Adults with Disabilities Using Technology to Learn with the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) Software

Published June 2, 2014

Since 1993, students with disabilities at Bow Valley College have been improving their reading, writing, and math skills using a unique and innovative computer technology called SARAW.[1] These are some of the things learners say about how SARAW has made a difference in their lives:

“At work, I can find things better because I can find the word on the package or box. My boss has noticed I can read better. When I am grocery shopping I can see the words easier.”

“Reading to my children at night, glad to be in this program and hope to be here for a long time.”

“Read stories to audience, read stories that I wrote about my brother.” (Gardner 2005a, 25-26)

At Bow Valley College, adult literacy practitioner Belle Auld has coordinated the SARAW program for the past fifteen years. Belle told me about the program’s history and development.

The SARAW software was created in the early 1990s. The Neil Squire Society in Burnaby, world renowned for designing technology for people with disabilities, collaborated with Capilano College in Vancouver, who are known for innovative literacy programming. The software is adult based and teaches reading, writing, and math skills to adults with disabilities at below grade 7 level.


The SARAW software was originally designed for people with physical disabilities who are non-verbal. “However, people with intellectual as well as physical disabilities have used the program to help them strengthen their literacy skills” (Gardner 2005b, 1).  SARAW was recognized nationally by the Governor General’s Flight to Freedom Award sponsored by Canada Post in 1996. The award “honours a project showing long-term achievement, innovation, leadership and organizational excellence in literacy” (Neil Squire Society 1999, 1).

Belle explains how the technology works.

The SARAW computer has reading and writing sections and within those are reading and writing activities. The reading activities include reading authentic writing done by other people with disabilities and an accompanying workbook that builds on comprehension as well as other activities. The software also has a sounding board that I call the phonetics part of the program. It has literacy games — reading and writing activities in game format. The math portion of the program has skills starting with counting and going up to dividing. It focuses on everyday activities such as going to a restaurant, sharing the bill, figuring out taxes, going shopping and figuring out if you have enough money, writing cheques, and math games. All of this is customizable to each student. The student can choose how much the computer speaks, they can choose the voice, and they can choose the word-predict feature.

SARAW software can also be used with assistive technology.  Adults unable to operate a standard keyboard can use special adaptive equipment to operate the computer. For these learners, SARAW is the only way for them to participate in a literacy classroom.[2]

Evolution of the SARAW Program

Belle told me how the SARAW program at Bow Valley College has evolved over the years.

We’ve built a whole program around the SARAW specialty software. In addition to SARAW software [and the Companion to SARAW exercise book] , we have daily life activities and fun worksheets, crossword puzzles, menu math, an iPad with a user-friendly manual and appropriate apps, Luminosity brain training and brain games, Mavis Beacon teaching-typing software, and box cars and one-eyed Jacks (math games using cards and dice).[3] Students work one-on-one with a tutor. Tutors are either volunteers or support workers (working with community agencies). I set up a training program to train the tutors. They attend up to two hours a week in the classroom with the students. We’re open daytimes, evenings, and Saturdays.

Belle is always looking for ways to improve both the SARAW program, and services for people with disabilities. In 2003, she initiated a national research project called LaDs or the Literacy and Disabilities Study. The project had dual purposes. She wanted to explore issues in adult literacy for people with disabilities and she wanted to investigate how the SARAW software is used in different settings and delivery models. In exploring the connections between adult literacy and disabilities, the LaDs study (researched and written by Audrey Gardner) discovered some disturbing facts. For example, people with disabilities make up a disproportionate amount of the 42 percent of Canadian adults who function at the two lowest literacy levels (Movement for Canadian Literacy qtd. in Gardner 2005a, 4). Numerous studies on literacy and disabilities indicate that people with disabilities are disadvantaged when accessing programs to strengthen their literacy skills (Gardner 2005a, 4).

The study revealed more troubling information:  all national surveys on either literacy or disabilities have identified that people with disabilities are disadvantaged when accessing education, employment, housing, and other community services.

  • Fifty percent of adults with disabilities have an annual income of less than $15,000.
  • Nearly 50 percent of adults with limited literacy live in low-income households.
  • Only 56 percent of people with disabilities are employed, and most are working at low-paying jobs.

There is a serious lack of public awareness about adult literacy and disabilities. Stereotyping and assumptions about the capacity of people with disabilities to learn and to work are harsh social barriers (Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society 2004). The LaDs study led to the development of several useful resources for adult literacy practitioners working with learners with disabilities:

  • a fact sheet on literacy and disabilities
  • a book of learner stories
  • the SARAW Survey Report documenting how SARAW and other activities and factors contribute to effective literacy learning
  • An effective practices guide (see references for more information)

This research was a catalyst for Belle’s next project: The Literacy Survey of Disability Serving Agencies. Belle began thinking about inclusion and what an ideal inclusive adult literacy program would look like.[4] She has this to say about her development process.

I knew about the focus on inclusion in the disability world and I didn’t think SARAW was exactly inclusive… Although clients are coming to the college setting, it’s one student working with one volunteer or support worker [in the SARAW classroom]. I interviewed twenty-nine agencies in Calgary about what they wanted to see in inclusive adult literacy programming for learners with disabilities… We got their input and then created it. Thanks to an anonymous donor coming forward at just the right time, we were able to create the Adult Basic Literacy Education (ABLE) inclusive classroom where people with diagnosed physical and/or developmental disabilities work alongside people without disabilities.  All the learners are working at about the grade 2 to 4 level.

An offshoot of the SARAW program, the ABLE program started in 2008 and includes the ABLE Reading and Writing class, ABLE Financial Literacy, and ABLE Computer Literacy ( to be introduced this summer). While these are positive developments, the SARAW program also has its challenges. The program has been steadily growing over the years, and currently is full to capacity with thirty-eight learner and tutor pairs. The wait-list for learners wanting to attend the program is currently fifty-eight people, the most it’s ever been. That means students are waiting an average of one-and-a-half to two years to get into the program. According to Belle,  “the challenge is trying to achieve the balance between the needs of those in the program for long slow progress — learners with low literacy and disabilities need the long slow progress — with the needs of the people waiting to get into the program.”

Belle finds that another challenge in the program is staff turnover among the community support workers who support the learners as tutors. Few tutors work with more than one learner — most work one to one (one learner with one tutor). “One student started with me and in eight weeks, he had five different support workers. So there is no continuity for the student. And it’s a huge amount of work for me to train all of them as tutors” Belle explains.

Belle has a wish list for expanding the SARAW program. “I would love to see the program doubled. If we could get the funding we could have two classrooms.” She would also like to see the program use more iPad apps complete with instructions in the current iPad user manual, which would require time for research and development.

Her biggest wish is to create what she is calling SARAW Plus. “We would use what works really well in the current SARAW software, add activities incorporating essential skills and pre-employment skills, and create it as an app that can be used on a smart device, either an android or an iPad. I see this as a joint project between Bow Valley College and the Neil Squire Society.”

In the meantime, Belle continues to grow and improve the SARAW program. She recently   finished a research project called Answers May Vary, designed to identify strategies, resources, and effective practices for adult literacy tutors working with learners with disabilities. She plans to use this information to produce a guide book and videos to be used by tutors both in the SARAW classroom, and in community agencies working with people with disabilities.

Belle photo

Belle Auld, coordinator of the SARAW program at Bow Valley College
















Auld, Belle. 2007. Literacy Survey of Disability Serving Agencies. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

———. 2014. Answers May Vary: Literacy Strategies, Resources, and Effective Practices for Adult Learners with Developmental Disabilities. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society. 2004. Literacy and Disabilities (LaDs) Fact Sheet. Calgary: Authors.

———. 2005. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDs) Learner Stories.

Gardner, Audrey, 2005a. “‘It Gets in Your Brain…’ Effective Practices in Adult Literacy Using Speech Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) with People with Disabilities.” Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

———. 2005b. Literacy and Disabilities Study (LaDs) Survey Report. Calgary: Bow Valley College and Neil Squire Society.

Neil Squire Society. 1999. The Companion to SARAW: An Exercise Workbook


[1] For our purposes, the term disabilities includes physical, intellectual, visual, psychiatric, and hearing-related disabilities.  It does not include learning disabilities, although people with disabilities may also have learning disabilities.


[3] Box cars and one-eyed jacks are math games using cards and dice. (It’s also the name of a company that develops educational games.) They are part of a selection of different books and kits available from “Shuffling into Math” for K-3, including money kits, books, and more advanced math materials. See

[4] “Inclusion goes beyond mere physical presence to encompass meaningful participation” (Bailey and Wagar qtd. in Auld 2007, 1).

4 thoughts on “Adults with Disabilities Using Technology to Learn with the Speech-Assisted Reading and Writing (SARAW) Software

  1. I was thrilled to read this article sent to me by former NLS colleagues-Jim Maclaren & Brigid Hayes. It is wonderful to see that SARAW is not only alive and well but evolving and building new capacity, and serving a much broader clientele. the development of this tool was challenging both in terms of developing the technology and getting the funding support for its development and implementation. Congratulations to Neil Squire & Bow Valley for your continued work and success. I am also impressed with the work of Belle Auld which has expanded the capacity and use of SARAW. JOB WELL DONE
    Yvette Souque, former NLS Program Manager

    • Thank you Yvette for the great feedback. I know Belle will be happy to hear this as she moves forward to try to get funding support to expand and update the SARAW software.
      Sandi Loschnig

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