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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

VIDEO: Assistive Technology: Enabling Dreams

Running Time: 10 min.

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

Kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with a 6 year old boy with Autism. I found the information on Assistive Technology in both the article and the video to be quite exciting. I am very eager to find out what can be used for my student to allow him to communicate his ideas. The article demonstrates how much a student's quality of life is impacted by someone who put their creativity to work to develop assistive technology. Windows of opportunity have now been opened where they were never opened before!

Kristin Singhas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the technological world in which we live, many advances are being made (especially in the field of education) that enables individuals with disabilities to function to their fullest potential. As a teacher in a special education classroom, I encounter the amazing effects of assistive technology on a daily basis. While my students suffer from emotional/behavioral disorders and not physical handicaps, many of my students are also diagnosed as learning disabled. Something as simple as a word processor or spelling device can have a dramatic effect on a student's academic success. When a student has such a disability in which he cannot spell well enough to compose an essay, he will become frustrated and ultimately give up. When accommodated with the assistive technology device of a word processor or spell-check device, he feels empowered and will at least attempt the assignment. Therefore, from my personal experience, assistive technology empowers students with disabilities to overcome their physical limitations and achieve at their fullest potential.

Steve Howard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This video was truly amazing. I was amazed at how these young individuals are able to use technology to improve thier lives. I enjoyed the testimonials from the students on how technology has improved thier lives. I hope that all schools will consider using this technology to improve the working coniditions of these students.

James Saris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with most of what is said here, especially PJ. The money and technology exist for us to help not just students with special needs, but all students. As a whole, Assistive Technology is a ray of hope.

Handicap Equipment's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As more and more assistive technology is being developed, the gaps between people with and without disabilities will soon be erased. In the future there will be no "handicaps".

Florine Love's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree with you. I am a special education teacher, also technology has opened the world to these delightful children. Hearing aids and closed captions were just the begining there is no end in sight with what technology can do.

Karri Miszler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an informative and positive article! As a graduate student I recently took a position working as a Graduate Assistant in the Department of Disabilities at the university I currently attend. I was blown away by how many different devices can be used to assist students of all ages. I am still learning about the variety of devices available and this article gave me a little more insight on how these devices actually work in real life situations.

Although this article focuses primarily on those who have a physical disability, there are many other types of disabilities. Someone with dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can also have a disability when it comes to learning. Low tech, high tech and even no tech devices are out there for these students to use in the classroom. As a former Therapeutic Staff Support Worker and future teacher, I believe that schools need to do a better job of researching what is out there and get the devices to the students no matter what the cost.

Alyssa Thompson's picture

Assistive technology gives students a chance to communicate, participate, and function independently in a world where in the past they would not have been able to. I have a 12 year old autistic student who cannot read or write on paper and pencil, but if you show him his work on a computer he can read simple words. At the same time, when he writes on a touch screen he can write clearly and spell simple words. There is something about it being on that computer screen that clicks in his head and he is able to understand the work, where before there was no trying with him, now he can't wait to do his work on the computer.

Joshua Lang's picture

Assistive technology can only continue to improve and improve the quality of life for those it helps. From simple pencil grips to advanced touch boards for nonverbal students assistive technology is an effective meas to help bridge the gap in communication

Edward Burns's picture
Edward Burns
Guitar Teacher from Portland, Oregon

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