ISU Prof Helps Develop Software for Visually Impaired

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State University associate professor Elizabeth Jones has spent the past seven months working to make math accessible to all students.

Jones, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science, took a sabbatical for the fall and spring semesters to work as a consultant with ViewPlus Technologies, a company that creates hardware and software for the visually impaired in Corvallis, Ore. John Gardner, a physicist who went blind as an adult, started the company to create products that would help the visually impaired overcome obstacles in the way of education. After receiving a National Science Foundation small business grant to create math software for students, he contacted Jones to serve as the math educator on the project team.

“I feel very lucky to be doing this,” Jones said, adding that it has been an “amazing” experience. “It’s made me think a little more about how to make math available for all students,” she said.

“As a mainstream math educator, when I’m making curriculum, there are things that I just don’t think about. Now, it’s on my radar and I’ll pass it on to my students before they’re thrown into it,” she said.

Currently, many visually impaired children are taught math using an abacus, Jones said. “We’re trying to move away from the abacus and get blind kids doing arithmetic the same way as sighted kids,” she said.

With 75 percent of visually impaired children in mainstream classrooms, Jones said it was also important to develop math programs that could be used by all students. The program they developed uses all three ways people learn: sight, hearing and touch.

Through technology, a computer provides the voice for the typed words and figures that are on a computer screen. An embosser creates printouts, with not only Braille, but also with graphics that the students can feel. “The blind can touch it,” she said. “It can also be used by the learning disabled who can see and feel it.”

Students can take the printed page and place it on a touch pad, which is connected to the computer. “They can touch on the printed page and the computer will voice what it is,” she said.

The developed program focuses on addition, subtraction and multiplication. Future editions will focus on division, fractions and eventually higher levels of math. “Right now, we’re focusing on the lower levels of math,” Jones said. “If they don’t get the lower levels, they won’t be able to use high-level math.”

While the goal is to have the technology available for schools in the fall, Jones said it also could be used at home as well. “We’ve tested it with mainstream students,” she said. “It will be tested on the visually impaired in April. We would like it to work for everyone from blind and deaf students to the gifted and talented.”

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