Joseph Boggs' vision is so impaired that it is as if he is looking through two straws. The 13-year-old's hearing loss is considered severe to profound, depending upon what sounds he is trying to distinguish.
But Joseph's congenital disabilities lessen in significance as he uses a Refreshabraille 18, a small device that connects to his iPad through Bluetooth and allows him to read Braille.
Joseph runs his fingers over the keys, which have little nodules that pop up into Braille characters as he reads.
An iPad feature reads aloud what's on the screen, and the sound is sent directly into his hearing aids through another device that he wears around his neck.
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Joseph, a seventh-grader at Bryan Station Middle School, and his mother, June Boggs, said that's just one example of the technology he's been using this year while working with Diane Haynes of the Kentucky Deaf-Blind Project.
Haynes connected him with clinical assistant professor Donna Brosteck Lee and clinical instructor Gerald Abner from the University of Kentucky College of Education. Lee and Abner are showing Joseph and his teachers how to use technology to his advantage.
"They are my angels," said Joseph, who after being three years behind academically is now getting up to grade level in many subjects. "The reason I think they are angels is that they changed my life."
Haynes said it's what the educators have learned from Joseph that's having an impact in Kentucky. It's changing the way Kentucky teachers are trained, and how other Kentucky students with visual and hearing impairments are taught, she said.
Sherri Williams, the Fayette County Schools' middle school special education administrator, said the work with Joseph "has been groundbreaking" in the way the district will help students with similar disabilities.
The techniques used with Joseph could have implications for students who don't have vision and hearing problems, she said.
Before Lee and Abner got involved, Joseph's assignments needed to be enlarged on a copy machine or magnified on a screen in the classroom.
Now, Joseph's teachers can scan in a worksheet or upload a file into Dropbox — a service that allows for storing and accessing documents. Joseph can enlarge the worksheet on his iPad screen, annotate it or answer questions, then send it back to his teacher via Dropbox. The iPad has a retina display, backlight and clarity that all help prevent the eye fatigue Joseph deals with when he reads. He uses several applications in completing his school work.
Lee and Abner, who typically meet with Joseph once a week, have also shown him how to curtain the screen on the iPad or make it go black. That could help him in the future: When he is an adult and is paying bills online, someone could be standing over his shoulder reading his personal information and he wouldn't know it. By making the screen go black, he will be able to pay his bills in privacy.
He is now able to sync hearing aids with his iPad and MacBook Pro.
On Thursday, he began learning how to use Apple TV, a digital media receiver designed to play content on a television. Using a television, he will be able to see presentations or some work more clearly.
June Boggs said working with Haynes, Lee and Abner has leveled the field for Joseph in the classroom. This is the first time she's had real hope for Joseph's future, she said.
"His confidence level has boosted beyond belief," she said. "They can take a deaf-blind child and they can teach him, and show him independence and how to learn and what to learn with and how to advocate for himself."
So far, Joseph is the only student that Lee and Abner work directly with, but they intend to provide assistance to other Kentucky school districts.
The Deaf-Blind project based at the University of Kentucky is a technical assistance project helping individuals from birth through age 21 who have difficulty using both their vision and their hearing.
The project is federally funded and overseen by the Kentucky Department of Education. It is subcontracted to the University of Kentucky. The objective is to provide training and on-site technical assistance.
Haynes, the coordinator, helps families and providers working with people who have both vision and hearing problems.
Haynes plans to go with Joseph and his family this summer to a low-vision clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where his eyes will be examined.
Haynes said donations to the Deaf-Blind project paid for Joseph's iPad. Haynes said she realized that she needed people who were extremely well-versed in technology and in working with the visually impaired to get Joseph up to speed academically.
Once she brought in Lee and Abner, she said, they started sharing "rich information" with Joseph, his mother and his teachers.
"He almost had too much" technology," Abner said.
"He had been given all this technology, but it really wasn't working out for him," Lee said. She said Joseph didn't have the training to use it, and there wasn't a team of professionals behind him collaborating: "That's what was missing."
Williams said the partnership between Haynes, Lee and Abner, who has a background in using assistive technology for people with disabilities, has led to a Fayette County Schools study on students with low vision.
Williams said Joseph's classroom teachers at Bryan Station have been "open and wonderful and willing to try anything new."
Teacher Katie Minke videotaped her science classes for Joseph and connected via Skype while he was in the hospital for a week; Debra Maupin, a teacher of the visually impaired in Fayette County, is teaching Joseph Braille, said Abner.
"We've come a long way," Minke said. "I think it's really a benefit to him."
When using the iPad on Friday, Minke said, "I erased one of his answers on accident, but he knew how to get it right back."
Meanwhile, Lee and Abner are using what they learn with Joseph to train college students who will one day be teaching visually impaired students, Lee said.
The first classes in a new program are being offered at UK this fall to train teachers of the visually impaired.
"Having videotapes of Joseph ... is giving us perfect case examples of scenarios to use in classes that we teach," Abner said.
Joseph's experience will offer an important message in teacher training, Haynes said: "Technology is glitzy, but if we don't know how to use it correctly, it's going to do more harm than good."
Joseph said he is no longer as frustrated academically and socially. He even uses the technology he has learned to talk on a cellphone using Bluetooth. Before, his mother said, "he would come home and cry."
"He would stay up until 3 a.m. desperately trying to get the concepts."
Now, he has decided that he wants to go to college and study assistive technology and how to advocate for the disabled.
Lee and Abner said he is a quick study of most everything they show him.
"He has really taken charge of his education and his learning," Lee said. "He's becoming more organized and more self-sufficient, which is part of him becoming an independent adult some day."