Assistive Technology - Revised and Expanded

Children with special needs have a greater opportunity in these technology-rich times in which we live. There is an abundance of modern technology to assist the disabled learner to have a more level playing field. Parents are often unaware of the extraordinary ways in which such assistance can open the minds and hearts of students who are used to being limited by their disability. For example, a child with severe dyscalculia who cannot seem to master memorization of number facts or attain simple success in written work may find success with the use of calculators and programs that will allow the child to speak math into the computer and see it appear as a written problem. Students with severe motor limitations are liberated into developing their written expression with voice-dictation software. Dyslexic students with intellectual skills far above their reading and spelling level can benefit by working on grade level with the right combination of technology helps instead of being forced to work with childish lower grade level reading material.

Choices must reflect the genuine need of an individual student, and it is not always in the best interests of a child to simply replace basic learning foundations with technological programs and aides. However, when selected and used appropriately, technology opens up a wider range of opportunities for the child to take in new learning, as well as demonstrate learning with a greater range of choices. 

Reading Technology Devices and Programs 

Reading technology opens doors to some material that was formerly not available to students with certain special needs, such as the visually handicapped, blind, and dyslexic. Assistive technology includes magnification software with/without speech, screen reading software, Braille software, and keyboard software. Through technology, speech can be sensed by a microphone, typed by a word processor and read back to the learner. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology enables written text to be converted into electronic documents that can be brought up in most word processing programs. Printed text material can be scanned, routed to a word processor, and then read and manipulated on the screen. Tape-recorded books are always a wonderful way to teach poor readers at their true ability level of comprehension instead of at their limited reading level.

Parents can use these devices in several ways. Text can be enlarged and reprinted for students with visual limitations. Text can selected and copied into free downloadable programs that will read the text aloud to the student in several choices of voice. These do sound a bit "robot-like" but the programs are able to read the text accurately--even web page content that is copied. Check http://readplease.com for more information. Another such program is at http://www.webspeakster.com/browser_ware.htm (note underscore), which carries the "Code-It" software program (American Indian themed -- it also has a huge set of links for American Indian information). It is available for free download.

Other programs, much more complex and expensive, read text from the screen, highlight text by parts of speech or selected criteria, and incorporate word processing programs. Links for a few of these programs include:
  • http://www.arkenstone.com
  • http://www.kurzweiledu.com
  • http://www.Speechtechnologycom/products/disabilities/jaws.html
  • http://www.accessiblebookcollection.org -- A $49.95/school year access subscription gives students with disabilities access to a wide range of books in digital format.
  • http://www.rfbd.org -- Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. Since almost 50% of client requests were from the dyslexic population, the organization recently changed its name. Learners must be "certified" as needing reading assistance, and a consultant, physician or teacher can provide certification. A minimum fee is charged yearly for unlimited access to a wide range of materials, and if the necessary text is not available, it will be taped for the child! There is a special tape player necessary, but there are organizations that provide grants for supplying assistive technology!
  • http://www.nextup.com -- Links to many options for learning with listening--users can even save files in MP3 format.
  • http://www.ldresources.com -- This is a rich storehouse of links to technology and its applications for students with special needs.
  • http://www.keyalt.com/software.htm -- Keyalt.com offers adaptive technology in many areas of need, including braille, and they allow rentals for 30-day trial before purchase! There are small pen-sized units that can be hand-drawn across one line of text at a time for reading text aloud.
Writing Devices, Helps, and Software 

Technology provides a big assist to writing. There are programs that anticipate content and type it in without the student having to finish the word, programs that read aloud as the student types in material, others where speech is transformed into typewritten content, and many other options. Some parents worry that children with some disabilities should have to learn cursive, but in today's modern world, if they have become proficient in writing with computer assistance, the only reason they might be required to do so would be to sign forms and checks! Parents must ask themselves, "What am I trying to assess--content and ideas or penmanship skills?" If penmanship skills are seriously limiting a child's ability to demonstrate learning, then good stewardship of that learning capability would indicate that the child should be given a level playing field (with computer help) to show what they know! For "reluctant" writers, the computer may release their ideas when they can type more easily and use visual organizers to help prepare the topic ahead of composition.

Some examples of writing assistance technology include:
  • The ubiquitous word processor is a well-known technology. Examples include Microsoft Word or Wordperfect software.
  • Voice-to-text dictation software uses a microphone to create a printed text in a word processing program, such as Dragon, Naturally Speaking.
  • Franklin Spell-Check, employing hand-held spell-check technology, can be purchased in most office supply stores.
  • Write Outloud and Co-Write word prediction software read text out loud as it is typed, and predict which word the student may employ to complete an idea. The word prediction software uses the first letter typed, and shows a drop-down menu of words as options, requiring only a click of the mouse to insert into the document. This is very efficient for students who cannot spell and/or who hate to write by hand. Free 30-day trials. Website discounts on pricing. http://www.Donjohnston.com/index.htm.
  • Inspiration software visually "maps" the student's pre-writing ideas in many different ways. It creates visual printouts to help children organize ideas and plan content with appealing colors, shapes and clipart. It can be obtained from Inspiration Software, Inc. http://www.inspiration.com. 503-297-3004.
  • e-Mind Maps by Mindjet.com creates visual concept diagrams, like "wheel" charts, for organizing ideas. It is similar to Inspiration software but with fewer options, so that it is easier for students to learn. Downloadable online from http://www.Mindjet.com.
  • Flow Chart Maker is a very inexpensive program, often available at office supply stores. It creates a flow chart to help organize thinking. Cosmi Software Co. 310-886-3510.
Math Technology 

Students with special needs demonstrate a wide range of difficulties in math--some cannot retain facts, some cannot write the work legibly or it sprawls all over the page with no columns at all, and others cannot see the materials. Dyslexic students cannot read the directions and word problems. The needs for technology are therefore different. Again, the parent must ask, "What skills am I trying to assess--writing, memorization of data, or understanding of operations and math concepts?" The answers to that question will determine which technology devices are most appropriate and helpful. Many students cannot learn math facts by memory, yet with the assistance of a calculator, they are capable of working much closer to grade level content! Students with serious motor-control problems need a range of adaptations, such as raised lines to guide writing work on the paper, all the way to problems read aloud.

Some helpful technology includes:
  • Calculators.
  • Talking calculators with answer screens and built-in speech synthesizers that state a number or math symbol.
  • Talking math worksheets that position the cursor and speak the numerals that are seen on the screen.
Check out the following sites for links about math assistive technology:General Resources 

Assistive Technology for Children with Learning Difficulties. Marshall Rasking Ph.D., Schwab Foundation for Learning, 1650 South Amphlett Blvd. #300, San Mateo, CA 94402. 2000. 800-230-0988. Provides a comprehensive summary of assistive technology options.

Assistive Technology in the Student's Individualized Education Program: A Handbook for Parents and School Personnel. Joey Wallace, Ph.D., compiler, Virginia Assistive Technology System (VATS), P.O. Box 1475, Richmond, VA 23218. 804-786-7765. TDD 804-786-7765. Provides a summary of assistive technology options, legal mandates, and funding options.

http://www.aacproducts.org -- This organization maintains a large site where parents can learn more about assistive technology for augmentative and alternative communication products and technology. There are descriptions of the technology, and a listing of ongoing workshop locations open to parents and educators.