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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

We All Have Special Needs: Using Technology to Break Down Barriers

Disabilities come in many forms. So do the technologies that help the disabled tackle their challenges.
By George Lucas

For many people, the term "disability" conjures up images of individuals with physical impairments. We need to think more broadly. It seems to me that anyone who is denied full access to information and ideas -- or the means to express themselves as individuals -- has a type of disability. This can include students with learning disabilities, students in remote areas, and students for whom English is a second language.

When people with disabilities connect with technology, barriers are broken and lives are transformed. Two years ago, in filming for our Learn & Live documentary, we met Leslie, a girl with cerebral palsy in Fort Worth who used voice recognition software to dictate feature articles for her school newspaper. The computer eliminated the barrier posed by the need to coordinate the movement of hands and to type at the keyboard. Leslie was liberated to share her innate intelligence and eye for detail in writing. Similarly, an interactive software program can help Eli to learn to read, despite a learning disability. And closed-captioned television programming can help ESL students learn English.

The impact of technology doesn't end with these students. It begins there. As technological tools help students with disabilities communicate with others, these students then enrich the lives of other students and teachers and the broader community around them. Leslie's article can be enjoyed by classmates and parents at her school. With the Internet, her story could conceivably be read by people around the world. Readers wouldn't know that the author has cerebral palsy, and it wouldn't matter. Students with disabilities are leading us to confront our own disabilities -- and to reflect on how technology is helping all of us achieve our true potential.

My hope is that one day, the classroom where students of varying aptitudes and abilities are working together will be the rule and not the exception. The name of a student's "disability" won't matter nearly as much as a student's gifts and aspirations. After all, when you think about it, we all have special needs.

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