Google Accessibility Settings and Beyond—a Playbook for IEP Teams

by Mary Pembleton

Teacher and student wearing masks working on a chromebook

Accessibility is everywhere these days. It’s the focus of Superbowl commercials, and accessibility features are probably built into the device you’re reading this on. The good news is that new tools are helping students access learning and close achievement gaps. But what’s the right way for IEP teams to get the most out of accessibility tools? And when is the right time to go beyond what’s built-in and integrate something specialized?

Mike Marotta, self-described Inclusive Technology Evangelist and co-author of Inclusive Learning 365: Edtech Strategies for Every Day of the Year, recommends two steps to get just-right-for-them tools into the hands of struggling learners.

  1. Use what’s free until you can’t. 
    Google Chromebooks, as well as Chrome browsers, sport some pretty fabulous built-in accessibility features. We’ll introduce five in this article, and show how to provide them to your learners with one simple request to an organization’s IT department. For additional features, take a gander at Mike’s full webinar with us here.
  2. Using the built-in features as proof of concept, request additional support.
    Google’s built-in features are a fantastic starting point, but limited in scope. Here we’ll show you how to go beyond the built-in tools—adding some incredible new learning tools to your toolkit. You’ll learn how to ask your organization for specialized tools that address individual needs.

See Mike Marotta's full webinar with us here

How to turn on Google’s Accessibility Features

Google Chromebook without accessibility settings
Google Accessibility Settings

We get it. IT departments don’t want folks messing with Chromebook settings, and that makes sense.

Mike suggests asking your IT department to turn on Always Show Accessibility Options and System Menu for entire groups of learners. That way, Chrome’s accessibility features become available for users, without individually changing settings.

Google Accessibility Admin Settings

Google’s Free Accessibility Features (plus options for more support)

What follows is a list of several of what we consider to be Google’s most useful accessibility features.

It’s helpful to think outside of the box when it comes to feature descriptions. For example, screen reader descriptions will often say they’re for people with visual impairments, but they’re also great at helping folks with dyslexia or ADHD to read.

The Starting Point section details free features that anyone can access. To re-cap, try these first, and document the process.

The section titled When learners need more support highlights ways to connect to more specialized features that provide individualized support.

Technology That Helps With Reading

Starting Point

ChromeVox: Chromebook’s screen reader reads aloud all of the text on the page without discriminating. Screen readers are helpful for those with visual impairments or struggling or dyslexic readers.

Select-to-Speak: Chromebook’s highlighting option allows users to select specific text and have it read aloud, with options to adjust volume, speed, voice, and color of highlights. This tool cannot read photos of text. Select to Speak is also helpful for folks with visual impairments or struggling or dyslexic readers.

When Learners Need More Support

snap and read feature dial showing text-to-speech read aloud

Snap&Read: Snap&Read has all of the features of Select to Speak, but also reads photos of text, for example in online textbooks, that are inaccessible to Select to Speak. It’s a great tool for learners with dyslexia and other learning differences.

Snap&Read is equipped with a text leveling feature, where the user can highlight a block of text and Snap&Read will translate the more complex vocabulary into simpler words, to encourage understanding. It’s particularly helpful for those who are challenged by reading comprehension.

Snap&Read translates text into other languages for English Language Learners (ELLs).

It includes graphic organizers that are accessible in the same window, so students can either speak to record their notes or grab notes directly from the text and save it without having to switch to a different view and go back again. This function is helpful for people who struggle with executive function and writing.

Explore Snap&Read’s features for yourself.

Technology That Helps With Writing

Starting Point

Voice Typing on Google Docs and Slides: This built-in feature is available to anyone, without changing any settings at all. It’s great for learners who struggle with physical obstacles to typing, or learning differences that interfere with writing, like dysgraphia.

Voice Typing on Chromebook: This is a recent addition that allows voice typing outside of Google Docs and Slides. Voice Typing is helpful for students with writing challenges.

On-Screen Keyboard: The visual keyboard is a great place to start to see how a student does with word prediction. The downsides are that the keyboard’s word prediction is only accessible through typing on the on-screen keyboard, not the physical keys. The word prediction accuracy “isn’t great,” in Mike’s words, so a learner who relies on this word prediction may become easily frustrated with this feature.

When Learners Need More Support

Co:Writer word processing animation

Co:Writer: Co:Writer has finely-tuned, grammar-sensitive speech recognition capabilities, with playback that highlights each word as it reads it aloud, which is helpful in checking for accuracy. The supports in Co:Writer were all designed around the specific needs of students with writing challenges, which are targeted for the needs of students—especially with grammar and spelling challenges.

Access to thousands of Topics increases word prediction accuracy even more. Users can select the specific topic they are writing about (from Albert Einstein to volcanoes), and word prediction will adjust accordingly with relevant word prediction. Students can also instantly create a new Topic Dictionary from any webpage with the click of a button.

It works across many platforms—including a Chrome Extension and iPad app.

Experience how Co:Writer works for struggling writers.

When Google’s accessibility features aren’t enough for learners

Mike suggests implementing what you already have available first and documenting that process.

Presenting administrators with the student progress and continued deficits experienced while using Google’s accessibility features makes a data-supported case for the advanced features found in software like Co:Writer and Snap&Read.

An example would go something like this:

Student did well with word prediction. It helped with vocabulary, with spelling, and with speed.

Student still frequently struggles with grammar and becomes frustrated with limitations of word prediction accuracy. Would benefit from a more accurate word prediction tool that stays on topic and also helps with grammar. 

Specialized toolsets with advanced features facilitate independent learning, provide immediate access to the curriculum, and help students with learning differences or physical challenges complete their assignments.

“Ultimately, aren’t we trying to make someone independent?” Mike says. “Isn’t that our goal with inclusive and assistive technology?”

Want to learn about more technology that can help support your students?

Check out Mike Marotta’s full webinar on accessing the curriculum with Google’s accessibility features.

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