Looking back, many of us cannot remember difficulties we faced as young students, when learning the tasks we now see as simple. Things like reading, writing, using a computer or smart phone, and more. We have known how to do tasks like these for so long, we don’t even have to think, we just do it. In school, we might have had difficulty understanding material but not the basic functions we use to study and learn. Taking notes, reading chapters, watching educational videos, and studying flashcards are all key study tactics. But what if one day in middle school or high school, you suddenly lose your sight or hearing? Now, these simple everyday tasks have become some of your biggest challenges as a student. What do you do now? How can you imagine keeping up with your studies, when you have to relearn the basics from scratch? With the help of the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), these challenges can be conquered.
Expanding Learning Opportunities for All
The National AEM Center at CAST is a federally funded technical assistance center based out of the nonprofit organization CAST. The mission of CAST is to remove learning barriers by creating inclusive and flexible learning environments. With a goal of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), they know accessibility is a primary factor that needs to be available. We spoke with Luis Perez, a Technical Assistant Specialist at CAST, and he describes accessibility as, “the welcome mat of UDL. It is the first steps to creating a full UDL environment.” He further explained to us, “You need to be able to interact with the environment, receive the information, respond and if we don’t take care of those accessibility requirements upfront, it makes it that much more difficult for students to have access to higher learning skills.” Gaining access to learning tools like this is a life changer!
Programs and Resources
AEM at CAST provides a multitude of resources to help individuals of all ages and abilities learn and develop necessary skills needed for furthering education, as well as workforce development. For people unfamiliar with AEM’s, regardless of age or need, they provide a collection of frequently asked questions and need to know information on their Quick Starts website. They also provide a free online course, open to everyone. The course consists of 5 sections, listed below:
- Introduction to Accessible Educational Materials and Technologies
- How to Make your Documents Accessible
- How to Locate Captioned Videos and Make your Own
- How to Find Specialized Formats of Print Materials
- How to Select Accessible Digital Materials
Additionally, the National AEM Center performs webinars on a monthly basis through Zoom meetings. Each webinar is on a new topic related to the accessibility of education materials. These webinars are perfect to help individuals learn about the different tools available, while also explaining how they are used. But they do not stop there! They also do a number of conference presentations out in the field. This allows them to disseminate information on new policies, new technologies, and new approaches to accessibility. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to collect data to accurately determine the current needs of the field. Using this data, they can further research and development of tools and materials to fully meet the needs of all individuals. The main contribution from CAST, however, has been the creation of the UDL Guidelines. They are based on a combination of research on the learning brain and best practices educators have contributed over the years. To date, these guidelines are being used worldwide by people interested in creating more inclusive learning environments.
In conclusion, apart from learning about accessibility, remember it is more than just creating accessible learning environments, but creating ones where learners are engaged and have options for how to show their understanding. That is where Universal Design for Learning comes in.
For more information on the National AEM Center at CAST, we urge you to visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. If interested in getting involved, sign up for their AEM Connector newsletter and follow their event postings on social media.
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