During the past 45 years of my career in Special Education, I have witnessed many changes and improvements to the delivery of services to students with disabilities. Among the most exciting has been the recent emergence of free or low cost Google tools to enable all students to better access the curriculum. Once expensive and available only to students with disabilities, supports such as text to speech, speech to text, and word prediction are now available through free or low cost apps in schools that have adopted G Suite for K-12 Institutions. Just as significantly, Google Classroom has emerged as a widely used digital classroom management system to make and receive assignments 24/7 from any location on the web. Finally, the sharing capability of Google Docs has transformed collaboration among students, among students and teachers, and among teachers both locally, regionally and nationally.
Be forewarned however. The presence of low cost technology, even in schools where all students have been provided their own device and have access to Google Tools, does not necessarily mean that all students have sufficient access to the curriculum. While school districts have trended toward providing online courses and encouraging teachers to create and post digital learning materials, many classes still rely on print material for some or all of their instructional content. In classes where text material is available online or on DVDs, this material may be provided in an inaccessible format, which cannot be read by text readers. Also, in districts that appear to have the latest technology, teachers and students may be inadequately trained, which often results in the abandonment of supports.
The good news is that Google tools has made it significantly more possible to maximize student access to the curriculum than it was even a few years ago. In Northville Public Schools, we have adopted Read and Write for Google Chrome (RW4GC) and Snapverter as our primary accessibility tools and have purchased group licenses. Both of these Google tools are produced by Texthelp at http://www.texthelp.com. RW4GC is an extension that includes Text to Speech, Talk & Type, PDF Reader, Word Prediction, Screen Reading, Dictionary, Voice Notes, Screen Masking, Simplify, Audio Maker, Highlighter and more than 20 other features. See toolbar below. With the group license, the Group Administrator easily activates and deactivates specific student accounts designated by a Google email address. Our number of students using RW4GC has increased each year as teachers have become increasingly familiar with the extension. During the first year, high school learning disabled students were the primary users. But, by the third year, students of all levels were using RW4GC. In our district, access to RW4GC has recently been extended to students with 504 disabilities.
The management of RW4GC does require monitoring. Occasionally, the extension needs to be re-authorized after Chrome or Texthelp updates. The user is warned when a re-authorization is needed when the Chrome Settings icon (3 bars) turns to an exclamation point. It’s easy to re-authorize, but both teachers and students need to be aware of the need to update. Also, each year new features are added, and sometimes the new features need to be separately installed (e.g. Pdf Reader). Also, glitches can sometimes occur during installation. Fortunately, Texthelp offers exceptional product support when glitches occur. Someone needs to be assigned responsibility for monitoring updates and glitches and then communicating both issues and fixes to staff. Someone also needs to be responsible for training, including new staff. In Northville, as the Assistive Technology Coordinator, I assume these responsibilities.
The RW4GC extension works on Google docs, but will also work on Word documents that are uploaded to Google Drive. To enable supports for printed text, the text needs to be scanned and made accessible through Snapverter, an app that requires separate licensing from Texthelp for full functionality. Snapverter comes with a free version, but scanning is limited to one per week. Snapverter licenses can only be purchased by schools who have RW4GC group or district licenses. Texthelp’s current policy limits the purchase of Snapverter to a ratio of 1 Snapverter license for every 30 RW4GC group licenses. We have used Snapverter extensively to convert scanned print material and inaccessible pdfs, and it works exceedingly well. Our system includes creating Google shared folders for storing and distributing converted files to students. We have also created an inventory of digital learning materials to document which of our educational materials are accessible in a digital format and which are not. This way, when it becomes necessary to provide digital materials as part of an Individual Educational Plan we immediately know which materials need to be converted.
Scanning and distributing accessible instructional materials can be time consuming. A far more efficient approach is to purchase accessible educational materials directly from the publisher when available. The availability of accessible educational materials varies widely by publisher. Therefore, it is important that educational materials selection committees consider accessibility as a high priority. But, there is currently no evaluation system in place to compare publishers on the accessibility of their education materials. Fortunately, the Quality Indicators for the Provision of Accessible Educational Materials and Technologies can be consulted to guide school districts in the selection process.
The National Center for Accessible Educational Materials is an excellent resource to learn more.
RW4GC and Snapverter have been shown to be effective tools in helping many students access the curriculum. But, a process needs to be in place for identifying individual student learning needs, considering appropriate supports to address these needs, and developing an implementation plan. Joy Zabala’s SETT Framework is highly recommended whenever Assistive Technology is being considered for students with disabilities.
Quality Indicators for the Provision of Accessible Educational Materials and Technologies. Retrieved from http://aem.cast.org/policies/quality-indicators-provision-aem.html#.W3DfStJKiUk
National Center for Accessible Educational Materials. http://aem.cast.org/about#.W28cndJKiUk
Zabala, Joy. SETT Process. Retrieved from http://www.joyzabala.com/
Jeff Crockett, Assistive Technology Coordinator, Northville Public Schools. Jeff has been the Assistive Technology Coordinator for Northville Public Schools for the past 7 years and previously worked in Special Education in Plymouth-Canton Schools for 37 years in a variety of positions. A certified Google Trainer since 2015, he co-leads a taskforce of 23 AT professionals from around the state who are writing the Assistive Technology Handbook for Educators expected to be completed by June, 2019.
Jeff can be contacted at email@example.com.