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With a Braille Printing Press in His Garage, This Sonoma Teacher Goes the Extra Mile

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Assistive technology specialist Neal Mckenzie prints school assignments with a braille printing machine and delivers them to visually impaired students across Sonoma County. (Courtesy of Neal Mckenzie)

On Friday, March 13, Neal Mckenzie was sitting in his office when he got word that Sonoma County schools would be shifting to online learning the next week, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Okay so, what can I do? What is the most important thing?" he remembers thinking.

Mckenzie works for the Sonoma County Office of Education assisting 130 visually impaired students from kindergarten through high school. He realized one of the most important things he could do  was to ensure he could still provide course materials to his students while sheltering in place, using special machines that print out braille materials.

"We’re talking about kids who really just need that braille and they need that tactile reference. There is really no stand-in for that," Mckenzie said.

Mckenzie began by moving the large machines needed to produce braille content into his compact car: embosser, inkjet printer, tactile image maker and 3D printer, plus cables and embosser feed paper.

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"That first trip back to the office was crazy. I only had a 30 minute window to grab not only the machines but everything to have this whole system run, produce and organize all these forms of tactile materials," he said.

With Sonoma County schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Neal Mckenzie set up braille printing machines in his garage to continue providing school materials to visually impaired students.
With Sonoma County schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Neal Mckenzie set up braille printing machines in his garage to continue providing school materials to visually impaired students. (Courtesy of Neal Mckenzie)

The machines are now set up in Mckenzie's two-car garage, along the wall between his car and his laundry machines, effectively creating a make-shift tactile production center.

"We are constantly fighting the clock so none of our students fall behind waiting on accessible materials, so they can have materials at the same time as their classmates," he said. "It's a constant struggle."

As an assistive technology specialist for the visually impaired, one of Mckenzie's challenges was figuring out how to help sight-limited students adapt to virtual classroom technologies.

"I have to check in with almost all the students I work weekly with just to see, 'Okay, how did the week go? What were the holes? What were the things we need to work on? What are the things that are coming up?'" Mckenzie said.

His first hurdle was making sure they could handle Zoom, the go-to tool for many teachers and students to meet in virtual classrooms.

"Some of them were like, 'Oh, in three days I'm having my first Zoom class,'" Mckenzie recalled. "And it's not going to wait for them to know how to use it."

Mckenzie had to find a way to make Zoom meetings accessible to sight-limited students. His hack: create a tactile braille map of Zoom navigation so students could reference that while he walked them through the app. He compared this to a sighted person using Google Maps when traveling to a new place.

With this prep, Mckenzie said his students are more confident participating in Zoom classes and raising their hands or sharing a document.

A screenshot of an adaptive technology that Neal Mckenzie created for visually impaired students.
A screenshot of an adaptive technology that Neal Mckenzie created for visually impaired students. (Courtesy Neal McKenzie)

Lasting Relationships

McKenzie has been working with the Sonoma County Schools for 11 years, and while other teachers see students come and go, he often maintains relationships with his students over their entire career.

He's known 16-year-old Mario Chitwood since he was in third grade. Chitwood is now a sophomore at Quest Forward Academy in Santa Rosa. He was born with a genetic eye disease, and is completely blind, and he's also the only blind student at his school. Since schools moved online, Chitwood said Mckenzie has been a life line.

"He drops off brailled math sheets that I need for school," said Chitwood. "Right now the math I'm doing has to do a lot with visuals and he prints out diagrams so that I can get the same information that a sighted person can get."

16-year-old Mario Chitwood does school work at home while sheltering in place.
16-year-old Mario Chitwood does school work at home while sheltering in place. (Courtesy of Cindy Chitwood)

Chitwood and Mckenzie share an interest in figuring out how tech can be used to help other blind students become more independent.

"In third grade, I was a sponge for technology, so he would have to like learn the technology before he could teach it to me. And I made that very difficult because I would do learning real quick. We pushed each other," Chitwood said.

It was Mckenzie who helped Chitwood get a new computer designed for the visually impaired, called a Polaris, after Chitwood's family lost their home in the 2017 Tubbs fire. The family lived in Coffey Park, a subdivision that burned to the ground.

"He's just a great guy to be around. He makes the people around him happy," Chitwood said of McKenzie.

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Mckenzie had also launched monthly hang outs for blind students and their parents at the Earl Baum Center for the Blind in Santa Rosa, gatherings which Critwood said he misses, now that the pandemic has forced social distancing.

"It was the fact that all the people there knew what it was like to be blind — the struggles. And the parents can talk and bond. It was just a really nice space to be in," Chitwood said.

It's now been two months since Sonoma County closed its school campuses and it's unclear when they will reopen. Mckenzie said there is a constant stream of new apps that teachers are incorporating that he has to adapt for the visually impaired.

Meanwhile, the braille printing presses in his garage keep running. He and the district braillist share delivery rounds — she takes Tuesdays and he takes Fridays.

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"There's no way that we can go all the way through the end of May without that," Mckenzie said. "It's their mode of learning."

Resources for Visually Impaired Students

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