SC Curriculum Access through AT

What is assistive technology and how is it used in schools?

Every day South Carolina’s students with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities face barriers to learning. Students with motor disabilities may not be able to hold a pencil to write answers on a test, or a compass to do a math lesson. Students with learning disabilities may not be able to decode words in printed text.

Many teachers have consistently worked to provide alternative ways of learning for students who learn in different ways. The impact of technology on education has been profound. Computers have become an essential literacy tool in our society. When assistive technology is appropriately integrated into the classroom, students are provided with multiple means to complete their work and focus on achieving academic standards.

Assistive technology (AT) is any tool that helps students with disabilities do things more quickly, easily or independently. It can be elaborate and expensive or simple and low-cost. Assistive technology services are supports for using assistive technology devices, such as assistive technology evaluations, equipment maintenance, technical assistance, demonstration or training.

In South Carolina’s schools, assistive technology can provide accommodations, modifications or adaptations made to the environment, curriculum, instruction, or assessment practices. As inclusive schools become the norm, creative curriculum design may depend on assistive technology.

A student with poor vision might use enlarged text. A student with motor difficulties might use an enlarged, simplified computer keyboard. A non-verbal student can be the “caller” for a game of “Red Light/Green Light” by using a talking switch. A student who can comprehend history at the 6th grade level, but can read only at the 3rd grade level, might read a textbook with the help of a computer that scans and reads text. The flexibility of assistive technology allows a teacher to build tools and materials that address students’ strengths as well as their weaknesses.

For students with disabilities that interfere with their communication, learning, social relationships or active participation, assistive technology supports their participation in learning experiences in the least restrictive environment. Assistive technology can be the lifeline that increases a student’s opportunities for education, social interactions, and meaningful employment.

What does the law say? back to top

The Federal government recognizes the potential of assistive technology for students in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that assistive technology devices and services be considered for each child with a disability. The 1997 amendments reflect a shift in focus about the use of assistive technology. Rather than being perceived as just a rehabilitative or remedial tool, assistive technology is reflected in the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) as a method for general curriculum access. Rather than just specifying a student’s special education services, the IEP must include information about a student's current abilities and how his or her disability affects involvement and progress in the general curriculum. The IEP must also include the program modifications and supports the school and teachers will provide to help a student’s involvement and progress in the general curriculum.

Other federal laws support the use of assistive technology. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require schools to provide assistive technology for students with disabilities, if it is needed to assure equal access or remove barriers to programs and services.

The shift in emphasis on assistive technology in the IDEA shows what school-based professionals have found after years of experience. The "fix-it" approach taken with traditional assistive technology applications should not be the main goal in finding appropriate assistive technology for students. Instructional issues are at the heart of the challenge, requiring educators to start with the curriculum and then ask how tools might assist students in achieving the outcomes.

When considering assistive technology in any situation, the focus should be on what the device does for a person, not on the device or technology itself. Assistive technology is merely the 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.

What are the legal definitions? back to top

The Technology Related Assistance Act of 1988 (P.L. 101-407) and the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-394) provide a standard definition of assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.”

An assistive technology service is any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device. The term includes:

The evaluation of the needs of a child with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child's customary environment

Purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices by children with disabilities

Selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, retaining, repairing, or replacing assistive technology devices

Coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs

Training or technical assistance for a child with a disability or, if appropriate, that child's family

Training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education or rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of children with disabilities

How can technology help students with disabilities? back to top

Technology helps students with disabilities on many different levels. It can help them accomplish tasks like:

Master grade-level content. Technology presents the material in different forms (visually, auditorially, etc.)

Improve writing and organizational skills. Technology can enable students with learning disabilities or autism to do such things as develop a concept map for a research paper and write using grade-level vocabulary or words they otherwise wouldn't use without a computer due to poor spelling skills.

Work towards grade-level reading skills. The computer either reads the text digitally or presents it at a lower grade level for students with reading disabilities or visual impairments.

Improve note-taking skills. Many students with disabilities have difficulty taking notes in longhand because of poor spelling, writing, and/or eye-hand coordination skills.

Master educational concepts that would otherwise have been beyond their reach. Students can experience abstract concepts such as the growth of a flower through 3-D simulations.

What types of assistive technology can help students and teachers in the classroom? back to top

A student with physical disabilities who is positioned correctly is better able to pay attention, focus for longer periods of time, and access learning materials. Examples of equipment used for positioning are sidelying frames, walkers, chair inserts, standing aids, and beanbag chairs.

To do class work and homework, some students need devices that provide access to computers or environmental controls. Examples of access technology are special switches, modified 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, dysfluent or who have articulation problems may benefit from using a wide variety of communication devices.

Because 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 a distance. Many students rely on their vision as a primary mode for learning. Technology can be used to help these students by increasing contrast, enlarging stimuli, and making use of tactile and auditory modes. Devices that help with vision include screen readers, screen enlargers, magnifiers, audio books, Braillers, light boxes, and scanners.

Students with mobility impairments may need wheelchairs, self-propelled walkers, or recreational vehicles like bikes or scooters. Recreation is an important part of school life because it promotes interaction with other students. Adapted recreational activities can make a real difference to students with disabilities. Examples of adapted recreational activities 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 helping a student function with less need for attendant care at school. Examples are automatic feeders, adapted toilet seats, aids for tooth brushing, washing, dressing, and grooming.

Computer-based instruction can support other learning activities. Software that gives 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 hear the words while seeing them on the page while reading. 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.

For example, a textbook can be "rewritten" at a lower grade level or presented graphically for students who have reading disabilities. It can easily be presented in large print, in a different color, or with different backgrounds for students who have visual impairments. It can be read aloud via computer for students who are blind or non-readers. It can even be presented in a different language for students for whom English is a second language.

Does assistive technology benefit only students with disabilities? back to top

Building access features within the design of a product benefits more people than those with disabilities. Curb cuts help people with shopping carts and baby strollers as well as people in wheelchairs. Closed-captioned decoders in televisions are used by people in sports bars and fitness centers and those with limited English proficiency, not just by people with hearing impairments. In the same way, assistive technology or educational technology access features help students with many different learning styles or needs. Preschool students without the motor skills required to use a regular keyboard are helped by other input devices, such as a simplified keyboard or a switch. Students with limited reading skills of all ages can benefit from a computer program that reads and highlights text on the screen.

Teachers benefit from effective use of assistive technology. Assistive technology can provide a teacher more options to use in addressing different learning styles for individual students using visual, auditory and tactile approaches. By making a student more independent, assistive technology allows teachers to spend more time on group activities and to give students more one-on-one attention.

A student who is more fully integrated into the classroom is less of a distraction to other students, interacting with other students and facilitating a more positive classroom atmosphere. Being in a classroom with a special needs student who is fully integrated and using assistive technology effectively is an important educational experience for other students.

Is there a difference between assistive and educational technology? back to top

There may be a very fine line between educational and assistive technology; they are often interrelated. One way of looking at the difference is that assistive technology is more personal to the student, whereas educational technology is more classroom-based. However, the distinction is becoming blurred as, for example, visual supports for literacy are used in classrooms and as computers are being used more often in all areas of education.

Instead of focusing on educational vs. assistive technology, the concept of "Universal Design for Learning" is being developed. "Universal Design for Learning" is a relatively new term, but it incorporates age-old, basic principles of good teaching through different modes. It involves using technology that allows students to access educational materials through their strongest learning mode. Universal design provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. It does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access. For example, a student with poor visual skills may access information about a specific topic using text reading computer software.

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