As tech giants focus on accessibility tools, the equation changes for education

The biggest technology companies — think Apple, Google and Microsoft — include language accessibility tools in their vast array of products, and those features are available to pretty much any user. And the companies have been actively improving those tools in recent years. Each of the tech giants has a group that promotes accessibility, said Luis Perez, technical assistance specialist at the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials, who himself has a visual disability.

“There’s a series of tutorials by Microsoft, really nice, that placed accessibility within the classroom. I’ve been using their Learning Tools quite a bit — it’s great to have them so integrated into their [software] … Being able to go in and customize is really important to me,” said Perez, who is also president of the Inclusive Learning Network from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Adding assistive technology — anything designed to make classroom learning more accessible to students with any of a wide range of disabilities — inevitably used to mean extra costs, as schools needed to buy additional hardware or software to meet specific needs. Many districts still wrestle with such acquisitions, for sure. As the big tech companies have expanded their cloud-based software products, though, it has become easier for IT departments to share a solution anywhere that a user is logged on.

“From a district point of view, you’re trying to be as systemic as you can — you don’t want one-offs,” Knopp said. “We have been trying to avoid Teacher A using product A, Teacher B using product B … We do occasionally have a student whose needs are so unique [that a unique solution is needed], but when it comes to the majority of assistive tech, the goal is to make it universal.”

When Knopp’s office of technology first started looking at how to lower the overall per-student cost of technology by moving to software hosted in the cloud and purchasing less expensive devices, most assistive tools were installed on desktop computers. As the district was having a conversation about the challenge of needing dedicated desktop computers for assistive technology, “Microsoft really put a concentrated effort on their accessibility tools,” he said.

“Products we used to buy as a third-party [package] and install on the desktop now come in Windows 365,” he said. “We don’t have the cost of installing it, the manpower, the training. … It really makes it a learning-rich environment for these kids who have extra needs.” Knopp added that teachers don’t have to worry about whether the kids have internet access at home; as long as they have their school-issued device, they have the tools built in.

“The tools I hear the most stories about, the ones that bring tears to your eyes, are … the learning tools,” Knopp said. “Text-to-speech readers, some of the word prediction, and the learning tools that scan in a document [using] optical character recognition, the ones that change the screen background for kids with epilepsy or [a condition] who may need special assistance with colors … Those are all built in.”

The tech companies have worked hard to address teacher awareness and education. Apple and Google offer similar learning accessibility tools to those created by Microsoft. Google, for instance, just released a range of new and expanded tools for teachers in its Teacher Center. But in this area, Microsoft again gets the most effusive praise from accessibility experts.

“Microsoft has really focused on education, and recently, particularly on putting their tools in locations [within the software] where teachers can see them and access them,” Christopher Lee, chief learning officer for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. “They made a huge shift on making sure the tools can be seen right away … They’ve made a strategic effort to make a difference to the disability community, and they’re doing it in a way that’s inclusive. It’s not about people with disabilities, it’s about putting tools in the hands of everyone who can improve their productivity.”

The experts stress that the boom in accessibility features has benefits beyond ease of use and potential cost-savings for schools. In classrooms where the tools are built-in to existing, general-use software or hardware, students with learning challenges are less likely to feel singled out. Children can balk at having to use “special” software or designated devices.

Fillhart told EdScoop of one teacher who showed her class Immersive Reader, which allows students to manipulate text on a screen, making it easier to read. Not only can users change the line focus — showing just one or two lines of text, akin to using a ruler under each line — but they can also highlight parts of speech or have the software read the text aloud. That teacher’s students used it to read their own writings out loud, Fillhart said.“When they listened to their stories, they said, ‘Oh, OK, now I’m hearing it.’ You can scan it and think ‘Yes, this is what I meant,’ but you hear it out loud and catch things,” she said.

Sometimes the line between an accessibility tool and a general-use product is even more blurred. Lauren Pittman is a special education teacher with the Cherokee County School District in Georgia, north of Atlanta, with about 43,000 students in its 28 elementary schools, eight middle schools and six high schools. She has been using Microsoft’s Learning Tools, both for students who struggle with reading and writing and for students who are not proficient in English.

Accessibility tools aren’t just easier to find and use these days — they’re also smarter, too. Leaders at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) — one of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s nine colleges — noted the effect that Microsoft’s artificial intelligence technology has had on the quality of the company’s voice-to-text software.

Of the deaf and hard of hearing students, about half are cross-registered with other RIT colleges, said Gary Behm, interim associate vice president of academic affairs. Behm and Brian Trager, associate professor and associate director of NTID’s Center on Access Technology, spoke with EdScoop via Skype with the aid of sign language interpreters; both men are deaf.