ALT In Education

ALT – an incredible software tool for children with blindness and visual impairments.

Source:  Andrea Bodnari,

What is ALT?

ALT is the name of an access and acceleration PROGRAM purposely designed for blind computer users. The methods are similar to the use of “Macros”, a means of combining many steps into one, but ALT provides much more.

Illustration of a Alt key from a keyboard

ALT is the name of the program because the magic key to make the program work is the “Alt key” that exists twice, for ambidextrous advantage, on all keyboards.

ALT is used by low vision/blind adults to speed up work productivity but why would you teach it to a child?

GOOD QUESTION! Let’s answer that question by first addressing how blind children access a Windows PC, prerequisite skills a blind child needs to use a computer, and compare their experience with their sighted peers.

Did you know?…

  • Students in regular education start to use a computer in kindergarten.
  • Does a blind child start using a computer in kindergarten? NO! But there is a good reason (or there used to be).

Why teach ALT to a child? To allow mainstreamed blind children to be equal, yes equal. Please read on to understand the gaps without ALT.

What prerequisite skills does a blind child need before using a PC?

1. Letter Identification

2. Keyboard layout

3. Windows commands

4. Refreshable Braille Display

5. Screen Reader Commands

6. Good memorization skills

7. Basic Computer language

WOW …That’s Not Fair.

Ok let’s make that task easier!

Illustration of a young hand on a white keyboard

1. Letter Identification

First the student needs to have letter recognition but most students can demonstrate letter recognition by 1st grade.

2. Keyboard Layout

Second the blind child will need to know how to use a keyboard. Now you could use a standard keyboard with Braille keyboard labels or you could use a Refreshable Display.

Keyboard: All 26 letters of the alphabet, modifier keys (Alt, Ctrl, Shift, Tab), Numbers, and Function Keys (F1-F12). Yeah that’s right the entire keyboard!

3. Do sighted children need to know the entire keyboard?

No, children who are blind need to know the entire keyboard because their screen reading program functions using the initial letter key and a series of modifier keys.

Note: We can change this using ALT which I’ll discuss later.

What are Windows Commands?

Windows logoSighted Children operate a PC using the mouse to navigate. Blind Children cannot use a mouse instead they use Windows Keyboard Shortcut commands for many functions. All Screen Readers also incorporate Windows Keyboard Shortcut commands. This means, in addition to using the Screen Reader commands, a Blind Child could choose to use a Windows Keyboard Shortcut Command to perform the same function. Since Windows is the primary operating system and developed their shortcut keyboard commands first, Screen Reader Commands mimicking the same function will require and addition key stroke or modifier key. That mean you’ll need more fingers, more to remember and greater complexity for the young student.

For Example:

    • Move to the next word: Windows Keyboard Shortcut Command = Control+Right Arrow
    • Move to the next word: (SaToGo Screen Reader Keyboard Command) = Control+Modifier+Right Arrow

Did you know you can create your own Windows Keyboard Shortcut Commands utilizing initial letters and no modifier keys using ALT?

What is a Refreshable Braille Display and how does it work?

Picture of a Refreshabraille 18 - 18 cell refreshable braille displayA refreshable Braille display is an electronic device, similar to a small keyboard, connected to a computer or mobile device. The Braille display has a thin strip of dots, 6 dots high and many cells wide, used to form the letters in the Braille Alphabet. The display restates visual information (text) from the computer screen into the form of Braille. The information is read by touch and changes (refreshes) as the reader advances through the text.

A refreshable Braille display can also be used as a Braille Keyboard. Six-key entry (similar to a Perkins Brailler) is used to navigate the computer or mobile device host, input/enter text. The displays support both types of Braille. Un-contracted (standard) or contracted Braille (a bit like Braille shorthand) to match the skills of the student.

A refreshable Braille display can also be used for navigation, to move the pointer/text cursor like a computer mouse. For example, to move the VoiceOver cursor anywhere within line displayed by pressing the corresponding “router key”.

Refreshable Braille Display: (RBD) are expensive but you can now get one from American Printing House for the Blind (APH) ,called the RefreshaBraille 18, FREE on US Federal Quota.

Now you don’t need to know all the keys on the standard keyboard. You can use your Braille display as a keyboard!

Sighted children navigate a keyboard based on letter identification aka they visually look for the letter. Blind children can now use the RBD by typing the letter key. This seems more fair.

Screen Reader Commands: Access to the Visual Information on a Screen

Sighted children access the visual information on the monitor by looking at it.

Blind children access the visual information (aka what you see on the screen) by listening to it or reading on a refreshable braille display (RBD).

How do they listen to it and how do they make the computer talk to them?

Iconic image of a blind person walking with a picture of a speaker as an overlayBlind children use a Program generically described as a “Screen Reader” to read text aloud. That’s right; before a blind child can learn to use a PC they have to learn how to use a Screen Reader, and the entire keyboard layout! More barriers.

There are many screen reader products. Some are included with computer or mobile devices, some need to be added afterwards. Examples Screen Reader products used on Windows PC’s include JAWS, NVDA, Window-Eyes, SaToGo and many more.

Screen Reader Bluetooth Connections:

JAWS – works great via Bluetooth

NVDA – No luck (sigh)

Window Eyes – works great

SaToGo – works great via Bluetooth

Does a sighted child need to know how to use a computer program before using a computer?

NO, Well that’s not fair! We can change this using ALT, bringing equal access, which we’ll discuss later.

Ok… So provided a blind child knows how to use a screen reader and knows how to use a RBD or the keyboard, now they will be able to use a PC and do the same activities as their sighted peers, right?

Hum…. Not quite Yet!

Why? Because, though your student knows how to use a screen reader and navigate the keyboard it does not mean they can play the same games as their sighted peers.


Because the software programs used in elementary schools are designed to be visually stimulating and utilize a lot of graphics. As these programs were designed for the general sighted population many software developers do not label all of the pictures or the buttons. Labeling allows the description and the location of the image to be read by the screen reader.

What does that mean?

That means when the child who is blind tries to navigate the program using their screen reader, the screen reader will speak the word “graphic” every time it reads a picture or a button that the student may need to click. Try guessing which is which when facing pictures or controls all identified as “graphic”. Well that not going to work! How can a student play a game when the software developers haven’t created it to be compatible with a screen reader? Well, typically you can’t and we just introduced another separation for the blind child in the classroom.

Good memorization skills:

  • Iconic representation of a person head and brain with question markes surrounding indicating wondermentDid you know there are 100+ windows keyboard shortcut commands?

Yeah, and add to that just as many Screen Reader Commands to Learn!

Did you know ALT’s user interface allows the user to search? Hum… Well that seems fairer. If you can’t memorize everything there is always a way to look it up! Without utilizing the ALT Search interface, students will need to learn how to locate and search the screen reader or windows help menu to locate a keyboard shortcut command – time consuming, frustrating and difficult when reading by audio.

What is Basic Computer Language?

Well since Windows is the operating system, the guys who wrote the program got to name everything. So Screen Readers identify the position of the cursor using the same names/words used by the Windows Software Developers. Thus, Blind Children need to learn Computer Language.

Cartoon representation of the letters A B C D and a small stack of books

How many sighted children need to learn that?

Well, none. As a Regular Education Teacher we instruct students as such: “Look at the Bottom of the Screen a find the picture of the Big E aka Internet Explorer”

To mimic the same directions to a Blind Child one must say, “Move to the Task Bar, Tab until you hear Internet Explorer, and left click

Hum… Now how many adults know Computer Language such Task Bar, Menu Bar, Status Bar, Text Field, and Edit Window? How many teachers?

Although we can’t change the language of the computer or the language the screen reader speaks, we can change the way student learn the language, and how quickly. Remember, these are main-stream classrooms with lots of materials to cover with our children.

How does ALT Help?

Iconic representation of a question markALT accelerators, accessed using simple “shortcut names” will advance our students from A – Z. ALT does not need to use complex “modifier keys” . Modifier keys such as Ctrl, Alt, Shift, Windows-Key, JAWS-KEY, are used in Windows keyboard commands as well Screen Reader commands to help speed access. The result is some speed improvement without the addition of complexity.

ALT uses shortcut words that you create. Letter combinations or words are logical and which “makes more sense” to the student supporting cognition and immediate success. For example, to start the screen reader called Jaws, the student could tap the Alt key 2x (to start ALT), type “jaws” and press enter. ALT does the rest. The task (start JAWS) and the shortcut (“jaws”) are the same. No fancy keyboarding required, nothing more to learn or remember.

ALT has built-in databases of over 200 screen reader commands. ALT has taken all of the screen reader commands for JAWS, Window Eyes, and Cobra (shortcut key combination needed to make the program read), and incorporated them into a homogenous word-based interface.

That means your student can effectively utilize a PC utilizing any screen reader such as Window Eyes, JAWS, or Cobra using the same command. It also means the teacher can work with the blind students without needing to be screen reader experts!

By the way JAWS, Window Eyes, and Cobra are screen reading programs for the blind that all use “their own” commands for reading, navigation, etc.. ALT provides a universal access irrespective of the screen reader used. Universal, as it should be.

Hum… OK that’s nice but how does that really change things for a blind student?

First, it changes the amount of time needed to teach a student how to use a screen reader. Let’s have our students be successful on day 1 then build on those successes by chaining.


Now remember a blind child normally has to know how to use a screen reader before they can use a PC. Let’s change that!

Changes in instruction

1. The blind child does not need to know the entire keyboard as ALT does not utilize modifier keys to create accelerators/shortcut key command. Simple.

2. Screen reader commands will now make sense. For Instance, when teaching a student to “say all text” (a screen reader command)(JAWS -Insert down arrow) using JAWS we would teach “Jaws Key and then the down arrow”. An illogical command that needs to memorized.

With ALT we would instruct:

Say All

What letter does Say start with? S.

What letter does All start with? A.

So the command to make JAWS, Window Eyes or Cobra is? SA.

That’s right ALT uses initial letter commands and keyboard commands are entered one letter at a time as opposed to hitting multiple keys at a time. This is especially great for some students who may lack dexterity or even options for complex text entry.

3. ALT doesn’t care if the program the school district is using is compatible with their screen reader. The inaccessible program can easily be navigated by creating ALT accelerators/shortcuts. ALT will allow you the create shortcuts by listing keyboard commands, screen reader commands, mouse clicks, and even mouse screen coordinates …plus more.

4. Regular Ed Teachers talk too fast and sighted peers have an advantage of watching the teachers screen and mimicking their actions.

The blind child must utilize the teacher’s good descriptive language to follow the directions. Even if your student has excellent auditory processing skills they will not be able to keep up. Why? Because to mimic a seemingly simple mouse click it takes more than just a click using a screen reader it takes multiple keyboard shortcut commands. *sigh*

For example: A teachers instruction “Click the Google icon on your desktop” and search for “fall fair October”.

The sighted child visually scans the monitor to find the picture/icon for Google, moves the mouse by hand to align the cursor over the icon and clicks the left-mouse button. The student sees the Google web page when it’s loaded and enters “fall fair October” into the search field and presses Enter.

The blind child must utilize these screen reader steps.

1. Show Desktop

2. Arrow key until you hear “Google” or utilize and initial letter command G for Google.

3. Hit space or left mouse click on the keyboard

– Did I mention it takes time to listen to each step to confirm your key command entered is correct before you initiate another keyboard command? Listen, listen, listen, filter, and choose – the standards for screen reader users.

They must listen when the Google website opens then type “fall fair October” and press Enter.

With ALT you can create an accelerator/shortcut to include all of the windows, JAWs or mouse clicks in to one step.

Screen capture of the ALT pop-up menu with an example google search enteredThe student would tap the ALT key 2x, type “g” (for Google) and the search terms. (i.e. “g fall fair October”). The student is “beamed” to the results page instantly, in one step. The blind student is not just with the class, in this instance they’re there ahead of the class and has already started reading the results.

Did you know you don’t have to use the initial letter commands to drive screen reader programs that come pre-installed?

That’s right you can modify the ALT initial letter Screen reader command to be whatever makes sense to the user/student. If “Say All” isn’t a term in their general language ask them what does “Say All” mean to you? They might say “Read Everything” thus simply change the shortcut key to “re“. Let’s let them succeed in a manner that makes sense to them on day 1. We can shape knowledge as we build on the excitement of success.

ALT is also compatible with all screen readers, including FREE screen readers like NVDA and SaToGo. This means you can navigate the ALT interface (aka entire program input accelerators/shortcuts), as well as create accelerator/shortcuts to mimic screen reader commands.

No you can’t Drive NVDA or SaToGo yet as they do not have an API (aka some script language/code that will allow ALT and the screen reader to communicate inter-program) but we hope they will soon.

Illustration of the word "REVIEW"

So Let’s Review ALT functionality

Does a Blind Child need to know the entire keyboard layout before using a PC?


To use a PC all children need to know the basic QWERTY keys on a keyboard. With ALT, this is all that’s required of Blind children too. ALT doesn’t need modifier keys or keyboard acrobatics (hitting 2-3 keys at the same time) to complete daily functions.

Example 1 – Joey age 5 blind

Typically as a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) I get questions like this… “Joey and the class go to the computer lab every Wednesday and play a Math Flashcard game. Can you fix the computer so Joey can do the same activity?”

Hum…Let’s think this through

What’s the learning objective?

Math Flash Cards..Do you really need to use a computer to do that?

Does the blind child need to know how to use a screen reader program before using a PC?

Screen readers do one thing…READ what’s on the screen. A screen reader will read the cursor/mouse focus.

Because using ALT accelerators/shortcut keys can drive a screen reader. Meaning you don’t need to teach the standard screen reader commands you can change the command based on student preference.

Make that screen reader operate the way you want it to.

Can a blind student navigate district programs that are not designed to work with screen readers?


ALT will allow the blind student to navigate programs that are not accessible using a screen reader provided the blind user has help from a sighted user. That’s right ask for help one time and then. Do it on your own.

Does a blind child have to have a good concept of computer terminology?


Typically blind children need to know basic PC terms such as menu bar, task bar, status bar, desktop, PC cursor, etc… Why because screen reading programs speak computer language.

How does ALT change that?

You., as the Techie or TSVI can now introduce a screen reader as a tool not a program.

In education children learn by step to step instruction. First you learn about the orientation of the desktop, then about the start menu, then programs and their functions etc…

Hum.. Well if a sighted child can learn by repeating/mimicking a mouse click..a blind child using ALT can learn to mimic as mouse click by learning a ALT accelerator/shortcut key. A new and necessary paradigm shift.

Therefore, a verbal instruction from a regular education such as “click on the Google icon” becomes a click for the blind child by tapping the ALT key 2x (bring up the command window) and “g” for Google.

That’s faster, easier, and a reasonable learning curve comparative to their sighted peers.

Illustration of links of chain

Backwards Chaining

Typically we teach sighted student how to complete a task with 1,2,3 directions.

Think: Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for a blind child? Before they can learn to use a PC they need to:

1. Letter Identification

2. Keyboard layout

3. Windows commands

4. Refreshable Braille Display

5. Screen Reader Commands

6. Good memorization skills

7. Basic Computer language

No blind child in Elementary school can accomplish this task by first grade. Without this, they are already behind and “not equal”. Let’s change that.

So what do you do? Backwards Chaining.

Start with ALT accelerators/shortcuts, (it’s one step), achieve success (the task), then you as the TSVI can work backwards and teach computer terminology, screen reader function keys (using modifier keys), and general PC components/navigation. This, building on success not continually lifting the child from failures or other separators from their classmates.

Start with Success!

Why do blind users utilize expensive screen reader programs like JAWS? Because they offer the best accessibility on the market to navigate other software programs that may or may not be accessible using a screen reader.

Do you need an expensive screen reader if you are using ALT?


ALT can make/navigate programs that are not access to screen readers.

You’ll save money on expensive screen readers as you will be able to utilize FREE screen readers like NVDA or SaToGo as ALT will make inaccessible programs accessible.

Alt in Education

Photograph of childs building blocks, A, B, C.How exciting is it to Learn to Use a Screen Reader?

Boring ….

Did You Know…. The attention span of a child is about 1 minute of every year? Hum. So when you’re trying to teach a first grader how to use a computer with a screen reader so they can play a math Flashcard game you have about 7 minutes.

What Do Kids Want? Immediate Gratification! They want to play the game NOW…not spend the next 6 months learning the entire keyboard, screen reader commands, and the path to locate the Flashcard Program.

Let’s See How We Can Fit That!

Skip Learning the Keyboard.

Use a Refreshable Braille Display. If they can write on a Perkins Brailler they can use a Refreshable Braille Display.

Skip Teaching Screen Reader Functions – a screen reader will read the mouse focus by default.

  • Teach ALT initial letter screen reader shortcut keys or make your own initial letter screen reader commands based on the language used by the student.
  • Most K-6 educational software is graphic based and therefore most likely not screen reader friendly. You can create an ALT shortcut to target unlabeled graphic buttons. That works because now the screen reader will read the mouse focus point the button you can’t find using a screen reader.

Now, all you’ll have to teach is a series of letter commands to navigate a Flashcard Game.

For Example:

Press N for new card

Press RC for Read Card

Press A to hear the answer

Press NP for new problem

Press S for score

It can be that simple, with immediate gratification.

Simple keeps students interest. They ask “How did you do that? How can I make it Read Everything?

Learning is best achieved when the student asks the questions. As teachers, we can teach a student to use a screen reader while they drive instruction through exploration. Then we can include computer language when the student asks “What’s a Menu Bar?”

ALT allows the Teacher as well as the Student Immediate Gratification, Less Frustration, Empowers Discovery Learning, Utilizes Backwards Chaining, Provides a Search-able Database of Screen Reader Commands. Wow.

ALT for MDS (Multiple Disability Students)

Photo of a blind person's feet, walking with a white caneGreat Well what if I Can’t Use a Keyboard, A Refreshable Braille Display?

Hum… What are Reasons Why?

  1. Limited finger dexterity
  2. Limited Mobility
  3. Cognitive Impairments

ALT is compatible with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology.

Photograph of a person holding a RFID tag the size of a postage stamp.Basically it’s like checking out at a grocery store. A RFID tag is that little metal tag the size of a postage stamp. You scan the tag across the RBID scanner and ALT will beam to the Target.

Access Technology Issues

Mrs. Smith has several children in her class. The students all have cognitive impairments, visually impaired/blind, as well as limited mobility.

As a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments

ALT Activity using RFID

Goal -Object Recognition (brush, toothbrush, toilet paper roll, spoon, cup, book, folder)

  • Place RFID tags on Real Objects, making the Object smart (or Smart Objects)
  • Associate an ALT Target with the RBID tag on the Object Link ALT – Target to Audio Feedback on Object

Cup – Cup I need a drink

Brush – A brush is for brushing my hair.

Toothbrush – Time to Brush my Teeth

Spoon – I’m hungry

Toilet paper roll- I need to use the bathroom

What’s the learning objective achieved?

1. Object recognition

2. Cause and Effect

3. Object to Task Association

4. Scheduling using Real Objects

ALT in Education

We say ALT is an Accelerator-it Beams you to a Target. We say ALT is a Macro-Records a series of mouse clicks to repeat the same function over and over again.

I say

ALT allows the student or user the ability to set a Target.

What’s a Target? The Goal, your end point, the place you wanted to be after clicking 30 some keyboard commands/Screen key combinations.

For Instance to Open the Windows Magnifier you’ll have to:

  • Click start (Windows key)
  • Interact with the form field
  • Type in magnify or a variation
  • Tab through the search options
  • Click enter to open the magnifier


  • Click start
  • Type in ease of access
  • Tab to magnifier
  • Enter

Screen capture of ALT pop-up menu with "mag" entered in the input shortcut line

With ALT:

  • I click ALT 2x
  • Type mag
  • Enter

It all happens in one window so you don’t have to navigate a windows platform

How could you make an ALT Target Like This?

Basically its easy you don’t have to know anything about macros, scripts, or computer coding.

In the Action: just type out the keyboard commands you would press normally in the exact sequence and save it (I.E. {tab 3x}{w}{space}).

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