Recently, I received a note from someone on my website asking me if I was familiar with the AlphaSmart for low vision and dysgraphia. I was surprised that someone had asked me about this, as I had used it in early high school but had assumed it was not an overly common assistive technology tool. However, since many school districts have limited funding for assistive technology, there are still lots of AlphaSmart devices being used. Today, I will be sharing my tips on the AlphaSmart for low vision and dysgraphia from the perspective of a user.
What is an AlphaSmart?
The AlphaSmart is a brand of portable, battery powered, word-processing keyboards that’s similar to a digital typewriter. It is designed for writing on-the-go and can be plugged into a computer to transfer saved written text with no internet required. While the AlphaSmart is no longer manufactured, it remains a popular tool in classrooms for students with disabilities and can be purchased used online. They can be purchased for as low as $19 from eBay and $40 from Amazon. My specific model is the AlphaSmart Neo.
Why I got it
In eighth grade, I noticed one of my friends who had severe dysgraphia got approval to use the AlphaSmart for taking notes in the classes we shared together (English and history). I didn’t know what the device was called, but asked if I could also get this “keyboard device” so that I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to read my messy handwriting. While my middle school didn’t allow me to use the device, my first high school allowed me to use it and provided me a school-owned device at no cost to support my classroom accommodations for dysgraphia.
How it works
The AlphaSmart is very simple to use and allows users to write in up to eight different files, which can be accessed by pressing the keys for file 1, file 2, file 3, etc. After the device is turned on by pressing the on/off switch and a user selects a file, all they have to do is type and the information will be stored to the file. The AlphaSmart can support up to 12.5 pages in each of the eight files, though I copied my text to the computer regularly.
Increasing text size
To increase the text size of the AlphaSmart, press ctrl-option-f and then adjust the display size accordingly. Since I have low vision, I preferred to have two lines displayed at a time. If I needed to go back and read something, I could navigate up/down the page with arrow keys, though this isn’t particularly fast.
Since I wasn’t allowed to have a computer at school during my first semester of freshman year, I would come home from school everyday and import notes to my personal computer. This was done by connecting my AlphaSmart via USB and opening a program to copy the notes to- my favorites being Word and OneNote. Once everything was set up, I would click the “send” button on my keyboard and the text from a given file would copy to my document. I had to be careful not to touch my computer since that could interrupt the text copying process, but once the text was copied I could erase it from my AlphaSmart.
In high school, students were allowed to carry their backpacks to class, so I just kept my AlphaSmart in the laptop component of my backpack. Other friends who used the AlphaSmart preferred to carry it in a laptop bag or would simply carry it on top of their binders or books without any additional case.
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What I used it for
Here are the different ways I used the AlphaSmart in the classroom:
- Taking notes in class
- Writing essays and stories during study hall
- Copying down homework problems
- Noting things I wanted to talk about with my case manager
How my teachers reacted
Since laptops and other electronic devices were not allowed at my school, some of my teachers disliked the AlphaSmart at first, because they weren’t sure how I would be using it or if it would be a distraction. As the semester went on, they became more content with me using it because I was able to type out assignments and the device was unable to access the internet or give me any other unfair advantages compared to other students. However, the moment that I got approval to use a laptop in the classroom, I rarely used the AlphaSmart from that point on.
I’m grateful that my school district was able to allow me to use the AlphaSmart for low vision and dysgraphia accommodations as part of my IEP, and that they had these devices available for students to use. While I haven’t seen a lot of AlphaSmarts in recent years, I highly recommend it as a way to embrace assistive technology with limited funding for students who prefer to type assignments and don’t have access to a computer during the school day.