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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Assistive Technology: Enhanced Learning for All

New educational tools help students with a range of learning disabilities excel.
By Lisa Wahl

Assistive technology has increased options for students with a range of learning difficulties.

Credit: INTELLITOOLS, Inc.
  • A kindergarten student with cerebral palsy, who cannot speak and has limited movement, uses a talking switch to act as the "caller" for a game of Red Light/Green Light. A light touch to the switch announces "green light" and sends her classmates running. A second touch causes the device to say "red light" when she wants her classmates to stop.
  • A student who can comprehend history at the ninth-grade level but can read only at the third-grade level gains access to his history textbook with the help of a computer that scans and reads text out loud. The computer displays the material as it reads, so the student can understand the graphic features of the textbook, including timelines and graphs.
  • A child with extreme dyslexia uses an AlphaSmart laptop word processor -- a small, rugged keyboarding device -- to take notes that are later transferred to a computer for editing.
  • A child who can't listen and take notes simultaneously gets copies of notes from other students, who have used carbonless copy paper so he can focus his attention on listening during the lesson.
  • A one-handed typist uses a standard keyboard in which the key locations have been rearranged (using a free software utility and some labels) to optimize the position of the most frequently typed keys. Such a typist could also use one of the keyboards specially designed for just five fingers, with as few as eight keys.
Credit: INTELLITOOLS, Inc.

We All Have Special Needs

Education for students with disabilities now takes place in a wide range of settings, from full inclusion in mainstream classes to special day classes that allow intensive support for particular skills. It is a time when expectations and educational options are often made possible by assistive technology (AT) devices that make it easier for all students to participate in classroom activities.

While AT includes a set of federally mandated services and equipment for students with disabilities, the term also refers to valuable tools and strategies for including students with a wide range of learning styles in classroom activities. AT can be a triangular pencil grip, a talking calculator, a larger computer monitor, or a voice amplifier for a teacher with vocal cord strain. All these examples reflect the individual nature of assessing when and how a device will make teaching and learning more effective -- as well as the benefits of many kinds of assistive technologies to people without disabilities.

The 1997 federal reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that school districts must provide assistive technology to eligible children if needed to ensure the provision of a free, appropriate public education. Educators across the country are struggling to consider each student's need for assistive technology. Along with the time it takes to assess each child's needs, other barriers to implementing AT include a lack of AT-experienced teachers and related personnel, few sources of staff training focusing on education, and need for additional funding. As with any educational technology, the challenge is to integrate AT as a tool to provide access to the standard curriculum. Even with these barriers, examples of successful uses abound.

Success Stories in Action

It's reading time in a second-grade classroom in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area. About half the children select a book from the classroom library and return to their desks. One child uses a transparent yellow film overlay on each page to increase the contrast in the print. Another uses a black card with a long horizontal window cut out that allows him to see just a single line at a time. A third child with reading difficulties moves to the computer and puts on headphones. He selects the text file for a book that has been scanned into the computer. The computer can read every word aloud, but the teacher chooses a different option, which allows the student to click on difficult words and hear them pronounced. The teacher also sets the print size and font to one that she knows is optimal for this child's vision.

In the Fremont Unified School District in nearby Alameda County, one of fourteen disabled students -- two with poor vision, four in electric wheelchairs they maneuver by themselves, three who are not able to speak due to physical or neurological disabilities, and several with developmental disabilities -- leads the class in the Pledge of Allegiance. The words are programmed into the youngster's DeltaTalker, a device that speaks in response to commands sent by a head-mounted infrared pointer. Another student uses her DeltaTalker by pressing a single finger to one key to say hello. The teacher uses both spoken words and sign language. When she writes on the chalkboard, an aide writes the same thing on a smaller chalkboard less than three feet away from a student with poor vision.

Students Helping Students

A "volunteers welcome" sign hangs on the door at various times in the day. This sign invites older students who have been licensed through a training program on disabilities awareness, safety, and volunteering to come in and assist with a recreational or study period. Volunteers are particularly helpful in setting up and putting away materials and in giving one-to-one assistance in reading, writing, and other class work.

Throughout the room, computer stations on height-adjustable carts provide adapted keyboards that include a large, flat surface along with adjustable "key" size, as well as trackballs, which are easier to use than a mouse for some users with motor difficulties. During math, an adapted keyboard can be used with a number keypad overlay. With software called MathPad, students who can't hold a pencil or who have fine motor problems find it much easier to solve problems on the computer because the digits are clear and properly aligned. The software tells them if they answered correctly or not. The software also allows numbers to be spoken as they are entered and allows the teacher to prepare a customized problem list for each student.

Slant Board, Velcro Strips, and Parent Binders

Math Bingo is another classroom activity that is under way. Slant boards (boards propped up on angled book stands) are used to support the bingo cards at the best visual angle for each student. As each number is pulled, it is shown, and the teacher or a volunteer says it out loud. In a simple adaptation to make playtime more enjoyable for some disabled students, paper dolls sport Velcro strips for easier dressing.

When students leave for the day, they may take a binder with them that provides parents with information about progress toward specific goals and objectives, as well as any homework assignments. This is particularly important when technology tools (such as communication devices) travel between school and home. Parent-teacher communication can facilitate consistency and effectiveness of use, a critically important connection for the learning of all our students.

Lisa Wahl is an independent consultant. She has served as executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology in Berkeley, California.

Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anne C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was very helpful to me. I really had no idea about some of the specific technologies in the classroom that are used to assist students with disabilities. I thought the delta talker was a great tool for students with visual impairments.

Lynne J.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this article was really informative and shows just how far technology has come and how it can really assist those with special needs in the classroom. Students who may have previously been unable to function in a normal classroom can now do so and have a fulfilling educational experience.

Patricia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These assistive technologies provide excellent ways for students who would not normally be able to participate or do standard tasks such as taking notes, a way to join in and complete tasks. I agree with another comment that mentioned the availability of these technologies in every classroom though, but the first step is educating our teachers about these technologies and ways for students to use them.

Chad Southward's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is wonderful to hear about the success stories dealing in kids with learning disabilities. So many times, all we hear are awful stories about the school systems pushing people away. It is eye-opening to realize how much technology can be utilized to help students, leanring disabled or not.

Maria F.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! As a mother of a very dyslexic child, I am so excited to hear about Alpha Smart. Thanks for the resources!!

Gary Barney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so great to read about enlightened schools and districts who are proactive in the area of AT. The potential for technology for special needs students, as well as for the general population of students who simply have different learning needs is massive. Too often, in my capacity as an AT consultant, I run across individuals, schools and districts who are uninformed about the potential of AT as well as uninformed about the letter and spirit of the law (IDEA) as it relates to AT. Thanks for a great article that gets the idea (and the IDEA ;) across very well!

kandi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First regarding the article I think it is amazing that there are so many AT devices that enhance the learning experience for students with disabilities. Next I want to comment on the statement "almost every learning disabled child can learn thanks to all these great ideas" I believe that this statment is false. Every student can learn; you just have to be willing to find how the student learns best, regardless of the severity of the disability. All students can learn, whether it be that they are learning algebra or learning to hit a switch to request a drink.

Elizabeth Barba's picture

I work in a life skills class and strongly believe that technology has helped my students a great deal. It helps them see things in ways that me explaining soething to them wouldnt help the same way. They use things that help them learn. They have special chairs to hold them up prpperly so that they can learn to sit up straight. They use machines that teach them how to speak and pronounce words better. They have special tools that allow them to hear themselves when speaking so that they hear themistakes they are making. They havecomputer programs that grasp their attention. They have book websites that allow them to hear stories online and that help them remain focused throughout the entire story. My children love technology and it helps them in every aspect of their lives.

Elisabeth stJames's picture
Elisabeth stJames
Guest Teacher K-12 Clark County, Nevada & parent/twins/1 with TBI x 1.5 yea

With concise deliberation, you addressed a multitude of applications being ignored by educators everyday. While this article mentions a variety of "barriers" (tranlate to "excuses") for not implementing assistive technology, the biggest barrier, (and I mean HUGE), is not letting the parents know that these things exist. It's not fair to let the student suffer while negotiating the red-tape of the IEP process. If money is an issue, service groups or churchs or even private individuals can help the parents overcome. Everyone is so hung-up about what is and is not allowed by IDEA, that they let the student suffer and fail. What is best for the student is to let the parent know what's out there, whether or not the school provides it. If a teacher hadn't mentioned word-prediction software to me, my acquired brain-injured daugher with an IQ of 142 would have dropped out of High School at sixteen. Thank-you for making this article so informative.

Elisabeth stJames's picture
Elisabeth stJames
Guest Teacher K-12 Clark County, Nevada & parent/twins/1 with TBI x 1.5 yea

With concise deliberation, you addressed a multitude of applications being ignored by educators everyday. While this article mentions a variety of "barriers" (tranlate to "excuses") for not implementing assistive technology, the biggest barrier, (and I mean HUGE), is not letting the parents know that these things exist. It's not fair to let the student suffer while negotiating the red-tape of the IEP process. If money is an issue, service groups or churchs or even private individuals can help the parents overcome. Everyone is so hung-up about what is and is not allowed by IDEA, that they let the student suffer and fail. What is best for the student is to let the parent know what's out there, whether or not the school provides it. If a teacher hadn't mentioned word-prediction software to me, my acquired brain-injured daugher with an IQ of 142 would have dropped out of High School at sixteen. Thank-you for making this article so informative.

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