Special Education

Applicable Teaching Tools

By Nirvi Shah — October 12, 2011 8 min read
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When a speech therapist suggested last year that it was time for 4th grader Sloan Brickey to use a device to help convey her sometimes-garbled words, the first option was a 2-foot-long board that offered a choice of six words at a time.

Sloan has Down syndrome and already sticks out enough at her elementary school in Powell, Tenn., says her mother, Kelly J. Brickey.

So Brickey did some research and found a different solution: a list of applications for the Apple iPad that work well in helping children with autism communicate.

Sloan’s mother happened upon a tool that has made its way into schools in big numbers less than a year after its debut. But iPads and other tablet computers are more than a novelty for many students with disabilities. They are tools that pave a fresh path to learning.

High Road Academy of Baltimore student Tev Boyd, 19, plays an iPad math tutorial game. His teacher, Kelly Mlynski, is reflected in the iPad's screen.

A combination of Down syndrome and apraxia—a sort of disconnect between the brain and the mouth that results in slow or jumbled speech—makes it difficult for Sloan to form words that others can easily understand.

In the past, after a few unsuccessful attempts at making someone understand what she was saying, her mother says, Sloan was likely to stamp her foot and leave the room.

Now, Sloan uses an application on the iPad called Proloquo2Go, and has a means of communicating in greater depth with peers, her mother says. The tool has also boosted Sloan’s self-confidence.

The Proloquo2Go tool lets Sloan scroll through pictures or choose from phrases and sentences she uses often, and then the computer speaks for her.

“She’s able to tell them about things she’s done on the weekend, like ‘I went sledding and I liked it’ or ‘I went out on the lake,’ ” says Brickey. “She’s never been able to do that.”

A Sense of Independence

Tablet computers are useful for students with disabilities because some of the applications available for them replace bulky, more expensive forms of assistive technology. For children with poor fine-motor skills, the touch-screen design is easier to use than a desktop computer with a mouse or a laptop with a touchpad. The screen’s size makes the gadget user-friendly for students with vision problems.


“For a child who may be a little slower learner, struggling with reading, has an arm that doesn’t work, the [tablet-style] computer has all these modalities, sound and touch,” says Elliot M. Soloway, a University of Michigan professor of education as well as of electrical engineering and computer science. “The technology can compensate for the special-needs kids in a way that traditional media cannot compensate.”

The machines can also offer a sense of independence that many children, especially those with disabilities, may never have experienced before.

“When you find something, you tend to remember it. That’s exactly what will happen: When the kids find it as opposed to being told it, everything changes,” Soloway says. “The technology makes it possible to shift the control easily.”

But he cautions schools from falling in love with the iPad before looking into other tablet computers on the market that may cost less.

“Schools are getting killed right now. To buy a very expensive device when you’re really trying to get finger-touch technology seems to be irresponsible,” he says. “They all have app stores.”

The iPad2 model generally starts at $499 and can cost nearly twice that, depending on its features. First generation iPads can be found for slightly less money. Archos, Dell, HP, and Asus all make lower-priced models, too.

Applications for the devices are often free or available for less than $5. However, Proloquo2Go, the one Sloan uses, is listed at $190.

Playing Math

At High Road Academy of Baltimore County, West, in Dundalk, Md., Chance Connors arrived with a fear of math, an inability to sit still, and a deficit of patience, says his teacher, Jennifer Langmead.

These days, the middle schooler, who has been labeled as having an emotional disturbance, is happy to spend hours working on math problems on one of five iPads the students at his school share, she says.

iPad Apps for Students With Special Needs

Created by: AssistiveWare
Cost: $190

This text-to-speech app helps students who may have difficulty speaking and communicating with others. Its library has over 8,000 symbols and an expansive vocabulary, so students can “say” anything either by typing in messages for the app to read, selecting pre-loaded phrases and words from the app’s library, or accessing recently stored messages for commonly used phrases. Students can also change the sound of the voice that reads the text, as well as the size of the font on the app.

Math Ninja
Created by: RazeWare LLC
Cost: $2 and free

This game-based app charges Haruku, the math ninja, with protecting his treehouse from his arch-rival Tomato-San and his robotic army. Haruku must solve math problems correctly in order to earn better weapons, like ninja stars and fire magic, to fend off his attackers. The app covers addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and users can customize the difficulty of the game so that students in many different grade levels can benefit from it.

Dragon Dictation
Created by: Nuance Communications
Cost: free

This voice-recognition app taps into Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to convert the user’s speech into text. The app can be linked with social-networking profiles as well as blogs to quickly create posts, and it can also be used to dictate emails, papers, or any other text the user would like to produce. It is simple to use the app—just press the red button to record and press it again to stop recording. When users touch a word they would like to edit, a drop-down menu of alternate suggestions pops up, or they can record a new phrase to replace the text.

Created by: Jooniti
Cost: $1

This simple app helps turn up the volume, wherever you are. Just plug in a pair of headphones, launch the app, and use the app to adjust the volume levels of what you are hearing in real time. This app is particularly helpful for students with hearing disabilities, since it has customizable frequencies and volume boosts.

Looking at a textbook page or worksheet of math problems might prompt Chance to give up and shut down before he’s even begun, Langmead notes. “He’s very intimidated by math.”

But an iPad application called Math Ninja—as the app puts it, “You aren’t just a normal kid. You’re a math ninja,”—starts off with a brief game, then presents one problem at a time.

While Langmead finds the electronic jingle that plays in the background mind-numbing, Chance hardly seems to notice it as he adds 10 and 6, 7 and 4, and then gets a chance to save his treehouse from a pack of robotic dogs.

He’s even asked his mother to buy him his own iPad. “That’s the thing I dream of at night,” he says, “playing Math Ninja.”

High Road Academy, a private school for students with disabilities who are referred by public schools, is operated by Specialized Education Services, Inc., based in Yardley, Pa. The company manages more than 40 other schools in 11 states, Chief Executive Officer Mike L.Kaufman says. As a test, it bought 50 iPads and put them in schools across the country.

“Especially when you work with the special-needs population, you really need to find ways to reach out to the kids,” Kaufman says. “Anything that will reach a kid and make them excited about learning, let’s try it.”

After experiences such as Chance’s, Kaufman says, it’s almost certain his company will put more iPads in students’ hands this school year, especially since educators no longer have concerns that students will break the devices, which have proved sturdy.

“[Students] want to be able to use it,” Kelly Mlynski, the head teacher at the Dundalk school, says of the iPad. “They care for it, understanding it won’t be replaced.”

Some school districts are being more cautious, however, recognizing that it is likely the device will benefit their students in special education, but waiting to see the best ways to use them.

“It’s so engaging. We want to make sure we’re capitalizing on the functionality—not just the engagement,” says Brian M. Engle, the executive director for education technology for Glenview District 34 in Illinois. He’s on a committee with other districts exploring iPad’s uses for students with disabilities.

Facilitating Life Skills

Other districts that have taken the plunge are pleased with the initial results.

In Orange County, Calif., school psychologist Bill L. Thompson says that while students with disabilities have used laptops for years, tablet-style machines offer new learning options.

About 100 iPads are being used by some of the 550 students with disabilities he oversees through the Orange County Department of Education. They include students working on life skills who are using iPad applications to order food at restaurants and buy things at the grocery store. Students who need extra help managing time outside school also can use the iPad as a timer.

“To carry [a laptop] around with you to a restaurant is not practical,” Thompson says.

Other advantages of tablets are their simplicity and the ease with which they can be customized. This is important for all students, but especially those with special needs, Thompson notes. The touch screens offer instant gratification for students with limited patience or those who can’t understand the connection between a mouse and computer screen.

“It’s so intuitive,” Thompson says. “For a student that might have trouble, whether it’s the dexterity, or something else, it’s a pretty concrete concept.”

Language Help

At both campuses of the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, in Scranton and Pittsburgh, middle school students have been working with iPads most of the school year, and recently they were given permission to take them home each day.Students have used laptops, wheeled from classroom to classroom, on carts for several years, says Linda A. Burik, who oversees technology at both of the public school’s campuses.

“Some of them wouldn’t be charged,” Burik says. “Some had keys missing. No one had responsibility for them.”

But the iPad’s 10-hour battery life means the newer devices are ready to use whenever they’re needed. And because they cost less than a laptop, each middle school student—24 in Pittsburgh and 10 in Scranton—has his or her own iPad.

The school’s students need as much exposure to learning English as possible, says Cathy L. Rhoten, the interim director of the Scranton campus.

Many deaf students, for whom American Sign Language is their first language, graduate from high school with reading skills at a 4th grade level. While Scranton does better, with students reading at an average 7th or 8th grade level by graduation, Rhoten believes the iPad will help them make further progress.

For example, there are iPad apps that connect the dots between English idioms and the sign-language equivalents in a uniquely clear manner.

“It will give you, ‘It’s a piece of cake,’ in a paragraph that describes how you would use that in English,” Burik says. “Then they sign it in ASL.” Otherwise, she says, “the first time they encounter that in a novel, they would think out of nowhere someone’s eating a piece of cake.”

Special education applications have been in such demand that Apple created a page within its apps store to showcase them. The application Sloan Brickey uses, Proloquo2Go, is now on every iPad on display in Apple stores, says David Niemeijer, the CEO of the Netherlands-based AssistiveWare, which created the app as an alternative to traditional assistive devices.

He says stand-alone products are still necessary, though, for people with certain kinds of needs, such as those who cannot move their limbs or fingers.

“It shows that Apple is interested in this market,” Niemeijer says, although “when they developed this technology, it was probably not the first thing they thought about.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Applicable Teaching Tools


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