Assistive tech arrives big time
Kids with IEPs have a right to needed learning devices.
The DynaVox Maestro enables day-to-day communication for individuals with speech and language disabilities.
Assistive Technology (AT) has arrived, big time, and not just for people who have vision or hearing impairments. “It’s so much more than that!” emphasizes Linda Cartwright, parent consultant at PaTTAN (Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network).
Assistive Technology increasingly provides the means to make classrooms and materials more usable by millions of students with disabilities. AT can offer successful ways to communicate, write, read, remember, organize and demonstrate what kids have learned.
In today’s digital world, new learning tools continually enter the marketplace. AT can range from weighted pens to sophisticated augmentative communications systems. Content videos teach concepts such as Boyle’s Law or how to solve a quadratic equation.
Interactive software can increase the size of a display font, adjust background color or read text to the student, while providing highlights, links to definitions and other resources. It can even anticipate student commands through voice recognition software, cursors responsive to head movement and visual mapping programs.
With the help of statewide AT centers and various funding sources, school districts are supposed to make these tools available free of charge to students when they’re needed to help kids accomplish their educational goals.What should families do?
How should families proceed? For school-related issues, work with your IEP team, advises Karen Jones a Delaware Department of Education curriculum associate.
“But don’t go in requesting a specific piece of technology,” emphasizes Fred Tchang, director of AT services for the Assistive Technology Center in Ewing, NJ. Other experts agree with this advice.
Instead, start by assessing needs. Does the student have a print disability? A physical limitation? Does it take the child two hours to do what his peers can do in 14 minutes? What are his strengths and gaps? How does the student learn best, through an auditory or digital approach?
For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier.
Clarify the features and capabilities that the child requires before you match tools or devices to help support her, advises Dr. Beth Mineo, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies. Jones notes that a student might need different sorts of tools to approach different subjects.
Borrow, train, maintain
Sometimes it’s hard to know how well any particular AT will work until a student tries it out. Schools are reluctant to invest in equipment that may not be a good solution.
AT centers in each state have lending inventories so that students can try out a recommended device without committing to it. (Some have re-use programs as well.) Many offer demonstrations and expos. Their professionals consult with educators and families about the best matches for their needs.Training is critical, says Dr. Manju Banerjee, director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. “Technology by itself is inert. Strategic use of appropriate technology is key,” she says.
Maintenance of the device is also important. AT Centers advise on this as well. Another consideration is whether features can adapt to changing skill or strength levels as the child’s condition changes.
Plan B and beyond
Cartwright has a 14-year-old son with Down syndrome. She notes that years ago, he had become very frustrated during a keyboarding class, because he was unable to touch type. “What’s plan B?” she asked. For her son, the alternate approach included helpful text-to-speech software, so he could hear what he was typing.
In other cases, behavioral problems might signify students’ frustration at not being understood. Experts suggest that appropriate AT can sometimes give kids their voices and even reduce the need for staff, pull-outs or other accommodations.
Sometimes IEP outcomes fall short of expectations. Sometimes AT is used that doesn’t engage the student or is too cumbersome for his needs.
AT consultants can help. IEPs can be revisited or appealed. And families can also learn about and obtain AT for home life and activities outside of the classroom.
Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.