If you’ve ever felt the vibration of a cellphone, or used Google’s voice-based search function to look up a recipe instead of touching your keyboard with wet fingers, you’ve enjoyed the benefits of assistive technology.
Assistive technologies have become commonplace in consumer electronics—in fact, they make up a $30.5 billion industry that’s expected to grow fast, as baby boomers’ vision and hearing begin to fail. But those bells and whistles are byproducts of the efforts made by educational technology developers to design and refine assistive technology tools that remove barriers to learning for children suffering from a range of disabilities.
Thanks to the spread of the principles of universal design for learning, in which the needs of all users—with all levels of access and ability—are considered when creating products, many assistive technology tools are suited to address both cognitive disabilities and physical limitations and are increasingly being employed to help students with disabilities use digital curricula and take virtual courses. That is why experts suggest looking for ways that a single software platform might accommodate the learning differences of a number of students with disabilities—but without losing sight of each individual’s needs, and without assuming that two students with the same diagnosis will benefit equally from a single technology or tool.
“It’s less about the label or disability that each student carries, and more about how his or her challenges manifest themselves,” said Dan Leibowitz, a learning specialist at the 400-student Town School for Boys, a private K-8 school in San Francisco. He is the owner of Innovative Learning Services, which works with individuals and small groups of students and parents to connect them with technologies and skills to improve the students’ ability to learn.
“With each [assistive technology] tool, I ask: ‘Does it help students access information? And does it help students demonstrate their knowledge?’ ” he said.
While universal design is making assistive technologies useful to an ever-wider cross section of students with learning disabilities, individuals’ needs are paramount. “The mainstreaming movement means regular teachers are learning more about assistive technologies and applying the same technologies for their whole classrooms,” said Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, a former deputy director of the National Center for Technology Innovation, or NCTI, in Washington. Ms. Silver-Pacuilla is now the supervisory education specialist for the U.S. Office of Adult and Vocational Education.
“So the pressure is on educational tech developers to build in access avenues for [assistive technology] into their products, and the pressure is on AT developers to make their products more applicable to mainstream students.”
But the disability community worries that trend could mean students with multiple or severe disabilities won’t get the tools they really need.
For example, while a text-to-speech application can give a blind student access to a specific document on a computer, it won’t allow him or her to navigate outside that document and access other programs or applications, said Jennifer McDonald-Peltier, an assistive technology specialist for the Center for Accessible Technology, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that aims to equip students with disabilities with the technology they need to be successful. For that, a screen reader program is essential, she pointed out.
Acquiring assistive technology tools is a multistep process that involves testing, and further study and coordination with a district assistive technology specialist. Many technology providers offer trial tests of their products, and educators can test-drive the various assistive technologies on display at education conferences.
‘Cheap and Easy Tools’
And no matter what a district’s budget situation is or the number or types of disabilities students have, experts in assistive technology offer some universal advice.
To begin with, schools should not overlook the technologies already available.
“My first impulse when an educator says she wants to differentiate her curriculum, and differentiate her instruction for a variety of students,” said Ms. McDonald-Peltier, “is to start by looking at [Microsoft] Word and PowerPoint. These cheap and easy tools might already meet your needs.”
In addition, school computers are likely to have some basic assistive technology tools built in at the platform level. Macintosh operating systems, for example, offer Universal Access, a set of accessibility-focused monitor and keyboard settings designed to help users who have visual and auditory limitations, or those with motor-skill problems. At the other end of the spectrum are the comprehensive software platforms, such as Inspiration software, or the WYNN literacy software, which supports a long list of features and add-ons, such as support for optical-character-recognition devices, or talking dictionaries. Experts point out that such products can be very good learning tools—but they can become very expensive. They say educators might only need specific modules within a software suite, or perhaps another software product, with fewer features.
In any case, experts recommend looking for something that’s easy to install and learn—for teachers and students alike. “The training component is often overlooked in purchasing decisions,” said Ms. McDonald-Peltier.
Upgradable products are preferable, too, given the rapidity with which technology is evolving.
‘We Need Proof’
Finally, experts suggest relying on the research that educational technology groups, such as the NCTI and the Washington-based Center for Implementing Technology in Education, which helps schools implement assistive technology, have compiled. The Tech Matrix is an online tool that allows educators to search for assistive technology tools by specific content areas.
The NCTI is also working with the Assistive Technology Industry Association to help assistive technology manufacturers and software developers conduct research on the efficacy of their tools for learning.
“You wouldn’t test the efficacy of eyeglasses, but other tools, such as digital-text software that includes educational prompts” need to be tested, said Ms. Silver-Pacuilla. “Does it really help students with learning issues? We need proof.”
Most students, through time and experimentation, will find the tools that work best for them, experts suggest.
Brandi Allan, a junior at Immaculate Conception Academy, a 280-student high school in San Francisco, was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 1st grade. She uses a combination of an AlphaSmart keyboard, an Intel optical-character-recognition device for text-to-speech help with printed matter, and a LiveScribe note-taking pen.
“You have to find your own tweaks” to find the best way to use different tools effectively, Ms. Allan said. “I’m still experimenting with different technologies, and I have been since around third grade.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Assistive Technology Broadens Its Range