George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Gadget for Every Need: Assistive Technology for Students

A Gadget for Every Need: Assistive Technology for Students

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A young girl absorbed in her tablet

Technology provides today’s students with an infinite number of distractions; mobile devices have literally put texting, Facebook, and addictive games at their fingertips. Although some educators might perceive this technology as a bane to classroom learning, it can actually be one of your most powerful educational tools.

All of your students can benefit from technology in the classroom, but new advancements have become particularly useful for those with special needs. Known as assistive technology (AT), these developments help level the playing field for students with special needs, giving them a greater chance at success in some of the more challenging areas.

Listening, Memory, and Organization

Listening and memorization are two difficult areas for many students. But there are many recording devices on the market that can help, including noise-canceling headphones and recording devices, such as tape recorders or students’ iPhones, that can be used to record lectures. Personal listening devices can also link students directly to their lecturers through a microphone and headset.

Even more specialized are AT devices like smartpens. These devices are used with special paper so students can write notes that correspond with verbal recordings. When students return to their written notes, they can touch the pen to the handwriting, and the pen will play back the corresponding recording. This eases the anxiety of having to listen intently while determining what’s most important to write down.

Enabling students to better organize their thoughts and assignments can significantly aid in comprehension, as well. Physical or digital color-coordinated daily planners are simple yet effective ways to get students organized. The advantage of digital organizers such as the iPhone organizer or software such as Info Select by Micro Logic is that students can set reminders with alarms and even add links to assignments to help them stay on track.

Math

Students struggling with math can also benefit from smartpens by linking their handwritten formulas and math problems with recorded instructions and tips.

Aligning math problems on paper is another challenge for some students with special needs, but putting those math problems on a computer screen with electronic math worksheets can alleviate that issue. Applications like MathPad allow students to write out problems on a tablet screen, and the program translates and aligns the writing into a more readable, solvable math problem. The student can also utilize the program’s special keyboard that includes clear mathematical symbols.

Calculators can also be difficult to handle, but with talking calculators such as Calc-U-Vue, students can double-check what they’ve entered and reiterate correct answers verbally, helping them focus on solving the problem rather than working the device.

Reading

Whether your students are visually impaired or struggle with comprehension, translating text into speech is a helpful function. There are many resources for audiobooks and publications, such as Audible, Bookshare, or your state library, where you can find a national database of audio publications via the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

If you can’t find a specific book or publication in audio form, computer software or separate handheld devices with optical character recognition can scan documents and read them aloud using speech synthesizers or screen readers. These can also read text that users type or copy and paste from other resources.

Writing

Most word-processing programs include proofreading software for spelling and grammar, but students with special needs often require more comprehensive AT tools for writing.

For students with underdeveloped motor skills, speech recognition programs allow users to speak into a microphone, and the program will translate those spoken words into text. Many software programs have both speech recognition and speech synthesizers built in so students can verbalize what they want written, and the program reads the text back to them.

For students who struggle with writing by hand and prefer typing, small portable word processors allow them to type notes in class and take them home to add to or expand on for assignments without rekeying. This can be done on a tablet with word-processing software or with AT devices specific to this task, such as the Forte portable word processor.

Abbreviation expanders and word prediction software can help students with spelling and grammar by suggesting words or phrases they might mean to type while also speeding up their keying time. Similarly, alternative keyboards, such as IntelliKeys, help increase typing proficiency by grouping letters or symbols with customizable overlays, for example.

These AT tools and others can enhance the learning experience for all students and help them develop the self-confidence they need to succeed. You can find additional resources on the National Public Website on Assistive Technology, as well as games and websites for the classroom on Common Sense Education. AbleNet is a great resource for information on the most recent AT developments, such as SoundingBoard, an application that allows students with speech difficulties to communicate by touch screen.

Assistive technology can’t replace the vital human element of dedicated teachers, parents, and aides, but embracing these advancements will give both you and your students a leg up on learning.


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Rebecca Dean's picture

Thank you Alex. This was just a snippet of many tech resources available that can assist our children with challenges to excel in their learning environments. Our schools systems are not upto par with latest technology and nor do our teachers have the opportunity to learn whats available and find time to apply it because of the demands of our current schools system process.. But thats another discussion its own..

Jamie Oxenford's picture

I am a special education teacher, and I found this list of resources to be exceptional. Another resource that you could consider adding to the writing section is Clicker Sentences (http://www.cricksoft.com/us/products/clicker-apps/clicker-sentences.aspx). This application provides students with communication deficits an opportunity to understand sentences by building sentences from pre-programmed word banks. Programming sentences is a quick process, therefore allowing teachers to input words for the word bank while generating ideas with the student. There are also scaffolds built into the program, such as sample sentences and visuals. I have found that this application gives students an understanding of sentence structure while giving them a sense of accomplishment in their ability to produce writing samples.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This is a great list thank you so much! I'd love to hear more about how folks make these work logistically in their classrooms.

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