A project, headed by Illinois State University staff and laboratory school teachers, is working to make SMART Boards accessible to visually impaired children.

The project, titled SMARTer Boards: Girls Solve Visual Accessibility Issues, will provide suggestions to educators and pre-service teachers, encouraging them to incorporate interactive features of the SMART Boards used in classrooms. “We’re talking about methodology for teachers, ideas on how to prepare lessons to include visually impaired students,” said Lynn Reha.

Reha is the director of the University’s Illinois Center for Specialized Professional Support. She co-chairs the SMARTer initiative along with Lisa Tabaka, a faculty associate at Metcalf Elementary School who works with visually impaired children.

“Technology is so advanced that we always need to be working to make it accessible to all students,” said Tabaka. “It really hits home when you hear from the students that they feel left out, or wish they could participate.”

While some technology and software programs currently exist to assist students with disabilities, such as screen readers, Reha noted that SMART Boards are still not being utilized to their potential. “We are seeking a sense of interactivity that sighted students have with the SMART Board,” she said. “Visually impaired students are being shut out of working with this technology.”

Tips and ideas surfacing from the initiative range from bridging the SMART Board to an iPad that allows personal interaction to programming lessons with bells and whistles — literally. “Students approach the SMART Board to find X and Y coordinates in math,” said Tabaka. “We found ways students can approach the board, find the axis and articulate the answer, followed by an auditory reward.” Ideas from the project will be implemented this fall at Metcalf for students with visual impairments.

The project began when Lisa Matejka, a tech integrationist for Metcalf, inquired how visually impaired students were using the SMART Boards. “The simple answer was that the students were not taking part,” said Matejka. “My reply was, ‘We need to fix that.’”

Matejka sought out Reha, with whom she spearheaded other accessibility projects at Illinois State. Reha was able to secure a $5,000 grant through the Computer Science Collaboration Project. Matejka suggested creating “design teams” that could offer insights and ideas through professional and personal experience.

Reha and Tabaka worked to create four design teams that included visually impaired students, middle school students and teachers from Metcalf, Illinois State pre-service teacher candidates, computer science instructors from Heartland Community College and students from Illinois State’s computer club. “It’s unusual to have that much intergenerational and interprofessional input on a team,” said Reha. “We learned so much from one another.”

The teams were made up predominantly of women, all part of an intentional effort to expose young women to computer science careers. “There is an illusion that careers in computer science are all programming in some dark basement, and young girls are usually put off by that image,” said Reha. “This was a great opportunity for young women to see how computer science enriches the lives of students.”

The outcomes of the project can have an impact far beyond the halls of Metcalf, said Jan Harrell, coordinator for visually impaired students at Metcalf, who also consults with teachers in four counties across Central Illinois. Harrell is already working to share the ideas the project has generated. Tabaka and Harrell coordinated with SMART Board presenters from District 87 to share what was learned about how to make the boards more accessible to the students with visual impairments.