Special Report

Special Assistance

By Debra Viadero — November 10, 1997 2 min read

School has gotten a lot easier for Katherine Montgomery, a 16-year-old junior with cerebral palsy.

The change came about last year thanks to a machine called a DragonDictate, which is produced by Dragon Systems of Newton, Mass.

For Katherine, writing in longhand—and even typing on a computer—is a slow, tortuous process. But, with the DragonDictate, she can simply dictate her words directly into a computer and print them out.

She speaks into a microphone mounted on a baseball cap, and the words appear on her computer screen. The process is not instantaneous. Sometimes, the computer mishears a word, and Katherine must select the correct word from a list of similar-sounding choices. But the device has nonetheless cut her homework time dramatically.

“Now, I can turn stuff in on time,” she says.

The DragonDictate, which Katherine shares with four other students here at Falls Church High School, is just one example of how technology has revolutionized schooling for children with disabilities. While mainstream educators continue to debate the merits of buying expensive educational technology for schools, special educators engage in no such argument.

Technology has literally helped open schoolhouse doors for disabled students and given impetus to the “full inclusion” movement, which calls for teaching disabled students in regular classrooms whenever possible.

With her DragonDictate, Katherine can keep up with her nondisabled classmates. Braille computers and software programs that produce enlarged type do the same for visually impaired students.

Instructional technology can also be a boon for students with learning problems, says Michael Behrmann, the director of the Center for Human Disability at George Mason University

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, for example, have developed a CDROM-based program for teaching reading skills that has produced results for both disabled and nondisabled students with low literacy skills.

With the program, known as the Peabody Literacy Program, students watch a video and then read about it. They are guided along the way by what program developers call an “almost-intelligent” tutor. The computer, in other words, takes into account students’ answers and their response time as it “decides” which activity to give them next.

The researchers have tested the program with 5th through 9th graders in Orange County, Fla. In most cases, they found, students had doubled the reading gains they would normally make at their grade levels.

The field of assistive technology experienced a boom in the mid-1980s after Congress revised federal special education law.

Advances in computer technology that led to devices that were more powerful, more portable, and sometimes cheaper also fueled the growth. DragonDictate, for example, has been around for at least a decade, according to William Reeder, the coordinator of integrated technology services in Fairfax County, where Katherine’s school is located.

But, early on, the equipment was complicated and clumsy to use. With more recent versions, however, students can be trained to use the system in about an hour.

Moreover, the price has dropped from about $10,000 in the 1980s to $3,500, Reede says.

The biggest problem, Behrmann says, is finding teachers who are skilled at using the wide range of devices now available.

“If you’ve been in the field 10 years, and you haven’t gone out for additional training, you may have missed this completely,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as Special Assistance


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