Disabled Bodies, Able Minds: Giving Voice, Movement, and Independence to the Physically Challenged | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Disabled Bodies, Able Minds: Giving Voice, Movement, and Independence to the Physically Challenged

Assistive technology makes it possible for students without full mobility to participate in class and school activities.
By Diane Curtis
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VIDEO: Assistive Technology: Enabling Dreams
Adrian can't walk or speak or use any of his limbs. But the eleven-year-old can control the movement of his eyebrows, and so, amazingly, he can communicate.

"It took us three years," says Adrian's teacher, George Rehmet, of the amount of time they spent trying to locate a place on Adrian's body that would allow him to communicate with using a computer. This particular computer has pictures tailored especially for Adrian: photographs or pictures of friends and family, including his baby sister, Alexis, and pictures or words depicting situations or events he would like to write about, such as the weather, trips with family, and meal preferences.

Adrian, who is taking part in a districtwide program known as TACLE (Technology and Augmentative Communication for Learning Enhancement), wears a headband that can sense the movement on his eyebrows. That motion triggers the computer cursor to move to a row or column on the monitor that illustrates what he's trying to express. The computer then utters the words Adrian has chosen.

Eight-year-old Niara, who has cerebral palsy, sits next to Adrian. Like her classmate, she uses a wheelchair and speech-generation technology, using her cheek to communicate using the computer. When Rehmet asks Niara what she needs, for example, she makes some movements with her cheek, and immediately from the computer come the spoken words: "A hug." Rehmet gives her one.

Students in this special-education class at Redwood Heights Elementary School, in Oakland, California, come to school with a range of disabilities, and the goal of the district and teachers is to design whatever plan is necessary to allow the students to achieve their potential. Some students use the speech-generation devices as a backup to signing or to conversation that is unintelligible to the uninitiated listener. For others, computer speech is the only way they can communicate.

The Oakland Unified School District's TACLE (Technology and Augmentative Communication for Learning Enhancement) program provides disabled students with technology tools that facilitate learning and communication.

Credit: Edutopia

New Tools, New Opportunities

All over the country, what is known as assistive technology is opening the way for disabled students to do what their counterparts of years gone by could not even have imagined. "We all know how technology has improved in the last few years," says Sheryl Burgstahler, director of DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), an advocacy program for disabled students at the University of Washington. "What most people don't realize is that assistive technology has been progressing at the same rate."

Susanna Sweeney-Martini, an outgoing, articulate University of Washington sophomore who wants to be a television news anchor, says she couldn't function like she does today without assistive technology. "Without a computer, I couldn't do my homework," she says. "Without my [wheel]chair, I couldn't get around. Without my cell phone, I couldn't call for help."

Lukas, a Spokane, Washington, high school junior can make his own music, thanks to a joystick-equipped euphonium that was custom designed for his special needs.

Credit: Edutopia

No Limits

DO-IT, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and other widespread efforts and laws seem to have created a greater determination among students and parents to make sure disabled people are included in all activities. Kristy Bratcher, the mother of Lukas, a high school sophomore in Spokane, Washington, who has extremely limited use of his arms and legs as a result of a birth defect, didn't hesitate to encourage him when Lukas expressed an interest in playing a musical instrument.

"I always kept trying to find things that Lukas could do with peers other than an athletic event," says Bratcher. "Everything is sport, sports, sports." So when he brought home a note seeking permission to play a band instrument, she signed it and said, "Lukas, just go and see what's going to work." The Mead High School student chose a euphonium, a tuba-like horn.

Lukas at first just blew into the euphonium without using the finger valves, but his system meant he could play only one note. Although he patiently waited until that note showed up in a musical score and seemed happy to do just that, his patience and upbeat attitude paid off. A school employee sought out a music-store owner named Robin Amend, who is also a musical-instrument inventor and repairman. Amend, whose grandfather had played a musical instrument despite having only one arm, designed a euphonium with a joystick that electronically instructs the valves of the euphonium to move. Later, an engineer worked with Amend to refine the joystick technology.

Lukas may have some mechanical help with his instrument, but music teacher Terry Lack says his personality is what has turned his desire to play an instrument and be part of the band into reality. "He always has a smile on his face and has a really positive attitude," says Lack. "[That's] the real key."

Lukas' mom says her son's participation in the school band has given him a chance to stretch himself and see what he is capable of accomplishing. "I can't predecide what's going to work for him or not," she says. "So many people say, 'You can't. You can't.' Why do we have to talk that way? Let's just see what it is and what he has an interest in, and we'll figure it out."

Assistive technology enables University of Washington sophomore Susanna Sweeney-Martini to overcome her disabilities and participate fully in her college courses.

Credit: DO-IT, University of Washington

No More Excuses

DO-IT's Burgstahler has little patience for school officials who don't think they have a responsibility to include those with disabilities in every school activity possible or who believe a full-time aide can substitute for technology that gives the students more independence. "If they have access to their own computers, they can take their own notes, they can take their own tests, they can write their own papers, they can use the Internet and do their own research," she says.

And as to concerns about the high cost of assistive technology, Burgstahler points to the benefits, and she wonders how schools can justify not investing in tools for disabled students.

"Students can now use their brainpower instead of their physical capabilities to go to college and then on to careers so they can have the life all of us want to have," she says. "They can have the American dream."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

School administrators are biased toward giving students a child specific paraprofessional because they are afraid to let the student be independent and most teachers do not have good technology skills. They see the wheelchair, not the person. This has always been a problem in special ed.

Once I had a physically disabled student who normally went to lunch without her child specific. She was not the sweet, innocent child that most people picture disabled students as. She had a bumper sticker on her wheelchair that said "DIVA" and she was one. This girl, age 17, one day decided to skip class. She talked a younger, easily led student into going with her and they hid out for about an hour on a fairly remote area of the campus. We were looking for them for quite a while. You would think two girls in wheelchairs would be easy to spot, but they had stashed themselves pretty well.

Some of the other teachers though they should not be punished because they were "slow" and "did not know better". HA---B Average, All regular classes except for one period of Study Skills where we helped them with their physical needs and made sure they got their homework and projects completed while they had technology.

They got 3 days in ISS, separate from the other students since the trailer where they held that was not wheelchair accessible and I was the one who got in trouble since I felt that they should be punished like any other skipper.

Elizabeth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A disability does not constitute carte blanche to misbehave with impunity. Social inclusion cannot exclude individuals from taking reasonable and appropriate responsibility for their own actions. Stick to your guns, Skipper!

Kelly Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Special Needs students need to be held accountable to the same standards as others with the proper accommodations in place, of course; however, in response to this article, I think the possibilities are endless in regards to how technology can transform the lives of students and teachers who are in need of such assistance. I think it is important to promote independence and success at all times and new technologies are making that possible. Kelly

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a sign language interpreter in a mainstreamed setting. My student has the best manipulative skills I have ever seen in a child. (I've worked with him for the last 6 years - 3rd grade to 8th). He has not been held to the same standards as the other kids because he can "talk" his way out of it. I am continually requesting that he be treated the same and if that requires detention or punishment of some type, so be it. I totally agree with you in stating that the two girls needed some type of punishment. In today's world you almost have to assume the worst has happened when someone is not where they are supposed to be. They needed to learn the consequences the same as an "able-bodied" student.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! I think this technology is so empowering for individuals with special needs. It gives them a sense of indepence and control.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really do think that this assistive technology needs to be provided to some of our students with special needs. If their disability is hindering their independence and advancement it is the schools responsibility to provide them with the services/accomidations that they need.

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