As technology evolves to customize education based on students’ strengths and weaknesses, assistive technologies typically used by students with special needs could also become powerful learning tools for the general student population, experts suggest.
But to put that technology into all students’ hands, general education teachers need to be more informed about the assistive technologies that are available and how they can be used in their classrooms.
“The technology right now that’s being used to support many kids with disabilities can definitely be generalized to support nondisabled students,” says Rebecca Hines, an associate professor of special education at the University of Central Florida’s Daytona Beach campus. “That’s what universal design is about—adding these layers of support that are necessary for a few people but can be used by everybody.”
The philosophy of “universal design for learning” calls for using curricula and materials that are flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of learning styles and needs.
“It’s so easy now to put the tools in kids’ hands. The problem is that it’s hard to get the information out to the people who are supposed to be putting it there,” says Hines.
Using technology to access materials in multiple ways is a huge advantage for all students, says James R. Stachowiak, the associate director of the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research, or ICATER, at the University of Iowa’s college of education.
“Some of these tools can benefit everybody,” he says. Text readers, for instance, can read text to a student who may be a better auditory learner than a visual learner, but who may not be eligible for special education services, Stachowiak says.
“Even if they don’t have disabilities,” he points out, “they may have different learning styles.”
In fact, the divide between assistive technology and educational technology for the general student population is a false one, argues Elizabeth Dalton, an assistant professor of special education at Rhode Island College, in Providence.
“All teachers—general education teachers, special education teachers—need to know about the full spectrum of technology solutions,” she says.
As more students in special education move into regular classes, professional development to help all teachers learn about technology that can help individualize education becomes even more critical, says Tracy Gray, the managing director at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington.
Gray also leads two national technology centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education: the National Center for Technology Innovation and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education, both of which promote the development and use of technology to improve the education of students with special needs.
And as new technologies are developed, she says, “the line becomes very, very small between an assistive-technology device and general education technology tools.”
For example, Apple’s iPad runs applications—such as text-to-speech and speech-recognition apps—that could replace some students’ dedicated assistive-technology devices.
However, although some technologies from the wider market may be used by students with special needs, technology that is not specifically designed to meet those needs may not be effective for some students, says Jason Voiovich, the vice president of marketing for AbleNet, a North Roseville, Minn.-based company that provides assistive technology for people with severe disabilities.
“Consumer technology is becoming more and more applicable and accessible to all persons with disabilities, and that’s a fantastic move on the part of major manufacturers like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft,” he says. But not all students have the dexterity, for example, to use a touch screen.
“In some cases, specially adapted software for consumer devices along with alternative-access technology can work very well,” Voiovich says. “In other cases, you might still need to use a piece of dedicated hardware. It is important to have all of those options available.”
Raising awareness about assistive technology and including multiple players on the student’s educational support team in discussions about buying and using that technology are essential to successful implementation, says Gray, from the American Institutes for Research.
“It can’t be purchased and utilized in a silo,” she says. “It has to be part of the overall technology infrastructure in the school or the district.” Making everyone aware of the types of assistive technologies available will ensure that they are compatible with the current technology plan at the school and increase the awareness of general education teachers of the opportunities that are available through assistive technologies, she says.
Making sure that students are on board with the technology is also critical, says Dalton, from Rhode Island College.
“You can have the best tool in the world, but it’s not going to achieve its purpose if the person isn’t willing or interested in using it,” she says. For example, when text-to-speech readers were first invented, many students chose to continue being read to by a person rather than the technology, says Dalton, because a real person provided other types of support.
And after a piece of assistive technology is put into the classroom, it’s important to evaluate its impact on learning, advises David Dikter, the chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Assistive Technology Industry Association, a nonprofit membership organization for manufacturers and providers.
“It really is incumbent upon educators, alongside parents and caregivers,” he says, “to really be conducting an ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of any piece of technology and evaluating the success of the student.”
And it is the responsibility of school leaders and special education directors to “make sure that teachers have the professional development that they need around this technology so that they’re making the right recommendations for students,” he adds.