According to the National Education Association, the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen at least 30% since 2005. Every general education classroom includes students with disabilities as three quarters of students with disabilities spends all or part of their day in a general education classroom. With a shortage of special education teachers to support these students—and most likely a shortage of funds to hire the many needed—the investment in and use of assistive technology (AT) in schools is imperative. But it’s much more than that. AT empowers students with disabilities to feel more comfortable in their learning environment and certainly more independent.
While AT doesn’t eliminate the need for hands-on support and remedial instruction, it certainly can mitigate the need for special education (SPED) students to be overly dependent on others for their assignments. In their 2009 article, “Assistive Technology for Kids with Learning Disabilities: An Overview,” Stanberry and Raskind define and promote AT:
“Any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual's specific learning deficits. . . AT doesn't cure or eliminate learning difficulties, but it can help your child reach her potential because it allows her to capitalize on her strengths and bypass areas of difficulty.”
AT is as varied as the world of children. An inexpensive and low-tech example is the graphic organizer, a visual that helps children organize their thoughts for a writing assignment. Students express trains of thoughts through shapes filled in with student notes, including flow charts and double-bubble charts. Special software can also help students map out their thoughts. Other inexpensive, low tech devices can be wristwatches or hourglass timers that assist students with pacing or the mental preparation to switch from task to task. Another tool is text to speech (TTS) software, which works by scanning and then reading aloud the words in a synthesized voice. TTS helps children with a variety of challenges, including autism, ADHD, blindness, dyslexia, visual impairment, or any physical condition that impedes their reading.
Neese also states in his 2015 article that Assistive Listening Systems can help with the most common type of hearing loss for all ages, sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain are damaged. Assistive Listening Systems use a microphone, a type of transmission technology, and a device for capturing and bringing sound to the ear. This device is known to help students with auditory learning problems as well.
For students with mobility problems, such as paralysis and fine motor skill disabilities, sip-and-puff systems allow for control of a computer or mobile device with one’s mouth. With either a sip or a puff of his or her mouth, a child can move a controller—instead of joystick or mouse—in any direction and click on various navigational tools. Using the same process, a child can type on an on-screen keyboard.
Proofreading software is primarily geared for those with dyslexia. However, it is helpful to those with any type of learning disorder that makes reading and writing challenging. It might include a grammar checker, word prediction and sentence rephrasing tools, and auditory playback/text to speech function that allows students can hear what they have written.
A range of technology and tools can help students who cannot grasp the concept of numbers. MathTalk is a speech recognition software program that helps students at any level of math to perform math problems by speaking into a microphone on their computer and working through problems on a screen. Additionally, students with blindness and vision disabilities can use the integrated braille translator. Math simulations help students visualize equations and concepts.
Matthew Lynch describes the ideal classroom: “a customized, tailored learning experience empowered by technology” in his 2016 article “Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities” for The Tech Advocate. He says studies have shown a decline in dropout rates for special education students, and credits the use of AT in the classrooms.
Lynch describes sensory enhancers, AT which take into account that students with disabilities need some elements turned up and others turned down. For example, he says "a child with language hindrances may benefit from bright pictures or colors to learn new concepts." Screen readers, through an audio interface system, can tell the visually impaired what is on the screen.
Certain learning apps and specially-made computers employ Language Acquisition through Motor Planning (LAMP) for students with autism and related disorders. This process helps students who have limited verbal skills by connecting neurological and motor learning in a way that makes communication easier.
Also of great benefit to children on the autism spectrum are speech-generating devices, such as iPads. These give control to students who are prone to experiencing sensory overload. Lynch says researchers at Vanderbilt University credit these devices for “[encouraging] late-speaking children with spectrum disorders to speak, even from the ages of 5 to 8.”
Lynch praises the Arizona Department of Education that in 2014 used a $260,000 federal grant to boost assistive education efforts. Its aim was to see as many special education students as possible make it all the way through K-12! He says,
“What administrators are finding is that non-verbal kids with devices prove they know a lot more than even they realize. Students with autism, cerebral palsy, and other disorders that impair speech are reaping the benefits of these devices and feeling successful. Best of all: the students are developing better relationships with one another.”
One might say that these days we are too reliant on and too addicted to technology. One might say that technology makes the general public overweight, lazy, and simple minded. In the case of the learning disabled, the special needs students, the struggling learners and readers--basically all students at one time or another--assistive technology is not short of miraculous in creating a more democratic learning environment.