Until three years ago, the Mississippi School for the Deaf had no way of spreading emergency alerts or announcements to everyone at once. At least, not a way that deaf students and staff could understand.

Situations like these require IT leaders in state deaf and blind schools to think differently about the technology they purchase. And while challenges still exist, technology is becoming more accessible for these populations.

These schools have to spend more time determining whether email systems and blogging platforms are accessible, said Trad Robinson, CIO of the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg, S.C. The accessible resources they pick should not just be the best accessible resources. They should be the best resources to educate students, period.

"We face the same challenges that all school districts face," Robinson said. "Our goal is to educate children. You hope and you have a desire that the accessibility does not have to be the focus, but that the education of the child is the focus."

Major companies improve tech accessibility

Many of the larger companies have made great strides in making their technology accessible for students.

Apple and Google, for instance, and other mobile device manufacturers are headed in the right direction with accessibility, Robinson said. As his school considers providing a device for every student, they have to think about accessibility, while other traditional schools may not have to spend as much time looking at it.

Additionally, Apple's services and hardware have allowed the Mississippi School for the Deaf to give students graphics and other visuals that help them learn. With iMovie, the school can caption its own videos. And an app called Nearpod allows teachers to create multimedia lessons, share them with students on their devices and see student responses.

"Apple has made visual learning a lot easier for deaf schools, in my opinion," said Dana Campbell, director of technology, public relations, transitional and overnight dormitory services for the Mississippi School for the Deaf in Jackson.

But these larger companies have the budget to do so. It's not exactly cost effective for smaller companies that create educational software. They don't have the budget to make their software accessible for the small population who can't use it.

As more software makes its way to the Web, people who are visually impaired can use screen reader software applications to understand what's on their computer screen, Robinson said. But for that screan reader software to do its job, websites must tag and mark photos and videos, as well as enable closed captioning.

"The Web is such a major part of our everyday life," Robinson said, "and we take for granted the visual and video content that is on the Web."

Over the years, websites also have become more accessible, Robinson said.  For example, YouTube now has technology that automatically captions videos.

Visuals and audio combine in public address systems

Both the South Carolina and Mississippi schools have looked at ways to make sure all their students and staff can hear or see announcements and emergency broadcasts. The South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind is currently updating its notification system, which will include a combination of video and audio notifications.

Three years ago, the superintendent at the Mississippi school would make announcements to teachers over the public address system. But she often forgot to tell deaf staff the same message. In both emergency and regular announcement situations, deaf students and staff didn't have the information they needed at the same time as others — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It's not fair that some people can't get information that will help them enhance their lives," Campbell said.

When Sandra Edwards became the superintendent, things changed. She had her staff research ways to become compliant with the act. And MessageNet solved the problem. The company added visual public address messages so deaf students could see what the announcement was.

Each classroom has flatscreen TVs with USB cameras on top of them. With the visual public address system, school staff can sign and speak messages on camera. They can also push text, videos and presentations out to the classrooms.

Teachers use the technology to sign with one another from different rooms if they need to practice or communicate something. And weather warnings work simultaneously with the bell system.

The Mississippi School for the Deaf is the first school to have a full-access public address system. And it's trying to tell other deaf schools across the country how valuable it is.

This article was originally published by the Center for Digital Education.

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.