Meet the expert: assistive technology trainer Sarah-Jane Peake
Assistive technology is one of the keys to ensuring that students with disabilities perform to their full potential in further and higher education.
Here we talk to the Sonocent consultant and founder of Launchpad Assistive Technology, Sarah-Jane Peake, about her career and what advice she has for anyone who wants to champion the role that technology can play in creating inclusive learning environments.
What are the three most important things you’ve learned in your career as an assistive technology trainer?
• Technology needs to be tailored to individual needs. It’s about listening as well as explaining, working with the student to create simple strategies that can be easily and quickly integrated into their studies.
• A trainer can learn so much from their students. I’m constantly picking up study skills ideas, recommendations on the latest apps and interesting and new ways to use software. Often students with a disability or learning difficulty will have found coping strategies to overcome their weak areas. This can throw up some creative approaches, which is quite inspiring.
• The technology has to look good, have an intuitive interface and be reliable and stable – if it’s not strong in these areas students won’t use it.
What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
I’m incredibly proud of founding Launchpad Assistive Technology – it’s early days but it’s going from strength to strength. I was also really honoured to be appointed as a co-opted director on the board of BATA (British Assistive Technology Association). This will give me even more opportunity to champion assistive technology and be part of its development.
There are quieter achievements too, but ones I feel are just as important. I’ve had the privilege to teach hundreds of students and it’s always lovely when I can contribute to a student passing exams or getting their best-ever mark on an essay.
What is the most exciting development in assistive technology during your time in the industry?
I’m really excited about integration of technology, and it’s wonderful to see things like text-to-speech and Dragon integration in Sonocent Audio Notetaker.
It’s becoming clear that assistive technology has furthered the development of technology in the mainstream. A good example of this is Dragon NaturallySpeaking, created by Nuance. Used for years by many people with disabilities, Nuance’s technology is now truly integrating into the mainstream, with cloud speech recognition in domestic appliances including TVs, voice biometric security for banking identity and use with wearable devices.
What is the one question that students most often ask you?
When Windows 8 came out it was ‘Where on earth is my Start menu?!’ I get a lot of questions from students on the best ways to make a start on a piece of written work when they’re feeling overwhelmed, unorganised and unmotivated. There’s now so many great tools to help with that – it could be extracting information from lecture notes, mind mapping an essay plan, verbalising ideas using Dragon or phone apps like Pomodoro that help combat procrastination.
What was it that sparked your passion for assistive technology?
I began as an assistive technology trainer ten years ago, and I quickly discovered that I really loved the job – it’s a perfect fit for my strengths.
I hadn’t lived in London very long and it gave me the opportunity to explore every part of the city and meet an interesting and diverse group of people. It really is a privilege to be able to spend time with students and help make their academic life that bit easier.
As I gained experience, I realised I had some valuable on-the-ground expertise that could be shared with software developers. It’s very exciting to be part of the future of assistive technology and to imagine how it will develop in the years to come.
What is your one piece of advice to anyone who trains students in the use of assistive technology?
Listen to the student and learn ways to adapt your teaching to their needs. Be aware of different learning styles and how confident the student feels in their computing skills. That might require slowing down the pace of the training, coming up with tactics to keep students with concentration issues engaged or being sensitive to the needs of students who can get anxious if you disrupt the way they like to keep organised.
You also need to keep up to date with technological advancements and updates. Refresh your knowledge regularly and get down to events like Bett Show to chat with the people making the technology.
What one big thing could be done to improve the support provided to students with disabilities at university?
More can always be done to promote a greater understanding of the needs and requirements of students with disabilities.
We need to encourage more knowledge sharing, so that study skills tutors and students have a greater awareness of the assistive technology that’s available.
Software developers also need to try to reduce any stigma or anxiety about using assistive technology by making tools that look good and feel cutting edge. We should also encourage and facilitate a community of users that can share experience, tips, study skills, advice. I’ve just started a YouTube tutorial channel, which I’m hoping will contribute a little to that aim.
Who inspires you?
I take a lot of inspiration from my students who often have to work that bit harder to get where they want to be. I see a lot of determination and ambition, and it’s our job to provide the tools and assistance to enable them to work to their strengths and perform at the same level as their fellow students.
Also campaigners such as my close friend, Becky Bunce. I’m endlessly inspired by the energy and ideas that she brings to wonderful campaigns such as ICchange (calling for the UK Gov to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and domestic violence) and Sisters of Frieda (an experimental co-op for disabled women).
Sarah-Jane advises Sonocent on the applications of our software for study strategies including note taking, revision and presentation practice. She is also heavily involved in the development of Sonocent training resources for other assistive technology professionals. Find out more about her work at www.launchpadforyou.com
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