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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.

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.

The Pulse SmartPen from Livescribe records both spoken words and every keystroke written with it, then links them to computerized playbacks. 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.

The Switchamajig lets orthopedically-impaired people use an iPad’s touch screen to control previously inaccessible devices.“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.
For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible. 
      —  Pennsylvania’s Initiative on Assistive Technology (PIAT)


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.

Digital tech advantages and disadvantages

Technology can be a “godsend,” says Maureen Fitzpatrick, LPN, resource liaison for the Elks Home Nursing Program. When she visits families in their homes, she sees just how helpful AT can be “when there are so many complex issues.”  She says schools just don’t have enough AT.

But there are both advantages and disadvantages with digitized information, according to Manju Banerjee, PhD director and vice president of  Landmark College Institute for Research and Training in Putney, VT. It depends on the needs of the student and the technology’s “strategic use.”

Positives include:
• Flexibility: Users can switch among print, audio, video, and can separate content from display.
• Convenience (of a single device): There is less need for many separate books and notebooks.
Built-in scaffolding: Support drops in/pops up as needed, with links to additional resources and help.

Challenges can include:
• Confusion from lack of clear beginning, ending, chapters; scrambled formats
• Loss of positional memory & cues
• More distractions for those with attention problems (links, animation, sounds, colors)
•  Sometimes information sources aren’t vetted.

Keys to successful use of AT include matching the student to the most appropriate tools for her needs;  appropriate training for all players in the child’s educational process and maintenance for  the tools; and strategic use of the tools to accomplish educational goals.

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.

Assistive technology resources

Advancing Opportunities (of New Jersey) provides assessments, advice and training and serves as a liaison to a variety of AT vendors through their (mobile) Assistive Technology Services and Assistive Technology Center. 888-322-1918, ext. 595

Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative (DATI), a service of the University of Delaware, connects families and educators to AT information, training and tools. 800-870-DATI, 302-831-0354

Disability Rights New Jersey,  a private non-profit, advocates for people with disabilities and provides AT info and support.   800-922-7233, 609-292-9742

Family Center on Technology and Disability (FCTD), supported by the U.S. Department of Education,  provides valuable fact sheets, AT reviews, tips and newsletters. 202-884-8068

Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, funded by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, conducts education, research, advocacy and service.  The Institute also runs Pennsylvania’s Initiative for Assistive Technology (PIAT). 215-204-1356 or 1-800-204-PIAT

Landmark College in Putney VT, provides webinars on AT, conferences, professional development and research, in addition to post-secondary degrees for students with learning disabilities. 802-387-7115

Nemours/A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE, researches and provides medically-related AT. 302-651-4000 or 302-651-5477

Parent Education Network (PEN) is a coalition supported by both the federal and state departments of education, offers families information, resources, tips, workshops, and other resources. 800-522-5827,  717-600-0100.

Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) is a state education initiative to help students succeed.  Among its services, PaTTAN partners with educational organizations and parents to help match students to tools they need to access their  rights to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), rights guaranteed to them under federal legislation, including IDEA. 610-265-7321

 

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