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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Assistive Technology Enables Dreams

From voice-activated software to customized laptops, tech is changing the way disabled students communicate, learn, and play. More to this story.
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Man: Somebody just take that.

Narrator: For most students, technology is a tool that saves time and helps them research, explore, create.

Student: Get a little bit of the tree.

Narrator: For disabled students like Susanna Martini, technology is all of those things and much more. It is a lifeline.

Susanna Sweeney-Martini: Assistive technology is the major foundation of my life. Without it I could not exist as I am today. I mean without a computer I couldn't do my homework.

Move left one word.

Without my chair I couldn't get around. Without my cell phone I couldn't, you know, call for help.

Narrator: Active since she was born with cerebral palsy, Susanna refereed soccer matches from her wheelchair in high school. A sophomore at the University of Washington she uses voice activated software to complete her written assignments.

Susanna Sweeney-Martini: Because computers involved electricity.

Sheryl Burgstahler: We all know how technology has improved in the last few years all sorts of technology. What most people don't realize is that assistive technology, technology that helps people with disabilities use computers has been progressing at the same rate.

Susanna Sweeney-Martini: Answer, air pressure prevents this from happening. Source: Steven Hawking.

Sheryl Burgstahler: Even though there's a lot of technology available for people with disabilities, it isn't implemented that much in our school systems today and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that people who work with students with disabilities, this could be teachers, lab managers, parents, often aren't aware of the technology that is available for them and then technology is not always included in the planning process.

Susanna Sweeney-Martini: Back in high school they didn't understand that I needed a laptop and I needed a desk that could raise and lower and I didn't have those things.

I got a laptop after my mom made them get me one because she knows how to get through the red tape but it's really necessary for anybody who has a disability to get what they need assistive technology wise.

Teacher: So the elevator controls what we call pitch.

Narrator: The University of Washington's Disabilities Opportunities Internet-working and Technology program or DO-IT helps students get the technology they need and holds summer workshops to help them prepare for college.

On this one, I agree that you found the rule.

Vishal Saraiya: I use my laptop that I got from the DO-IT program and I use on-screen keyboard to type and to print and to surf the web.

Now I'm ready for a bigger challenge.

Narrator: Vishal Saraiya was elected President of the Summit K through 12 student body.

I'm Vishal Saraiya and I hope you vote for me.

Narrator: And is planning to attend college next fall.

Sheryl Burgstahler: If they have access to 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. These are things that they couldn't do in another way. They need to practice these independent skills so that they can move on to college and on to careers.

George Rehmet: What was your favorite part that you learned about-- okay, go ahead.

Student: Northwest Indians.

Narrator: Studies show that the earlier children are introduced to assistive devices the quicker they master them.

Carlos: This morning I was mad.

George Rehmet: Why were you mad, Carlos?

Carlos: Because I didn't want to get up in the morning to go to school.

Narrator: So at Redwoods Heights Elementary in Oakland California the learning begins in preschool.

George Rehmet: By introducing kids to technology early, it gets them better prep eared and makes it easier down the road and then they can spend the later years of their school years focusing on content material and the curriculum.

Student: Bird.

George Rehmet: Okay, what else?

Narrator: The first task is to determine the best way for the child to access a device whether it's the touch of a finger, a nod, or the twitch of an eyebrow.

George Rehmet: It took us three years to figure Adrian out, now he couldn't move any parts of his body except his eye brow and so we determined that that was the switch site and then we determined which type of device would be used.

Teacher: First the device scans the rows. And then when he twitches his eyebrow it begins to select the column so row, column scanning.

Narrator: The devices are personalized with various icons, phrases and voices and can be programmed to let children share news from home with their classmates or tell their parents what they did in school.

Student: We are learning about the solar system.

Teacher: Where? Which class? That's right.

George Rehmet: Can you name some of the planets for us?

Student: Mars, Jupiter-

George Rehmet: I think we give something that's priceless, a voice basically.

Student: Pluto.

George Rehmet: A lot of our kids are bright and we give them that power. Who knows the next one could be the next great physicist. Or next great scientist. I mean we've got some wonderful kids with some wonderful minds.

Narrator: For one student at Spokane's Mead High School technology is the key to pursuing his passion.

Narrator: Lukas Bratcher loves to play his Euphonium horn in the school jazz band, concert band, and even the marching band. That Lukas can play anywhere is a testament to his perseverance and the support of many people who help make his playing possible. It has been an uphill battle ever since he was born with a condition that renders his limbs nearly useless.

Lukas Bratcher: It's called amyoplasia arthrogryposis multiplex congenita and it's throughout my four limbs and it's basically I have stiffness in my joints and some of my muscles aren't there.

Teacher: What's another name for one over sin-theta?

Lukas Bratcher: Cosecant.

Teacher: Cosecant theta.

Narrator: Lukas hasn't let his disability prevent him from participating fully at school.

Teacher: That's one over cosine theta.

Lukas Bratcher: Right.

Narrator: He takes four advanced placement classes. And does his homework on a laptop without the aid of the voice recognition software the school provided.

Lukas Bratcher: How about we move the knight there.

Narrator: Lacking manual dexterity, Lukas learned to play music his own special way to the amazement of his first band director.

Lee Shook: He looked very eager and excited about being a member of the band and quite honestly my thought at that time was oh my goodness, how could this possibly work? And as we took the students through their method book I noticed that occasionally he would play on his horn. His hands were not able to activate the valves on the instrument so it was apparent to me that what he was doing was just being selective about the notes that he was playing.

He was willing to just sit there and just wait for that one note to come along in the music and when it came he played it with all of his heart and enthusiasm and capability to make the best sound that he could. That was enough for him, initially.

Narrator: But Lukas knew he could do more and that's when serendipity led his mother to the instrument repair shop of Robin Amend.

Robin Amend: I love repairing. It's always different. You're always working on a different instrument. There's always different problems. My grandfather was a vaudeville musician. He lost his arm in a lumber mill accident. He put an ad in the Portland paper asking one-armed people if they're interested in learning music. He taught them how to play instruments.

Narrator: The senior Amend also patented a device that allowed people with missing hands to play the piano.

Robin Amend: I'd always wished that I could make something that could make a person who had lost an arm be able to take the place of their fingers and then one night I woke up in the middle of the night and I realized that joy sticks aren't just for putting electrical things on screens. Joy sticks can do other things. Joy sticks can do mechanical things.

Narrator: Amend's dream became a small box with a joy stick that riggers solenoids and operated the valves of a horn. Learning a new way of playing was exhilarating and frustrating for Lukas and just as he was getting the hang of playing it, someone took his horn.

TV Newscaster: Call Crimecheck if you have any information.

Kristy Bratcher: It was stolen in the morning and by five o'clock that same day I was getting the first call on my cell phone from an anonymous person that said that they wanted to contribute monetarily to a fund to either replace it or as a reward for it and from that point on it just snowballed into this huge wonderful thing where the community raised 6,000 dollars.

Andrew Coleman: I wasn't quite sure where the optimum spot for the solenoids was going to be so I want to be able to have it slide up and down.

Narrator: The loss of the first horn became a blessing when mechanical engineer Andrew Coleman joined Amend to design a second more responsive joystick and horn which Lukas uses today.

Lee Shook: When I heard and saw Lukas perform recently at a concert it reminded me just how far we've come. And through the efforts of all the people that have been supporting him we caught on to his dream.

Sheryl Burgstahler: Technology has changed all of our lives, but for these students technology truly changes their life and the opportunities that they'll have in the future.

Susanna Sweeney-Martini: I think assistive technology is going to allow me major in communications and get a minor in disabilities studies. I actually want to be a news anchor.

I'm hoping to go to college on a music scholarship and study music an be a musician. I love to play.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Michael Curtiss
  • Ken Ellis
  • Peak Video Productions
  • Mike Stine


  • Kris Welch

Additional Footage Courtesy of:

  • Robin Amend
  • Kristy Bratcher
  • Tom Engdahl Video Productions
  • DO-IT!
  • KHQ-TV
  • KXLY News4

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