AT and Learning Disabilities

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The Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA) 2004 is the federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children with disabilities. IDEA defines a learning disability as

". . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia."

Learning disabilities do not include, "...learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage." 34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.8(c)(10)

One student with learning disabilities may not have the same kind of learning problems as another. One student may have difficulty understanding what he/she just read. Another student with learning disabilities may have problems with math and writing. Still another student may have trouble in all three areas. 

Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person's brain works and how it processes information. Students with learning disabilities are not "dumb" or "lazy." In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Parents and teachers may find it hard to understand a student who shows a large discrepancy between skills. A student may have reading skills above grade level, but have great difficulty with reading comprehension. The student’s brain just processes information differently.

There is no "cure" for learning disabilities.  Students can be high achievers and can be taught ways to compensate for a learning disability. Assistive technology can be a means for students with learning disabilities to be successful learners.

Some students have overlapping difficulties and others may have a single, isolated problem. Students with learning disabilities may also have mobility or sensory impairments. Often people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) also have learning disabilities.

What can assistive technology do?

With personal effort, support from others and appropriate tools (such as assistive technology), students with learning disabilities can be more successful in school, at home, and at work. When considering assistive technology in any situation, the focus should be on what the device or software does for a person, not on the device or technology itself. Assistive technology is only a support to “get the job done” more independently. It can reduce a student’s reliance on parents, siblings, friends and teachers, helping the transition into adulthood, fostering self-esteem and reducing anxiety.

Assistive technology can support both compensatory and remedial approaches for a student. A compensatory approach might be when a student listens to a digital version of the book for English class to answer questions about it, with the goal of bypassing a reading problem, not of learning how to read. If the student listens to the book or has a computer reading a scanned or digital version of the book while following along with the text and trying to learn unfamiliar words, this would be a remedial approach, designed to improve areas of deficiency. Both approaches have value. Using only the remedial approach (sometimes with little benefit) can lead to burnout. Discouraged students benefit more from more immediate solutions to particular problems. For example, it may be best to give up the goal of learning to spell, in favor of using a “spell check,” so that a student can focus on getting thoughts on paper and not mechanical details that can become overwhelming barriers to self-expression.

Christopher Lee, Director of Georgia’s Assistive Technology Project “Tools for Life,” knows first-hand about learning disabilities. In his junior year in college he discovered computers. "I loved the keyboard; it took away that dreaded piece of dead wood—the pencil," he says. "The keyboard was tactile; I could feel it, I could connect letters with physical action." Letters on a computer monitor appear much clearer to him than when he writes them on paper.  Spelling checkers cleaned up his frequent misspellings, and grammar checkers flagged muddled word distinctions. "The computer made a huge difference in my ability to learn," he says.

Christopher Lee also describes the essential issues surrounding math problems. “Math difficulties can be a challenge to remediate and/or accommodate. Many students with disabilities have histories of academic failure that contribute to the development of learned helplessness in math. Students may practice computing division facts but do not understand what division means. This lack of understanding fosters the student’s dependency on the teacher and promotes the belief that external help is needed to solve problems correctly. People with LD who have math problems usually have visual perception difficulties that affect their ability to see likenesses and differences in shape and form. Because math symbols represent a way to express numerical language concepts, language skills become very important to math achievement. Many students with learning disabilities have reading difficulties that interfere with their ability to solve word problems. The fear of failure and low self-esteem cause students to become so tense that their ability to solve problems and to learn or apply math concepts is impaired. Confused thinking, disorganization, avoidance behavior and math phobia are common results.”

LD OnLine has an extensive collection of resources on learning disabilities and ADHD -
http://www.ldonline.org/techexpert/What_technologies_can_help_a_high_school_
student_with_dysgraphia_in_science_and_math_classes%3F

Georgia's "Tools for Life" has excellent LD resources for Apple and Android handheld devices on their website - http://www.gatfl.gatech.edu/tflwiki/images/0/05/TFL-_Exploring_Apps_for_LD_Webinar_03-27-13.pdf .

What assistive technology tools are available?

Described below are the most common devices and software used by students with learning disabilities. Many of these programs have free trial or downloads from the Internet.

Generally, computers, tablets and handheld devices can be very useful for students with disabilities because they cut out distractions, decrease the stress of stimuli and leave more of a student’s brain for thinking. Use of a keyboard may be a good alternative for the student who has a hard time with the coordination needed to produce good handwriting. Rather than agonize over improving handwriting in a losing battle, students can bypass this barrier and get right into the work itself.

Examples:

We also have a Browser Extension Directory (Word) with many suggestions for plugins to Chrome and Firefox that can make using the internet much more accessible to children of all abilities.

Built-In Accessibility Options:

Apple and Microsoft include accessibility features in their products as standard features. These include magnification for people with visual impairments, on-screen keyboards, sticky keys for one-handed typing, filter keys for motor control problems, speech to text, and lots more.

Find information about specific accessibility options for the iPhone, iPad, iPod, and OS X at
http://www.apple.com/accessibility/

Find information about specific accessibility options for Microsoft products at
http://www.microsoft.com/enable/

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