New software, advanced technology, and computerized devices can help special education students talk to their teachers, write out their thoughts and feelings, and understand a printed page. But schools are finding that many of the high-tech devices can’t open those doors for students without direct and ongoing assistance from information-technology specialists.
District- and school-level IT specialists often must install software tailored for special education students, work out the kinks in the hardware, and regularly reset and repair programs. To help such students take full advantage of new technology, both IT experts and those who work with special education “assistive” technology must work together.
“It’s exhilarating,” says David Mirra, the chief technology officer for the 26,500-student Stafford County, Va., school district, describing the feeling when a piece of technology resonates with a special education student. “It’s like the light comes on and the sun comes up.”
Mirra, a former special education teacher, makes it a top priority to work cooperatively with the special education department on technology projects. He has an assistive-technology specialist working for him, and Mirra has direct oversight of both the purely technical side of technology and the instructional side.
The problem in many districts is that information technology and assistive technology are largely separate functions—they do not work together, says Tara L. Jeffs, the director of the Assistive Technology Center at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C. While Jeffs tells her students training as special education teachers about the latest advances in assistive technology, those students often report back to her that the newest software and devices for students with disabilities aren’t available or workable in their districts.
That lack of cooperation leads to problems.
For example, Jeffs says, some districts have software programs on reading available, but school information-technology specialists tell the special education teachers such programs don’t exist. With some digging, the programs are often discovered. At other times, printers have broken down or computers needed for daily lessons with special education students are not working, and those problems sometimes aren’t fixed for as long as three weeks, Jeffs says.
Jeffs and others say it’s crucial for special education teachers and information-technology specialists to work together more effectively, and each side must be aware of the challenges the other faces.
“There can be a huge gap,” Jeffs says. “Teachers can’t make changes to their computers because IT folks have to do it, and IT people say ‘We can’t do it because we don’t understand that kind of software.’”
IEPs and Technology
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to consider a special education student’s need for assistive technology during the development of his or her individualized education program, or IEP, says Joy S. Zabala, the project manager for the Accessible Instructional Materials, or AIM, consortium at the Wakefield, Mass.-based Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST. If a student needs assistive technology, that need should be written into the IEP.
Adaptive Keyboards: Many keyboards are adapted to various disabilities, including Intellikeys, one of the most popular brands. It features a programmable alternative keyboard that can adjust to different types of software. For example, Intellikeys can be used to place picture symbols on a keyboard instead of letters.
Assistive-Writing Programs: These help students with grammar, organization, sentence construction, and spelling, allowing them to write only a portion of a word before the computer guesses what it is and finishes it for them. Many programs include talking features, which let students listen to their writing as they type it.
Eye-Gaze Technology: This allows students to operate computers using the movement of their eyes, which is particularly helpful for students whose disabilities prevent or limit the use of their arms.
Interactive Whiteboards: A blackboard-size screen mounted in a classroom allows teachers and students to interact with the images on it, highlight or write notes on the screen, and incorporate graphics, sound, and video, the same way a desktop computer can. Whiteboards have become popular in regular classrooms, too.
Screen Readers: This software reads the words on the screen to aid those with visual impairments or visual-processing disorders.
Touch Screens: These allow a computer to be operated by touching the screen instead of using a mouse or a keyboard. Touch screens have proved to be particularly beneficial for students with autism or those who have difficulty learning how to use a computer mouse.
Voice-Recognition: Such systems enable students to give commands to a computer by talking rather than using a mouse or keyboard. The systems have a microphone attached to the computer that can be used to create text documents and e-mail messages or browse the Internet. Experts say this technology works well for students who are unable to use a mouse or a keyboard.
Switches: These assistive-technology devices can replace a computer mouse and be used to control a keyboard. There are many different kinds of switches that can be operated with any body part—the forehead, a foot—and some students use more than one switch.
While most special education experts say they don’t believe an information-technology specialist needs to be involved in each IEP process, Zabala says there should be coordination on the district level.
“[Assistive technology] and IT both need to understand each other’s gifts and challenges, if you will,” she says. If assistive technology is written into a student’s learning plan, “it legally must be provided, and the assistive-technology person is not saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had this,’” she says. “But on the assistive-technology side, they have to understand that the IT person must figure out how to add this technology without compromising the system.”
It’s important for technology specialists to understand more than wiring when it comes to assistive technology, says Carol Casperson, an assistive-technology specialist for the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. “Use a carrot to attract that person to get involved with what you’re up to,” she says. “Somehow get them to understand what these students are up against every day. If they can make it real for that person they’re trying to work with, they’re more likely to get what they need.”
That might require keeping lines of communication open in a formal way, through regular meetings and planning projects, but it could also mean sending technology specialists out to special education classrooms to watch how much a particular piece of technology can help a student, or asking an assistive-technology expert to do a show-and-tell for IT staff that makes the importance of a piece of software concrete, Mirra says.
“A lot of times what works is when an IT person sees a kid with special needs working on a piece of technology that actually works for them, and sees what the variation is,” says Michael M. Behrmann, a professor of special education at the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human Disabilities at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. “All too often, the assistive-technology specialist doesn’t even report to the IT people. There’s a bureaucratic split in the natural communication between those groups.”
On the special education side, says Mirra of Virginia’s Stafford County schools, teachers and administrators need to articulate why a particular technology product is needed. Mirra often asks them to rank an expenditure on a list of priorities.
“If there are 25 things on a list, and it’s up to the IT guy to decide, he’s going to pick the easiest one,” Mirra says.
‘What We Can and Can’t Do’
When the two groups work well together, they can find creative ways to solve problems, says James Phifer, the assistive technology integration specialist for the 164,000-student Fairfax County, Va., public schools.
1: Make sure special education teachers know what software is already available in the district. Sometimes, existing software just needs to be loaded on a new computer.
2: Communication is key. Help forge good working relationships between special educators, assistive-technology specialists, and the information-technology department. Have regular meetings to share progress and update goals. Work together when planning and carrying out assistive-technology projects.
2: Make sure IT staff members understand what technology does for special education students. Ask assistive-technology staff to do a show-and-tell with software or other technological devices. Have IT staff members visit classrooms to see how technology aids students with disabilities.
3: Keep special education teachers informed about repairs to technology. Tell them when their problem is likely to be fixed so they can make alternative lesson plans for the interim.
4: Help special education staff members understand what will and will not work on a network and the reasons why. Be creative in coming up with solutions for making new technologies work for special education students.
For example, he says, his district recently had a problem because software often needed to be installed or uninstalled on special education teachers’ computers, but only someone with administrator status was authorized to make those changes. As a consequence, special education teachers experienced long delays in getting software and they were forced to wait until an IT person could get there to make the changes.
Phifer says he met with the district’s technology service desk and explained the problem. A deal was struck: The district’s 30 assistive-technology specialists would get administrator status, but only after signing a document that spelled out exactly what they were permitted to do when it came to changing software programs.
“We came up with strict rules of what we can and can’t do, so the tech staff doesn’t have to worry that we’re out there doing a lot of things we’re not supposed to,” Phifer says. “It would be nearly impossible for our people to work if they couldn’t install things themselves.”
Bob Moore, the executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Unified School District No. 229 in Overland Park, Kan., says he’s worked hard to bridge the gap between information technology and special education in his district. The two areas jointly funded a position for an assistive-technology specialist, for instance, and have worked together on many projects. Along the way, he and others have discovered that much of the software and technology initially used exclusively for special education students could be helpful to students in regular education programs, too.
“The tug and pull between the two groups was historically bothersome to me,” Moore says. “We serve all students, … not just a subset, and we needed to find a way to meet their needs.”
Michelle R. Davis is the senior writer for Education Week’s Digital Directions.