AT in the Classroom
Assistive technology (AT) is equipment that helps people with disabilities do things more quickly, easily or independently. It can be elaborate and expensive or simple and low-cost. Examples of assistive technology include wheelchairs, computers, toys that are adapted for easy use, and machines that read aloud, speak for people or translate speech to print. Assistive technology services are supports to using these devices, such as AT evaluations, equipment maintenance, demonstration or training.
Several federal laws affect the use of assistive technology in the classroom. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to provide a free and appropriate public education, including related services, for all children with disabilities. This law recognizes that children with disabilities may need assistive technology devices and services to help them receive an education equal in quality to that of other children. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate employees with disabilities in a work environment, and also mandates that colleges and universities give students with disabilities equal access to computers on public campuses. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the removal of barriers that prevent students with disabilities from participating in higher education.
There is almost unlimited potential for assistive technology to help in school settings. Appropriate assistive technology can help students with special needs to be included in regular rather than special classrooms, by providing accommodations and adaptations to support educational programs that are already in place. In connection with disability issues, the term “accommodations” refers to a change in routine, method or approach that is used so that a person with a disability can participate in spite of whatever challenges the disability might pose. For example, when a student who is unable to remember math facts is allowed to do math problems with a calculator, the use of the calculator is an accommodation that allows the student to work around his or her disability. With this accommodation, the student can still perform math problems but uses a different method. For some students with learning disabilities, learning to spell words correctly may be a skill they cannot acquire or cannot acquire with enough fluency to be able to express themselves adequately in writing. To compensate for this inability, these students may be encouraged to use alternative methods for spelling like a spell check program on the computer or a hand-held spelling device. The term “adaptations” means devices or methods designed specifically to help people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks. It is something specifically designed which is not ordinarily used by other people. An example of an adaptation is a special keyboard that enables a person with the use of only one hand to use a computer.
What types of assistive technology can help students and teachers in the classroom?
Many types of accommodations and adaptations help students function more independently. Computers are an important type of assistive technology because they open up so many possibilities for writing, speaking, calling up information or controlling a person’s environment. Still, there are many low tech and low cost solutions, such as wrist splints, a clipboard for holding papers steady, or pencil grippers to help a student hold onto a pencil or pen. Other AT applications found in schools are described on the next page.
A student with physical disabilities who is positioned correctly is better able to pay attention, focus for longer periods of time and better able to access learning materials. Examples of equipment used for positioning are sidelying frames, walkers, chair inserts, standing aids and beanbag chairs. To do class and homework, some students need devices that provide access to computers or environmental controls. Examples of access technology are special switches, expanded keyboards, head pointers and keyguards. Independent use of equipment in the classroom is a possibility for students with physical disabilities through environmental controls such as remote controls and special adaptations of on/off switches to make them accessible. Students who are nonverbal or whose speech is not fluent or understandable enough to communicate effectively may benefit from using a wide variety of communication devices.
Since listening is an important part of the classroom experience, some students need assistive devices for hearing such as hearing aids, personal FM units, or closed-captioned TV. Special listening systems can help a child with a hearing loss “tune in” to the teacher’s voice from afar. Vision is also a major learning mode. Technology can be used to help with a student’s vision problems by increasing contrast, enlarging stimuli and making use of tactile and auditory modes. Devices that help with vision include screen readers, screen enlargers, magnifiers, taped books, Braillers, light boxes, and scanners.
Students with mobility impairments need devices like wheelchairs, self-propelled walkers, or recreational vehicles like bikes or scooters. Since recreation is an important part of school life because it promotes interaction with other students, adapted recreational activities can be very helpful. Examples are drawing software, computer games, computer simulations, and adapted puzzles. Recreation aids might include balls that beep for students with visual impairments or cuffs to help grasp paddles or racquets. Self-care aids can be critical in enabling a student function without an attendant at school. Examples are electric feeders, adapted toilet seats, aids for tooth brushing, washing, dressing and grooming.
Computer-based instruction can support other learning activities. Software giving immediate positive feedback can provide motivation and focus for students with learning disabilities. Special software can enable students with developmental disabilities to compensate for motor disturbances, organize behavior, and communicate with a minimum of stress, fatigue and misunderstanding. Talking software can help a child see and hear while learning. Word processing with word prediction helps children with limited vocabularies, as well as children whose use of a keyboard is limited by motor impairments, to express themselves in writing with far less frustration. Special software can also help a child with attention deficit disorder to reduce the effect of external stimuli, increasing his or her ability to focus on class work.
Assistive technology is never a substitute for the personal touch of a teacher but it can free a teacher to give more personal attention to all class members. By making a student more independent, assistive technology allows teachers to spend more time on group activities and one-to-one with students. Assistive technology can provide a teacher more options in addressing different learning styles for individual students, using visual, auditory and tactile approaches. A student who is more fully integrated into the classroom is less of a distraction to other students. A student who is fully included into the classroom can interact with and help other students, facilitating a more positive classroom atmosphere. Being in a classroom with a special needs student who is fully included and using assistive technology effectively is an educational experience in itself, for other students.