Freedom Scientific does more than create some of the most popular assistive technology available, such as JAWS and ZoomText. The company also sponsors a Student of the Month Program, which recognizes K-12 students in the U.S. who are excelling in their educational endeavors.
“We hear about these amazing students doing great things using our products from their teachers of the visually impaired, so we decided to create a program for these students,” says Elizabeth Whitaker, product manager, user education and outreach.
Launched in December 2020, the Student of the Month Program honors a student nominated by themselves, a teacher, a friend, or a family member. Honorees are featured on the Freedom Scientific blog, along with a video about their education and extracurricular interests. They also receive a $500 Amazon gift card – and Freedom Scientific recently established a partnership with Computers for the Blind, which gives each student a computer with the software of their choice.
Making the grade: One student’s story
Campbell Rutherford of Tennessee was the Freedom Scientific Student of the Month in February of 2021. She’s not sure who nominated her, because she’s made a concerted effort to make as many connections as possible with other people interested in assistive technology. In fact, she was already working as an assistive technology instructor for other students – after having struggled for a year to get the assistive technology training she needed – when she learned she’d won.
“I’d sought out mentorship and then sort of became a mentor to other people,” Campbell says. “I could see other students having the same kinds of challenges I did, so I thought if I could provide help by teaching and sharing my story, maybe that’s something I’m supposed to do.”
Her vision loss is the result of Leber congenital amaurosis, and she was born with very little vison and no color perception – she sees everything in grayscale. Campbell is a braille reader, a cane user, and a screen reader user.
The power of persistence
Campbell, who recently graduated from high school – and was accepted into Harvard, where she plans to study applied mathematics – found it especially difficult to get assistive technology training because she was homeschooled. This proved to be a particularly big hurdle when she wanted to take Advanced Placement (AP) calculus, because the only braille AP calculus book was from 1999.
Along with her calculus tutor, who is featured in her Student of the Month video, Campbell scoured every resource and finally found a digital AP calculus book. She ultimately needed three different books plus a study guide to get all the necessary information, because the digital textbooks didn’t have graphics.
“I essentially taught myself AP calculus, with my tutor helping me with the concepts once a week,” Campbell says. “It was a lot of work so it’s something I’m proud of – and it was important to my future college studies. But I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t developed some assistive technology skills by that point.”
The benefits of recognition – and assistive tech
Campbell considers meeting many people from Freedom Scientific, which helped connect her with her tutor, one of the highlights of being a Student of the Month. She has also conducted training sessions for other organizations on some of Freedom Scientific’s products. What’s more, Campbell did some tutorials with Freedom Scientific on the Desmos Graphing Calculator, a free online resource that she says makes mathematics highly accessible.
“We get a lot of compliments on those tutorials, because many people didn’t really understand what Desmos was or that it was accessible,” Elizabeth adds.
She points out that some Student of the Month honorees have actually been interns at Freedom Scientific. And because it’s a recognition program, Elizabeth says there’s no telling the kind of opportunities the program might open up for students.
“Maybe that student goes on to college and then comes back to work for Freedom Scientific one day,” Elizabeth says. “You just never know.”
One thing Campbell is certain of is the importance of assistive technology.
“I would tell other students to be sure they learn assistive technology,” she says. “There are so many free resources out there now. So whether you use those or get training, there’s almost nothing that’s more important, especially when you get to high school, as being fluent in technology.”