The following article was just published by Microsoft. Web link at the bottom.
Kim Charlson was 11 when she started losing her eyesight because of glaucoma. An operation a year and a half later not only didn’t help, it resulted in complications that hastened her blindness.
Her pragmatic parents insisted she learn Braille, a key to literacy for people who are blind or have low vision. Without that literacy, Charlson likely wouldn’t have gone on to college or a career. Only 13 percent of blind students in the United States know Braille, and roughly 70 percent of adults who are blind or have low vision are unemployed.
Those troubling statistics are one reason Charlson is excited about an app that will help increase the amount of time students can spend learning and practicing Braille. ObjectiveEd, the company that’s developing the Braille AI Tutor app, is a new recipient of Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants to people using AI-powered technology to make the world a more inclusive place. Ten other recipients joining the program in conjunction with National Disability Awareness Month include City University of London, inABLE, iMerciv and The Open University
“We have a huge opportunity and a responsibility to be making technology smarter and more useful for people with disabilities,” says Mary Bellard, Microsoft senior architect lead for accessibility. The aim of the AI for Accessibility program, which began in 2018 and now has 32 grantees, is to help people “build something really useful at the intersection of AI, accessibility and disability.”
The Braille AI Tutor app is the latest project for ObjectiveEd’s president, Marty Schultz, a longtime software developer and volunteer teacher who created an iPhone game five years ago called “Blindfold Racer” for children who are blind. It led to more than 80 games for the iPhone and iPad that have together been downloaded more than a half-million times.
If you only get an hour a week with the teacher — I mean, how many kids would learn how to read print if they only had an hour a week of instruction?
Charlson, former president of the American Council of the Blind, is a big fan of Schultz’s work. So is Judy Dixon, consumer relations officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and the two women often talked with him about the importance of Braille education for literacy and employment. Schultz took it to heart — and to the drawing board.
Some students who are blind or have low vision attend schools that are geared to their needs, and where Braille is taught and used daily. But many attend public schools and learn Braille from teachers who visit their schools once a week, spending about an hour with each student.
“If you only get an hour a week with the teacher — I mean, how many kids would learn how to read print if they only had an hour a week of instruction?” says Charlson. “It’s just not enough. You have to immerse yourself in it at that developmental stage, or you’re not going to be as fluent in it as you need to be as an adult.”
The Braille AI Tutor app will incorporate AI-based speech recognition, using Microsoft’s Azure Speech API, to help students practice reading Braille with personalized, gamified learning plans. The app will send a word or a sentence to a refreshable Braille display, one of the types of hardware used for reading Braille. The student will feel the word in Braille, say the word or sentence out loud, and then the app will process the audio feedback and let the student know immediately if they are correct or not.
Teachers will be able to monitor students’ progress, with results sent to a web dashboard.
“We see our role as not teaching the student but giving the student the ability to practice when that teacher’s not around,” Schultz says. “The teacher teaches, and we make practicing fun and engaging and something that can be done without the teacher being there. So the next time the student meets with the teacher, the student has made some real progress.”
Schultz says the extra practice will help students “accelerate more quickly through school, which will lead to college, and to much better employment opportunities in the future.”
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