I still recall the weekend, many years ago, that I spent deep in a cave in Tennessee, camping for a couple of nights in a large, cavernous room. I remember one of the guides explaining to us that once the last lantern was extinguished, we would experience what it was like to be completely blind.
Total darkness. No, not like what I knew from time spent in photo darkrooms, where there was always some faint glow from a machine that I could focus on, a reminder that I could still see. In that cave when the last light went off it was blackness. Squinting, rubbing my eyes, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness – nothing worked. And I was in an unfamiliar environment. There was no walking along, touching a wall to get a sense of where I was at.
I was in complete nothingness. The only sounds were the far-off trickle of water echoing through the subterranean passages and the sound of an occasional cave rat scurrying around in search of food.
It’s hard for us to imagine what it is like to lose one of our senses, especially our sight.
But think what it must be like to have limited vision and know that eyeglasses and modern medicine can do only so much.
And imagine what it must like to be a young student relying on old technology to help you to read and participate in class.
Last week I had the opportunity to visit with Bonnie DeNoma, Executive Assistant and Amy Tangen, Outreach Coordinator, at the Montana School of the Deaf and Blind (MSDB). We met at the offices of OverHere Consulting in the Times Square building in Great Falls. Also at the meeting were Travis Stevenson and Ed Worrell, both with OverHere.
The purpose of my visit was to see a demonstration of the Prodigi device, manufactured by Humanware. Humanware manufactures accessibility devices, and in this region the company’s products are offered by OverHere.
The Lions Club Montana District 37 has committed to donate 50 Prodigi devices at a cost of $150,000 to MSDB. The MSDB Foundation is actively seeking matching gifts for the Lions Club’s $150,000 pledge to acquire the other 50 units.
According to MSDB, Teton County School District has been identified as one of those most in need, with one device suggested. Cascade County has a need for five devices - $15,000. The same need has been noted for Lewis & Clark County.
When a student in a Montana school has a need for a Prodigi, MSDB will loan that school a device for the student. The devices sell for $3,000 each. Currently, MSDB has only a few units on campus, and those are 20 years old.
The new devices will serve as a long-term lending library – the equipment will remain with an assigned student through each grade level until such time it is determined that it’s no longer required.
Amy Tangen explained that schools are forced to try the “simplest, cheapest solutions first” when working with blind or low-vision students. “The school will try zooming (enlarging) type on a copier” to aid the student, Tangen said, “Or the student will use a handheld magnifying glass to read the text.”
Even something as simple as using a more readable font, such as Helvetica, can make the text easier to read, Tangen added.
Stevenson had an earlier device – that was not very old – and he picked it up to demonstrate how bulky the machine was. For a young person, I would equate it roughly to lugging around an old overhead projector.
So, what is this Prodigi device? It is, in simple terms, a high-tech magnifying device.
The Prodigi is amazingly small. It quickly folds into the size of a small laptop computer, easy to carry by hand or put into a backpack. When needed, the student unfolds the Prodigi and powers it up. Asked how long it takes for a young student to learn how to use the machine, Stevenson said, “Literally seconds.”
The Prodigi is battery operated. That is important because at one Montana school, a student had to use an old plug-in machine. Because an extension cord could not be used, the student had to sit at a desk along the wall, a spot that did not offer the best view of the teacher.
Stevenson powered up a Prodigi and gave a demonstration. The “brain” of the machine is a digital tablet, something akin to an Apple iPad. He placed a printed brochure under the device and in only a few seconds, the machine sensed the brochure and an image came into sharp focus on the tablet screen. It did not matter that the fold in the brochure meant that it would not lay flat, the image focus was sharp across the image.
Older devices would only allow limited enlargement, the Prodigi will enlarge up to 40X.
The Prodigi operator taps the screen to bring up a menu. Large, easily readable icons allow the user to select one of the functions. Stevenson taps an icon on the screen to tell the Prodigi to covert the text on the brochure into a vocal readout. Shortly, a voice is coming out of Prodigi reading the words aloud as it displays the text on the screen. It is fast and accurate in it’s conversion.
Considering the move to the digital classroom, the machine is well ahead of the curve. It works with Google Apps, such as Google Classroom, Drive, Gmail and Chrome internet browser. Textbooks are available to be accessed by the device.
Prodigi has another capability that is important for any student – a detachable camera. The camera is about the size of a small styrofoam coffee cup and is can be mounted on a flexible post. The student can activate the camera and aim the lens in any direction – such as the front of the classroom where a teacher is writing on a blackboard. The Prodigi will go into a split-screen mode, and the student can watch the teacher in the top half of the screen and read along with the enlarged text of a textbook at the same time. The user can even take the camera off the mount – it’s wireless – and aim it anywhere they like. The battery in the Prodigi is good for about eight hours on a charge.
Stevenson told the Sun Times that in the last few months, interest in the Prodigi has increased, saying that OverHere “has sold seven to ten units.” One was recently sold to the school district in Billings, the Butte district has acquired two.
Stevenson said that the device can make a world of difference for a student. He used a much older machine in high school, but used a Prodigi in college, “I was a ‘C’ student in high school, but with the Prodigi in college, I was a straight ‘A’ student.
Seeing how easy the Prodigi was to use, it’s compact size, and high-tech, I asked if it made a difference with a student’s outlook – would they feel more accepted, which may have a direct impact on how they feel about attending school? All agreed that in this tech-centered world, using something like a Prodigi would make it easier for the blind and low-vision to feel more accepted into the student body.
DeNoma said that children as young as second grade can use the Prodigi.
DeNoma and Tangen said that they have seen an increase in the number of blind and low-vision students in recent years. “Six years ago I had 45 visually impaired students in the area I serve,” said Tangen. “Now I have 82.” MSDB serves the needs of about 500 students across the state, and about 30 students with vision impairments attend MSDB in Great Falls. Another 20 students at MSDB have hearing impairment.
MSDB also offers programs where a student can attend limited classes at the campus – such as one day a week at MSDB, the remainder of the school week at their home school.
Fairfield Lions Club member Mike Johnson told the Sun Times that the Prodigi acquisition is another part of the Lions Club’s commitment to work with visually impaired children to make sure they get the help they need. Locally, the Lions Club works with Dr. Brian D. McCollom, OD to assess the vision needs of students in Fairfield.
Johnson told the Sun Times that the club does not plan any additional fundraising effort to raise money to purchase the Prodigi unit, but that donations would be welcome. He also urged anyone interested in working on community projects such as this would be welcome to consider joining the Fairfield Lions Club. If you would like to learn more about joining the Fairfield Lions, or if you would like to make a donation toward the purchase of a Prodigi device, contact a local Lions Club member.
Anyone interested in finding out more about MSDB’s work can visit their website, ww.msdb.mt.gov
The MSDB just celebrated its 125 Anniversary in April Established in Boulder, Montana in 1893, the school was relocated to Great Falls in 1936. It’s located on a ten-acre campus.
Travis Stevenson and Ed Worrel at OverHere Consulting can be reached via their website, www.overhereconsulting.net