“With accessible technology, we have the opportunity to break down barriers to education (and beyond) for people with disabilities.” – Megan Lawrence, USA
Accessibility Technical Evangelist, Microsoft
Redmond, Washington, USA
Megan Lawrence is part of a team on a mission to reduce the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. This is a monumental task, but one Lawrence will not shy away from. In the US alone, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of people without disabilities. As Microsoft’s Accessibility Technical Evangelist, Lawrence believes one of the key paths to delivering on this mission is through accessible education technology, and an inclusive educational environment. Lawrence and her team are laser-focused on improving the accessibility and inclusive design of Microsoft’s products and services to make Universal Design for Learning (UDL) easier for educators to leverage.
Lawrence’s career path started with her PhD in geography, where she studied how blind and low-vision people use spatial thinking and spatial abilities in STEM education.
“While people often talk about mathematical or verbal thinking, we showed that spatial thinking is a critical component to solving problems and excelling in many STEM subjects,” says Lawrence. “People who are blind do not lack spatial abilities; what they sometimes lack is timely access to digital STEM representations. This creates a digital divide between students who do and do not have disabilities. If we provide students with inclusively designed curriculum – we open doors to STEM education for students with disabilities and students with a range of learning styles.”
As part of her PhD research, Lawrence created Universal Design for Learning (UDL) STEM education in which students — with and without disabilities — could learn alongside each other. “Using 3D printed models, we brought to life molecules that once sat static as a drawing in a textbook,” she shares. “The models provided a medium in which students with vision disabilities not only had access to the lesson material, but could more easily collaborate with their sighted peers and lead the discussion.”
Lawrence and her fellow educators “changed what the students who were blind thought they were capable of. They realized they could teach their peers and be leaders in the classroom and beyond. It also changed what their sighted peers thought they were capable of.”
“With built-in, accessible experiences, we want to save teachers time and help them build personalized education for all learners,” says Lawrence. “But perhaps more important, we want to empower students to personalize their education alongside teachers and access the tools they need when they need them. When we help students become independent learners, we teach them the lifelong skill of self-determination and guiding their own learning journey.”
Lawrence emphasizes the deep investments made in the accessibility of many Microsoft products and services, which will help teachers and students create accessible, personalized learning environments. “While many teachers know about Learning Tools for OneNote (which is now built into Microsoft Word Online, Outlook Web and Office Lens), not nearly as many know about the suite of accessibility tools available to help provide an inclusive education for students with and without disabilities,” she shares. Here are just a few:
- Teachers can now sign up to try Presentation Translator, a new Microsoft Garage Product (powered by Microsoft Translator Live) for auto-generated captions in near-real time when presenting with PowerPoint. Captioning provides a written transcription for a student who is deaf or head-of-hearing to better participate in a class lecture with their peers. It also provides teachers with multiple ways to present course material to enhance learning for students with a variety of learning styles and preferences.
- Editor – built-in to Microsoft Word — helps students write with more confidence. When a word is misspelled, suggested alternatives are accompanied by synonyms for deep learning, and there is also an option to have the suggested words read aloud – a tool useful for English language learners.
- Windows 10 also has a full set of Ease of Access settings and features that enable teachers and students to personalize computer settings to make a device easier to see, with features like High Contrast and magnification, or use without a screen with our built-in screen reader, Narrator. Settings like visual alternatives for audio alerts and duration of notifications are also available.
- Microsoft also has a new training for educators in how to create accessible content to better leverage all of the authoring capabilities of the Office suite. It is a fantastic resource and is available for free for anyone to use.
“The foundation of an inclusive education is the educator’s belief that students with disabilities are valued members of their classroom and community,” says Lawrence. “Every student has an outstanding contribution to make, and we, as educators, must continue to work creatively to make curriculum more accessible and every classroom inclusive.”
That creativity will help a student build confidence, expand their skills, achieve success in the classroom, and, one day, lead to a rewarding career. Lawrence knows we can positively change the employment rate for people with disabilities when we start by focusing on the education experience,, and Microsoft technology is going to help us get there.
About Megan Lawrence
- Educational background: PhD in Geography where my research focused on blind/low vision spatial abilities and spatial thinking and how spatial thinking is used in STEM education and navigation.
- Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: Skype for Business
- What is the best advice you have ever received? One of my favorite quotes, which is also a bit of advice in my opinion is, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou.
- Website I check every day: NY Times – I love to read the news, especially the science page.
- Favorite childhood memory: I grew up in California near the Giant Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We frequently went camping as children. I loved standing next to the largest living trees in the world and hearing the wind in the forest, like the Sequoias were telling me the secrets of history.
- Favorite book: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck