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Fifteen-year-old Lyra Thompson describes herself as tech-savvy. She likes to learn coding languages in her free time and uses HTML to build websites.
But because she’s a person with albinism whose eyes are more sensitive to light, she needs to use a program like ZoomText that magnifies text and can change the contrast on the screen, which puts less strain on her eyes and makes it easier for her to read the computer.
Thompson has been learning about software like ZoomText through Alphapointe’s annual technology camp for students with visual impairments. Thompson has been attending since she was 12, the earliest age she was eligible.
Alphapointe, a Kansas City, Missouri-based organization that works to empower and employ people with vision loss, has hosted its technology camp for nine years. This year’s day camp ran from June 21-25 and cost $175. Campers range in age from 12 to 18.
While Thompson, a rising sophomore at Bonner Springs High School, enjoys learning to code as a hobby, she hopes to become an author or journalist when she’s older.
“Every career you’re going to be in, it’s going to involve technology somehow,” Thompson said. “I think it’s good for people with visual impairments, whether you have some vision like me, or you’re totally blind, to be able to know how to use computers to the best of your ability the same way as a sighted person can, so you can be (on) an equal playing field with them in the real world.”
Specialized accessible technology software, laptops students can keep
At the camp, each student is given a laptop and headphones, which they keep after camp is over. The laptop is outfitted with software depending on the student’s individual needs, which are determined in an assessment before camp starts.
The laptops are refurbished and donated from Computers for the Blind, a nonprofit based just outside Dallas, said Jake McLaughlin, senior manager of special events and programs at Alphapointe. It’s important that all students are working from similar computers, because programs can vary depending on the type of laptop.
About half the students at the camp this year are from the Kansas City area, but some travel to attend. Fifteen-year-old Diego Zamora Blanco came from Puerto Rico.
Zamora Blanco was born without vision in his right eye and lost vision in his left eye after complications from a surgery in January 2020. He works with text-to-speech programs that allow him to navigate his computer without seeing it.
With programs like Jaws, the computer screen could appear completely blank, but students use keyboard shortcuts — also known as hot keys — to navigate the content while the program verbalizes where they are and reads text.
A computer might have over 300 different hot keys, which take time and practice to learn, especially when the technology is constantly evolving, McLaughlin said.
“I feel like it’s going to help me a lot in the sense that I’ll be able to do schoolwork independently, without needing assistance,” Zamora Blanco said.
This year, the camp is teaching a device called Code Jumper for the first time.
Code Jumper uses music and a series of knobs that connect to the computer to help students with low vision learn to write code. Students create different tunes that are associated with a prewritten code language.
On Wednesday, two groups of students were exploring Code Jumper for the second time. Thompson and her classmates arranged the device to create the tune of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which they can use to write code.
“I’m used to doing stuff that’s purely on the computer, not anything in real life,” Thompson said. “It’s really interesting being able to use this physical coding thing, and having actual, physical buttons affect what you do.”
Alphapointe wanted to start teaching the software last year, but it couldn’t be adapted for virtual learning because it’s made to be hands-on, McLaughlin said.
Last year, the camp had to modify its curriculum to be completely online because of the pandemic. This year, the camp was both in person and virtual. About 20 students were on site and about five attended remotely, McLaughlin said.
Though enrollment is down slightly at this year’s camp, which McLaughlin said is likely because of the pandemic, he said he’s comfortable with having fewer students on site.
“If we can get them here and get them hands-on, we can troubleshoot problems and we find that students learn quicker. And really being around peers that are like them also allows them just to be kids,” McLaughlin said. “They’re not worried about somebody making fun of them, or if they’re gonna get to class on time, or if they’re gonna trip over something, or any of the types of adaptations.”
An accessible technology summer camp for bonding, learning
When Alphapointe started the tech camp, organizers focused on training students using tablets. But when they switched to computers, they saw a significant increase in student interest because of how essential typing skills are.
McLaughlin said a computer with modifications or additional hardware for people who are visually impaired — like an enlarged or inverse keyboard or accessibility software — might normally cost upwards of $4,000, which is out of reach for many families. As an added barrier, a lot of parents don’t have the skills to train their kids in how to use adaptive software.
Some students also rely on school computers to use during the year, but those aren’t always available during the summer, McLaughlin said.
“They’re missing out on all those opportunities during the summertime — or even sometimes during the school week, schools require that they keep the laptops at (school),” McLaughlin said. “So they can’t do anything or practice if they’re away from their school.”
On a computer without accessible software, students often have to sit very close to the screen to be able to read it, which puts stress on the eye muscles and can weaken them over time, McLaughlin said.
“The goal is to get them to navigate that computer in a comfortable setting to where we don’t have eye fatigue all the time, so that they can then do normal kind of work with their sighted peers as they go along — either in their education or just having fun,” McLaughlin said.
Thompson said her favorite part of camp is meeting new people and learning about new technologies. She met one of her closest friends at tech camp a few summers ago.
“We both had a love for coding, and we bonded over that,” Thompson said. “And then we’ve been friends ever since.”
Zamora Blanco, who started learning piano last year, said he bonded with fellow students over music. Coming to camp is one of the first times he’s been able to be around other kids with visual impairments, he said.
“A lot of times, they don’t feel accepted in their schools or their own hometown,” McLaughlin said. “We have kids that we’ve been working with for years that are like best friends today. And this is the only time that they get to see each other really throughout a year, and especially now, because they’ve been limited for the last year and a half because of COVID. It’ll be a great opportunity for old friends to see each other and for new people to make new friends.”