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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Leaping Over Walls: With Technology Integration, the Sky's the Limit

How assistive technologies helped one student break down the barriers of a learning disability.
By Mason Barney

A college student when he wrote this article, Mason Barney has used technology to compensate for a learning disability.

Credit: Center for applied Special Technology

Imagine getting into your car, starting up the engine, and then forgetting what to do next. You've been driving for many years and were taught by expert instructors. Still, each time you prepare to shift into gear and step on the gas, you forget everything you ever learned. That's what it feels like for me whenever I sit down to write a school paper, an e-mail, or even a casual note to a friend.

Learning disabilities affect thousands of students like me and can make tasks that are second nature to many, like reading, writing, and organization, seem beyond reach. Since first grade, I've struggled to keep pace with reading assignments and with the other students in my classes. The older I get and the more reading I am assigned, the greater the challenge becomes.

Spelling is another major obstacle, even when I attempt over and over to memorize new words. It took me four years to master the spelling of the word "because." My poor hand-eye coordination limits my ability to write legibly (and to play most sports). If I were writing this article by hand, you would not be able to read it. Neither would I.

We first discovered my learning disability when I was in second grade, the same year I qualified for my school's gifted and talented program. My parents fully believed that I could accomplish anything and were committed to finding a way to help me compensate for my learning disability. I had tutors, went to the resource room at school for extra help, and had specialists come in and talk to me and my teachers. We even tried a special, easy-to-grip pencil in an attempt to improve my handwriting! You name it, we tried it -- and nothing worked.

The first hints of a solution came after third grade, when I attended a week-long summer camp in Massachusetts for students with disabilities and their teachers. The camp was sponsored by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), whose mission is to expand opportunities for individuals with disabilities through the use of innovative computer technology.

I remember two things in particular about that summer. First, as I met children and successful adults with disabilities -- many far more debilitating than my own -- I learned to accept my disability as a hurdle to get over, rather than a character flaw. This was probably the most important realization of my life. Second, I learned to type. This may seem like an insignificant event, but the ability to type meant I could record my thoughts and ideas without struggling to make them legible.

That summer, now eleven years ago, got me started using computer technology to compensate for my learning disability. As I have grown, both the technology and my ability to use it have improved. This process, gradual for the most part, has been accelerated by the occasional dramatic event. For example, after my sophomore year in high school I began to use a laptop computer in school. Up to that point, although I could type, I was taking handwritten notes in many classes and struggling to do it. With the portable computer I took to all my classes, I could take notes, outline and write papers, and prepare and make presentations. This was a huge liberation for me.

Assistive technology tools are helping students with disabilities create, explore, and learn in many ways.

Credit: IntelliTools, Inc.

Indispensable Computers

I use computers for virtually everything. I couldn't survive without a spell checker, which allows me to focus on the expression of my ideas and not obsess about correct spelling. The quality of my written work is much higher than it would be otherwise. The computer also helps me keep up with the ever-increasing amounts of assigned readings. I have come to rely on a text reading program developed by CAST. Text is scanned into the computer using a flatbed scanner. The program then reads the text aloud in a synthetic voice and highlights the text as it is being read. Using this program allows me to get through a lot more reading material than would otherwise be possible.

Computer-based reference tools and the Internet help me work around my learning disability when conducting research. One result of my disability is that I have a sequencing problem. I have a hard time remembering where letters in the alphabet fall in relation to one another. Looking up information in an encyclopedia is very hard and very slow. But with the help of computer-based reference tools like Groliers Encyclopedia, I can simply type in the name of what I am looking for and the program accesses the information. Instead of spending time in an endless search for information, I can focus on working with the information the reference tools have located for me.

Technology also helps me stay afloat in a rising tide of deadlines, appointments, and phone numbers. After a five-year search for the best tools for keeping me organized, I finally found the 3Com Palm Pilot. The Pilot is a small portable pen-based computer that fits easily in my pocket. It keeps track of all my appointments and telephone numbers, it has a note pad, and it even beeps at me when I forget to go to an appointment. This device has saved me from nearly disastrous memory lapses.

As I sit here typing this article on my laptop, I am forced to ask myself where I would be right now if not for the technology I use. Would I be a junior at Bowdoin College? Would I be pursuing a double major in computer science and studio art? Would I be running my own used bookstore and small Web design company? No. Without the technology, I would be a kid who had potential but never was able to capitalize on it. Now I know how much I can accomplish, and I know there is nothing I can't do just because I have a learning disability!

Mason Barney was a junior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, when he wrote this article.

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