Bolashak Reflections: A Series of Essays from Bolashak Fellows on What They Have Learned from Their Studies
by Madina Yussubaliyeva
Digital tools and programs are being improved for users with all types of disabilities, who make up more than 15% of the world’s population (World Bank, 2022). As a result, not only disabled people but everyone, especially learners and educators, can benefit from accessible applications and tools that make our lives easier and help us navigate information much more quickly and efficiently.
Imagine a student with a physical disability who struggles to read a 300-page manuscript to write an assignment of some 3 to 5 pages. How do we help him to overcome his disability and be efficient?
Disabled people want the same access to digital information as the general population, at the same time and at the same price. Furthermore, they want the convenience of engaging in the same electronic transactions as the general population, using the same user-friendly devices and applications. Therefore, equal access applies to web pages, e-books, operating systems, software applications, smartphones, and other devices (Lazar et al. 2015).
Many technologies originally developed to assist persons with disabilities are now finding broader application among the general population. Ray Kurzweil invented scanner technology when he decided to build a reading machine for the blind. An electronic book was first commercially sold by George Kerscher, a blind entrepreneur frustrated by the lack of accessible information about computer programs. In recent years, e-books have become increasingly popular with the general public. The majority benefits from mainstream access to digital information and electronic devices for the minority (that is, those with disabilities) (Lazar et al. 2015).
As an educator, I deal with technology a lot. In this article, I would like to share my experience using 10 digital tools that help me both as an educator and in my everyday life. The tools were designed with universal design in mind, which refers to when all products can be used by everybody regardless of ability or disability—permanent, temporary, or situational.
A permanent disability often impedes education, which is why such students are commonly categorized as having special needs. However, we all experience temporary or situational disabilities. An example of a temporal disability is when a person forgets his or her glasses. Then he or she can use accessible technology and listen to the printed text. Another example is a person situationally disabled when he or she is in a noisy environment like the metro and uses accessible technology like captions or subtitles while watching a video.
Therefore, I am convinced that we all need to use technology to our benefit and try to get as much as possible from the information world that is only expanding with each passing second.
The benefits of technology
Lazar and his coauthors, in their book Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy, say: “When engineers and product designers adopt the principle of universal design in their inventions, great things can be expected” (Lazar et al. 2015).
The term universal design was initially used in the United States in the 1980s when numerous researchers started to consider how to make computers accessible to those who were blind or deaf. A decade later, universal design was becoming a new trend that had started to emerge in America. Architects Ronald Mays and Selwyn Goldsmith, who were among the forerunners of universal design, pushed for the development of a universally accessible city (Simmons 2020).
In her book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (Holmes 2018), Kat Holmes distinguishes between inclusive design and universal design, highlighting a distinct difference between them despite their apparent similarities. She stresses that “The former (Inclusive Design) emphasizes a one-size-fits-one solution, the latter (Universal Design) emphasizes one-size-fits-all.” For example, captioning was essentially created for deaf people and was used by the deaf at first. However, everyone can benefit from captioning in noisy environments or on social media. Many people use captioned video, not only if they are deaf or hard of hearing, but also if they want to do keyword searches on the video or watch it in a noisy environment.
Moseid (2006) in his pyramid (Fig. 1), clearly shows how universal design fits the accessibility approach.
Students and educators must mostly read, write, and watch presentations and educational videos. So, below are 10 tools that I use daily in my educational activities, whether I am involved in teaching, studying, or research. I have classified all these tools according to their use: tools for listening to printed text, tools for dictating when I cannot write something down, and tools for video captioning and subtitling when I cannot listen to something. I have added to my list of favorite tools a voice control, as I use it a lot in everyday life, and you can benefit from using it in education activities too.
My Top 10 Apps
A learner or educator has to read a lot of material, and very often as well, when I cannot stick to a book, article, or screen for an extended time I use digital tools that can read aloud the printed text in PDF, Word, or Google Docs formats. The situations when I need to be read aloud to may differ—for example, when I have a chapter or article in a PDF file downloaded and I wish to listen to it while exercising or on the metro on my way to the university, etc. Having PDF files read aloud can be convenient for many reasons. The following are my favorite tools for reading my PDFs or Word documents aloud.
App #1: I use a voice reader tool to read PDF text aloud on my MacBook or iPhone. The feature that I use is the accessibility feature. You cannot imagine how advantageous it might be. I use this feature to read my PDFs aloud on iPhone or MacBook. Usually, I do it when I am walking or riding the metro while wearing headphones. First, select Accessibility > Spoken content. Here you have two options: select PDF text read, or screen read. Then you can choose Speak selection or Speak screen option, respectively.
App # 2: If my text is in Word, I usually use the Read Aloud function. Select Review > Read Aloud.
Advantages of the above two apps are that they are free and you do not need to download anything extra: the applications and functions are already installed. The disadvantage is that they are only for Apple users.
App # 3: Immersive Reader is the next best option for reading text aloud in Word. To choose the function, you select View > Immersive Reader. I would like to add that I use the immersive reader function in the learning process. You can hear text documents, and each word is highlighted, with syllable breaks to make recognizing and pronouncing words easier.
App #4: Last but not least is a feature that I use in Windows 10. The Microsoft Edge browser supports read-aloud for any open webpage, PDF, or book. To activate the feature, open the PDF file, .epub book, or website you want to read aloud in Edge. Right-click on an empty page area and select Read aloud.
App #5: I sometimes need to dictate text instead of typing. This is a function that every international learner should become familiar with. It helps a lot in terms of learning when your first language is not the language of a medium of instruction. To dictate, you select the Dictate function in the Word document. Select Settings > Keyboard > Dictation > Choose the language to set up dictation in a Word document. After setting up the language, you select Home > Dictate in your Word document.
App #6: I want to share one more option for dictating: the function when dictated text is recorded, not typed. This is a helpful function for dictating your thoughts and ideas or recording a lecture to listen to it later. I do it with the help of my iPhone. First, select Shortcut > Add action > Recording > Rename a shortcut. Then go to Settings > Accessibility > Back tap > Double tap. Now when you double-tap your iPhone, you will be able to record.
Video captioning and subtitles
The following tools that I would like to share are those that I use while watching videos. They are video captioning or live captioning. All learners can access video information by captioning and providing transcripts while watching. In addition to individuals with hearing impairments, 80% of captioning users are not deaf (Kouznetsova 2018). Captioning usually is used when someone is studying and you do not want to interfere with him or her, in libraries, when videos featuring a speaker with an accent are challenging to understand, while watching videos that contain specialized or unfamiliar vocabulary, when the sound system does not work, or when sound quality is poor.
App #8: To use video captioning,Mac users can select the Apple menu > System Settings > Accessibility > Hearing > Captions. You can enable closed captions and subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH) by turning on Prefer closed captions and SDH (Caption Real Life in Real Time 2022).
On the iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Subtitles & Captioning. Turn on Closed Captions + SDH if you prefer closed captions or subtitles.
App #9: Live captions help students access real-time transcriptions of voice, audio, and video information. During phone or FaceTime calls, as well as with any media content, all you need to do is enable live captions. Depending on the situation, I use a different font, size, and background color for live captioning.
To activate live captioning on iPhone, select Settings > Accessibility > Live captions.
Mac users have the additional choice of typing their comments in Type to Speak, which will read them out in real time for the other participants in the conversation.
On your Mac, select Apple menu > System Settings > Accessibility > Live Captions > Turn Live Captions on or off.
App #10: The beneficial and popular tool that I want to share is voice control. Voice control is a tool familiar to many, and most people use it when they need to work hands-free for a specific task. To set up voice control, select Settings > Accessibility > Voice Control > Set up Voice Control. A microphone sign will appear in your device’s status bar indicating whether voice control is listening or not (Apple Support 2021).
Accessibility benefits everyone due to universal design principles, which mean designing for a wide range of users. As a result, educators and students can adopt technologies for everyday education activities with no exception, and everybody can have equal chances to succeed, which is the ultimate goal of all educators.
Apple Support. “Use Voice Control on Your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.” Apple website. 2021. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT210417.
“Caption Real Life in Real Time.” Apple website. 2022. https://www.apple.com/accessibility/#footnote-6.
Holmes, Kat. Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018.
Lazar, J., D. Goldstein, A. Taylor, T. Green, L. Lawrence, and G. Harris. Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy (1st ed.). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Morgan Kaufmann, 2015.
Moseid, T. E. “Mind the Gap! Library Services to the Disabled in a New Framework.” LIBREAS: Library Ideas (6). 2006. https://libreas.eu/ausgabe6/002mos.htm.
Simmons, Paul. (2020). “The Evolution of Universal Design: A Win-Win Concept for All.” January 27, 2020. Rocky Mountain Americans with Disabilities Association Center. https://rockymountainada.org/news/blog/evolution-universal-design-win-win-concept-all.
TEDx FultonStreet (Producer) and Svetlana Kouznetsova (Director). “How Captions Increase ROI and Audience for Media Creators.”August 24, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngKp9MqUGj8.
World Bank. Disability Inclusion. 2022. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability.