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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Assistive Technology for Young Children in Special Education: It Makes a Difference

A discussion on the many types of assistive technology tools that are available for children with disabilities.
By Michael Behrmann

Technology can level the playing field for students with mobility, hearing, or vision impairments.

Credit: IntelliTools, Inc.

Technology has opened many educational doors to children, particularly to children with disabilities. Alternative solutions from the world of technology are accommodating physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments in many ways.

Much of the technology we see daily was developed initially to assist persons with disabilities. Curb cuts at streetcorners and curb slopes, originally designed to accommodate people with orthopedic disabilities, are used more frequently by families with strollers or individuals with grocery carts than by persons with wheelchairs or walkers. The optical character reader, developed to assist individuals unable to read written text, has been adapted in the workplace to scan printed documents into computer-based editable material, saving enormous amounts of data entry labor.

Children with disabilities often feel better about themselves as a result of using technology.

Credit: IntelliTools, Inc.

Technology -- an Equalizer

Technology can be a great equalizer for individuals with disabilities that might prevent full participation in school, work, and the community. This is most evident in the case of individuals with mobility, hearing, or vision impairments, but is also true for individuals with limitations in cognition and perception. With technology, an individual physically unable to speak can communicate with spoken language. Using a portable voice synthesizer, a student can ask and respond to questions in the "regular" classroom, overcoming a physical obstacle that may have forced placement in a special segregated classroom or required a full-time instructional aide or interpreter to provide "a voice."

Improvements in sensor controls enable subtle motor movements to control mobility devices, such as electric wheelchairs, providing independent movement through the school and community. Text and graphics enhancement software can enlarge sections of a monitor enough to be seen by persons with vision impairments. Text can be read electronically by a digitized voice synthesizer for a person who is blind. For persons with hearing impairments, amplification devices can filter extraneous noise from the background or pick up an FM signal from a microphone on a teacher's lapel.

Word processing, editing, spellchecking, and grammatical tools commonly found in high-end software facilitate the inclusion of students with learning disabilities in regular classrooms by allowing them to keep up with much of the work. Not inconsequentially, the children often feel better about themselves as active learners.

Technology is providing more powerful and efficient tools to teachers who work with children with disabilities. These tools enable teachers to offer new and more effective means of learning while individualizing instruction to the broad range of student learning needs. Educators are using computers as tools to deliver and facilitate learning beyond drill and practice, to provide environments that accommodate learning, and to ensure enhanced and equitable learning environments to all students.

Access to the World Wide Web, email, listservs, and other electronic learning environments is common in many classrooms. In these environments, students around the world can interact in real time via onscreen messaging or video and audio transmissions. In most of these learning situations, a disability makes no difference at all.

The range of potential assistive technology devices is large and includes both high-tech devices like computers and low-tech, manually operated devices.

Credit: IntelliTools, Inc

Assistive Technology Defined

The definition of assistive technology applied to education is extremely broad, encompassing "any item, piece of equipment, or product system whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

As a result, the potential range of AT devices is incredibly large, and both "high-tech" and "low-tech" devices are included. High-tech devices may be computers, electronic equipment, or software. Although electronically operated, high-tech devices need not be expensive, a simple low-cost switch that controls a battery-operated toy can be considered a high-tech device, as can a tape recorder. Low-tech devices are manually, not electronically, operated. This group includes devices such as pencil grips, mouth sticks, and mechanical hoists.

This definition also expands the consideration of potential educational applications with its focus on devices "used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities." As educators, we try to increase or add new academic, social, and daily living skills and knowledge to the functional capability of all children. This is a basic goal as we prepare children to take their place in society.

In the case of children with degenerative impairments, such as muscular dystrophy, educators may be working to keep children functioning at their current level. They may be striving to help students maintain their capability to function in the world. Teachers work with students to improve skills and knowledge, making existing skills and knowledge even more functional and improving fluency so that functional capabilities may be generalized into different settings.

It is critical to understand the implications of this definition to comprehend its effect on children with disabilities in our schools. It is fairly easy to understand how the definition is applied with regard to children with physical or sensory disabilities. To see a young child who had been unable to speak for her first five years say her first sentence with a speaking computer device presents an exciting and clear picture of assistive technology. The benefit of AT is also easy to comprehend when a child who cannot hear can understand his teacher's directions because real-time captioning converts the teacher's speech to text projected onto his laptop computer.

The definition of assistive technology also applies to the more difficult-to-gauge tools that teachers use to deliver and facilitate learning, including instructional applications of technology. These applications range from drill and practice tutorials to facilitated learner-based environments provided through the Internet or interactive hypermedia and multimedia-based instruction.

It is important to understand that virtually all applications of technology -- tools for children to learn, as well as tools for teachers to provide learning opportunities -- can be defined as assistive technology. This is true for individual children with disabilities whose disability has a primary impact on academic performance (e.g., learning disabilities) or functional performance (e.g., multiple physical and visual disabilities).

Legal and Moral Requirements

The mandate to provide assistive technology to children with special needs is grounded in the moral concerns protected by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) was based on the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that separate education was not equal education under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. At the time the law was passed by Congress in 1975, nearly 2 million children were excluded from schools in the United States. With the legislation, the president and the Congress established a legal requirement for a "free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment" for children with disabilities and, as a result, the field of special education began to flourish for the first time in nearly seventy-five years.

Many controversies surfaced, however, about the extent of the required educational services and the cost to society for those services. The major debates have focused on the need for a clear definition of an "appropriate" education in the least restrictive environment and the requirement to provide assistive technology devices and services to all individuals with disabilities.

'Appropriate' Education

The requirement for an "appropriate" education in the least restrictive environment has led to the development of a separate educational system designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Some educators contend that this is the same type of separate system that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 1954. These individuals suggest that all children, regardless of ability, should be educated with their neighborhood peers in their local school.

Others in favor of the special education system argue that it is necessary to meet the educational needs of all children with disabilities, particularly in the "continuum of services" mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). In their view, children must have specific intervention designed to "mainstream" them back into regular education. Without the intervention, these individuals believe that students will be doomed to continued and more significant failure. They also note that, while the goal of mainstreaming is reasonable, some children may not benefit appropriately from a full inclusion program.

Although there are many arguments on both sides of the issue, it is apparent that new technologies can provide the tools to bring more children with disabilities into "regular" educational settings. In my opinion, assistive technology will certainly mainstream more and more children in wheelchairs, children who cannot physically speak, see, or hear, and children who need computers to write, organize, think, and function educationally.

The AT Requirement

The second debate centers on the requirement to provide assistive technology to all students. The initial legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, did not require schools to provide assistive technology devices and services to individuals with disabilities. The current assistive technology mandate was created by later legislation and prompted by the technological revolution resulting from the development of the microcomputer.

Subsequent legislation passed by Congress encouraged states to develop services designed to provide assistive technology to all persons with disabilities and required provision of AT as a special education service (trained special education teachers in special classes), related service (occupational, physical, speech therapies, and other services needed to access education) or supplemental service (services necessary to maintain a child in regular education classes).

Many states have not addressed the AT issue, since assistive technology devices and services were identified as requirements only recently. This may be due to a fear of "breaking" instructional budgets by purchasing high-cost equipment in already cash-short school systems. Concern also exists that the rapid evolution of technology creates the potential of costly investment in devices that may have a relatively short life span.

A close look at the situation will show that these concerns are not well grounded, however. Schools already use extensive amounts of AT, and need only to identify it as such. Nearly any use of computers falls into this category, as do tape recorded instructions or homework, copies of notes from a classmate or teacher, switch-operated toys, drawing paper taped to table tops, as well as large pencils and crayons. All of these could be noted, as required, in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs).

Michael Behrmann is professor of education and director of the Helen A. Kellar Center for Human Disabilities at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
This article is excerpted from Assistive Technology for Young Children in Special Education, by Michael Behrmann, Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Copyright 1998 ASCD. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.