potential
Donelle Henderlong is the disability services coordinator at Purdue University North Central. And having been born with cerebral palsy, she knows exactly what it takes for students with disabilities to succeed in the classroom.
“My mom had some problems during pregnancy, and I lost a lot of oxygen to the brain,” Henderlong said. “I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was six months old, and while it’s not a progressive disorder, symptoms can get worse without proper usage of muscles.”
Growing up in Valparaiso, Ind., Henderlong got her first power wheelchair when she was four years old. Prior to that, she used a manual push chair. And, unlike what she noted might be the stigma for those with cerebral palsy, she fought to be as mainstream as possible throughout her years in Valparaiso Community Schools.
“I tried to assimilate to all the other students as much as I could,” she said. “In elementary school, it was easier to fit in because the work was more basic, but once I got to middle school, the work started to get harder, so I had an aide in my classes to help me take notes and write for me.”
But Henderlong stayed the course and made it all the way through high school in mainstream classes — many of which were honors classes.
“I remember someone saying to me that, because of my disability, I must have taken special education classes,” she laughed. “Well, I told that person I actually peer tutored students in the special education program.” That’s exactly the positive, independent attitude that took her through graduation at Valparaiso High School in 2008 to her acceptance at Ball State University.
Unfortunately, visual impairment is a common symptom in children with cerebral palsy. According to numerous studies, as many as 75 percent of children with cerebral palsy experience difficulty with their vision.
“The vision issues make tracking very hard,” Henderlong said. “The muscles can get very weak in your eyes, and reading for a long period of time takes a toll on your eyesight.” And as is often the case, college studies bring a lot of reading assignments.
“Prior to college, my vision wasn’t too bad, but it got progressively worse,” she said. “I was reading a lot over and over, and it became more difficult.” The university atmosphere and advancement of technology made a world of difference for her.
“College opened up a lot of doors for me,” she said. “And once I got to Ball State, there was so much more technology I could take advantage of.”
The Kurzweil Education computer programs and software provide literacy support with built-in tools for reading, writing, study skills and test taking.
“The products allowed me to put a book into a PDF format like an e-book, and it reads to you as it highlights the word, like an audio book you can follow along with,” she said. “Plus there’s an app for your iPad.”
Henderlong also used the AlphaSmart keyboard, a lightweight and portable word processor, allowing students to complete and organize written work in up to eight different 10-12 page files. Information can then be sent to the computer for formatting and printing.
“And I love the Smartpen,” she said. “It comes with a special pad, and you can tap the record button on the pad — it will record whoever is talking, and then at the end, you hit stop and can go back to any point and hear what was being said.”
Smartpens capture everything you hear and write so you never miss a word of a lecture or speech. You can capture words, scribbles and diagrams, and it syncs everything to what is said. And in her current job, Henderlong recommends the Smartpen to all her students.
“I can help get students a note taker, but with the Smartpen, it can take notes for you, and you have the entire lecture at your fingertips. My goal is to get the students I work with to be as independent as possible, and this helps them immensely.”
Although she started at Ball State to be an English teacher, she decided along the way what she really wanted was a career in student affairs.
“I liked working in student affairs in the residence halls, and I wondered how I could do something I loved already as my career.” So during her practicum teaching, Henderlong decided to make a switch. She graduated in 2015 with a degree in student affairs administration, and she hasn’t looked back.
“When I was in my undergraduate years at Ball State, I became close with the director of the disability services office, and so when we were required to work out in the field as part of my graduate program, I worked in the Ball State Disability Services office for a few years. It was a great fit for me.”
Shortly after graduation in May, Henderlong secured her current place as the disability services coordinator at Purdue North Central, bringing her close to her Valparaiso home.
“I get to meet with students who need appropriate class accommodations for their disabilities, and I help them get those needs met — whether it’s a note taker, closed captioning or other disability service — and I coordinate with the school to make it happen.”
Dream job? Perhaps. But Henderlong is making sure she makes an impact.
“Many people today are more open to students with disabilities going into higher education, but there is still the generalization we can’t do it. I want all the students I work with to know it’s possible. They may have a disability, but they can go to school and work and do whatever they want to do — to be empowered.”
Be Your Best Advocate
Blind since birth, Preston Radtke has cone rod dystrophy. It’s an ocular disorder characterized by the loss of cone cells, the photoreceptors responsible for both central and color vision.
“Basically, I can see a little bit from the corners of my eyes,” he said. “I can see some colors and shapes as long as there is good contrast, like black on white or yellow on blue. But that still isn’t functional enough to live without a cane or the use of assistive technology devices.”
But 21 years later, he’s functioned pretty well — he’s currently a senior public relations major at Ball State University with a minor in creative writing. Yes, creative writing.
“I’ve always had various accommodations and adaptations in the classroom,” Radtke said. From first through ninth grades, he had most of his materials like tests, homework and handouts all in Braille. Once he got to high school, he started getting all his school materials through email, and his assistive technology devices would read the content to him.
“We did this because having everything turned into Braille probably wasn’t going to be feasible once I got out of public school,” he said.
“In the classroom, I always sat somewhat close to the instructor in case he or she needed to explain something to me more thoroughly. Though I rarely used it, I was always given extra time on exams and on certain projects. Many times teachers would even send me their slides or class notes beforehand so I was able to follow along on the projector.” Other times, alternative assignments were developed.
“Blind students often communicate with their instructors to work out accommodations to meet the student’s needs but still accomplish the end goal of the completed assignment,” Radtke said. “Communication really is the key.”
What is his primary AT device? BrailleNote. It has a Braille keyboard, speech synthesizer and refreshable Braille display.
“It’s a little note taking device with a Braille display that’s really handy for taking quick notes in class,” he said. “It uses the standard Braille keyboard, so there are only nine keys. I really like its mobility. Also, since it has a Braille display, I don’t need to listen to what I am typing — that way I can still hear the instructor.” BrailleNote also has a calculator, media player and planner along with GPS and Internet capabilities.
In addition, Radtke has a laptop with JAWS®, Job Access With Speech, a popular screen reader developed for computer users whose vision loss prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse.
“JAWS verbally reads everything that’s on the screen — I’m using it right now for this interview,” he said. “I don’t use it as often in the classroom though, simply because I want to concentrate on what the teacher is saying.” Like JAWS, VoiceOver on Apple products helps Radtke read necessary content.
“I use an iPhone for everyday tasks like texts, calls and email,” he said. “VoiceOver is very similar to JAWS in that it reads what’s on the screen. With the iPhone, I use certain gestures and finger flicks to navigate the screen. Instead of tapping on an app icon once to open, I tap on it twice. Tapping once will tell me what I’m tapping, and tapping twice will open the app.”
Just five years ago, some of Radtke’s daily tasks wouldn’t have been nearly as easy or accessible.
“When there was no VoiceOver just a few years ago, if you wanted to use a cell phone as a blind student, you had to purchase an approved phone, then contact a third-party company and purchase their specific phone-reading software,” he said. “PDFs used to be impossible to read because JAWS interprets them as pictures. Now if the PDF is text-based, they can be read just fine.”
Mainly, Radtke has noticed improvements in his everyday life that seeing people may take for granted. For example, ATMs now have capabilities allowing plug-in headphones and using a JAWS-like software to help people with disabilities independently navigate the program.
Another recommendation is Eye-Pal®, a computer-connected portable electronic scanner/reader that helps those with low vision to hear text read aloud.
“You place a piece of paper under the camera, and once the picture is taken, you can read it on your computer. That is very helpful for mail,” Radtke said. “Also, there are many accessibility apps for your phone that can identify color, read text and even offer a recipe database. It takes a picture of the bar code on the product and searches a database, then presents you with the price, a recipe and health information.”
Learning to use and become efficient with all this technology has helped Radtke continue to be successful in school. That, and standing up for himself.
“Realize you are your best advocate,” he said. “They can write all the legislation and your school’s disability services can meet with your teachers, but your personal interaction and dedication will leave a lasting impression. Don’t let other people say what kind of accommodations you should have.”
And, no matter what year in school, Radtke gave this advice for students with disabilities.
“Don’t get overwhelmed, and don’t get overly worried about all the accommodations you may need,” he said. “Many blind students come from very sheltered backgrounds with overly worried parents. It’s hard, but you should go out and try new things and meet new people. But don’t let your academics fall behind. Find the balance between your social life and academic life because I firmly believe that if one falters, so will the other. Enjoy being a student, because it won’t happen again.”
A Personal Learning Curve
“I went to the Indiana School for the Blind for seventeen years,” said Alex Gilland, a junior at Ball State majoring in telecommunications and minoring in theatrical studies. “And for many of my early years there, I was considered developmentally delayed and put into ungraded classes.”
“It took me three to four years just to get through preschool, and I started in ungraded classes once I moved to kindergarten,” he said. “A year after kindergarten, I started to be able to recognize and read words in Braille, and math kind of started to make sense. But it all just didn’t come as easy for me. There were so many academically bright people at the School for the Blind, and I had to work my way up the chain in order to stay on track.”
But he did overcome the odds with the motivation of a good friend who mentioned he was fearful of not getting a diploma if they didn’t get into the track for graded classes.
“I thought ‘my gosh, you’re right,’” Gilland said. “I didn’t want to just get a certificate. I wanted to graduate from high school with a diploma and be able to move on to higher education. I knew I needed to put my mind to what I wanted to get accomplished.”
Once he got into middle school, his Teacher of Record had a meeting with the other teachers with the intent of moving Gilland into the graded track. Gilland said he thinks the group reluctantly gave in, knowing what they thought his abilities were and what he could handle.
“You don’t know what you can do until you try,” he said. “It took me longer to grasp the concepts, and it still does to some extent. But I’ve realized you have to be patient with yourself. Whether I could be successful in the graded classes or not, I wanted to give it a try.”
It took him awhile to get his bearings, but Gilland made it happen. And in high school, he made a lot more headway with the improvement in assistive technology.
For many years, he used the Braille ‘n Speak, a small, portable computer that allows the student to write in grade 1 or 2 Braille. Feedback to the student is provided in the form of speech output, and also includes a spell checker, calendar, arithmetic calculator and stopwatch.
“I learned the basics on a laptop computer by the time I got to my junior year in high school,” Gilland said. “I also use JAWS, which I like a lot more than Window-Eyes. Today I use my laptop with JAWS and then a digital voice recorder to take notes so I can go back and listen to the lecture.”
Gilland graduated from the School for the Blind in 2010 but wanted to push himself to learn more before applying to a college or university. So he spent nine months at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, one of the leaders in a handful of new programs stressing self-sufficiency and independence for blind people.
“One of the biggest things for me was before I went to the Louisiana Center for the Blind, a teacher of mine suggested I buy an iPhone, and it was a huge transformation. I never really liked using a computer — but with the iPhone, it’s all right there and just so accessible.”
A self-proclaimed minimalist when it comes to technology, Gilland admitted the iPhone was a game changer for him. From a money reader app to an app that takes a scan of your mail and reads it to you, Gilland said he can live about 90 percent of his day on his phone.
“I gained a lot of knowledge I could build on from the Louisiana Center for the Blind,” he said. “Being born blind, I admit I developed some bad habits when it came to cane travel and adapting to a seeing world. But I had some really good friends who believed in me — so I came to believe in myself.”
When he finally got accepted to Ball State University, Gilland posted the announcement on his Facebook profile and received a surprising response.
“A teacher of mine from the School for the Blind is one of those teachers you want to get approval from,” Gilland said. “She was tough on everyone but she had to be. She expects great things from you, but she is also your biggest supporter. And when I posted I had been accepted to Ball State, she wrote she had a lot of faith in me, and I was going to do just fine in college. And — with her approval and support — I, too, knew I was going to be fine.”
In the fall of 2012, Gilland began his journey as a college student. And he said it helped to get into a routine that worked for him — and each student should do the same.
“Learn to feel your way through what works for you, and don’t overload yourself. You’ll get more out of the college experience if you learn what’s best for you and do the best you can at it.”
The student who started in ungraded classes is now making the Dean’s List — five straight semesters. He is part of the sports department for Ball State’s radio station, WCRD. And he’s just finishing up a summer internship with The Dan Dakich Show on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis.
“I want to do something in sports broadcasting, and this was the perfect opportunity,” he said. “It’s pretty interesting taking some of the calls that come in for the show, and it’s definitely been a rewarding experience. I’ve been able to go to the Colts training camp and learned a lot of different skills to help me in the future.” He plans to graduate in 2017, and then … who knows.
“My best advice is to learn how to do everything the right way the first time around so you don’t get into any bad habits,” Gilland said. “Move at your own pace, and figure out what’s best for you. And a good support system is essential for success — in school and in life. You just have to know you can do whatever you put your mind to.”