How new technologies can help with ‘invisible disabilities’

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Authors: Giovanni Torrisi, Sonia Piangerelli …

Authors: Giovanni Torrisi, Sonia Piangerelli
The European project ICTBell aims to investigate the field of dyslexia and language learning, with the final purpose to create a specially designed Business English Language Learning ICT-based course and a virtual learning environment (VLE) where dyslexic learners can thrive through the integrated e-learning content, virtual learning environment and online tutorage.

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  • 1. How new technologies can help with ‘invisible disabilities’ Giovanni Torrisi & Sonia Piangerelli University of Urbino, Italy Summary The European project ICTBell aims to investigate the field of dyslexia and language learning, with the final purpose to create a specially designed Business English Language Learning ICT- based course and a virtual learning environment (VLE) where dyslexic learners can thrive through the integrated e-learning content, virtual learning environment and online tutorage. The general objectives of the project are to support improvements in quality and innovation in language learning for adult dyslexics while supporting participants in language learning. In recent years the idea that Internet would contribute to a new era of participatory democracy has become dominant, but there is a real risk that what has been proclaimed as a tool of democracy can turn into a factor leading to social marginalization for those who are not able to master the processes of reading/writing proficiently. To avoid this risk, it is necessary that the educational and social institutions consider the problems and difficulties that people with disabilities have to face when they use modern technology, and provide them with specific tools like training, and software. Only in this way can technology be considered, if not the solution, at least a part of the process to minimize the impact of dyslexia on individuals, to promote social inclusion assisting with the difficulties, the anxieties and the problems that the dyslexic have to face in everyday situations. Keywords: accessibility, case study, inclusion, innovation, learning, support Dyslexia: an “invisible disability” Today more than in the past, reading is essential because it is the most important portal to knowledge in our information age, from ebooks to LIMs (electronic blackboards), so the Internet. Learning to read is, however, arduous for the 5 to 17% of children who have developmental dyslexia. Developmental dyslexia is a specific learning disability that consists in persistent failure to acquire efficient reading skills despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and socio-cultural opportunity [American Psychiatric Association, 1994; World Health Organization, 1993]. Dyslexic people usually show a deficit in the phonological component of language that impairs their ability to segment the written word into its underlying phonological components, and this results in difficulty in acquiring proficient skills in reading, writing, and spelling. Today there are a multitude opinions regarding dyslexia, due to the fact that it is an “invisible disability”. Specifically, dyslexia is not associated with a visible impairment as in those confined to a wheelchair, for example, yet as in other disabilities, it determines a handicap, constituting an important disadvantage for the affected individuals. On the outside, a dyslexic child or adult eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 1 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 2. cannot be distinguished from one who is non dyslexic, with the consequence that this disability often remains undiagnosed. Almost all dyslexics have had to deal with teachers who have doubted their disability, ascribing the student’s difficulties to negligence and carelessness. As a matter of fact, it is important to underline that WHO (World Health Organization), in 1980, in defining “disability” as “any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being” did not specify that the impairment must necessarily be “visible”1. Thus, dyslexia determines a handicap, namely, applying the definition of WHO, “a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex, and social and cultural factors) for that individual”. The dyslexic lives in a condition of disadvantage and very often, he/she is unable to recognise that his/her difficulties are the result of a disability that she/he himself cannot see. This is the moment in which the individual affected by dyslexia, begins believing that she/he is not as intelligent as her/his schoolmates. This condition determines a sense of frustration, psychological unease, loss of self-esteem and aversion toward school and culture in general, since even in an era of multimedia and in a knowledge-based society, social relationships and culture are mainly accessible through reading and writing. The majority of currently available dyslexia research has demonstrated that only two children out of ten diagnosed with dyslexia recover reading ability through therapy. This means that there is a consistent number of dyslexic adults who continue to suffer from the severe consequences of the disability: they often avoid writing, tend to hide reading problems due to embarrassment, and have difficulty in organizing their time, materials, and tasks. Therefore they frequently find employment below their intellectual capacity. We can see how dyslexia represents a significant handicap not only during primary education, but also in adult life, negatively influencing many contexts of everyday life such as in social relationships and work. Disadvantages and risk of social exclusion for dyslexics in the Age of Information Our age has been defined the Age of Information because it is characterized by the ability of individuals to find, transfer and use information freely, having instant access to knowledge in a way that would have been impossible just a few decades ago. Although multimedia have become an important part of our knowledge-based society, the ability to read and to write remains fundamental. Most of the material found on the Internet is to be read and most interaction takes place through reading, even more in the era of web 2.0: we read by surfing the net, by exchanging messages on our mobile phones, we write participating in chat rooms or posting on our blog. The most widespread and successful Internet synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies are based on reading and writing skills. During a chat session, for example, communication is fast, all parties involved in the discussion are online simultaneously and they are communicating in "real time". Similar difficulties apply to other asynchronous applications, such as blogs. Reading an endless list of posts can be very tiresome and replying to them (to be included in the discussion), very difficult. Nonetheless, these environments are entirely textual and may pose a disadvantage to students with dyslexia. It is also important to consider that mass literacy is a relatively recent social goal: a hundred years ago people did not need to be good readers because reading was not essential in their lives and only higher social classes were literate. In the Age of Information and in a Knowledge Based Society, on the other hand, reading and writing have become indispensable to understand increasingly complex material and to be socially integrated. Most professions are heavily based on these simple skills and manual jobs are every day becoming more rare. Almost any human activity is nowadays related to reading, from shopping (i.e. prices) to health 1 Stella G., La dislessia, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2004 eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 2 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 3. (i.e. medicals information) to citizenship (i.e. application forms, certificates), to social inclusion (i.e. reading newspapers, books). Dyslexics risk remaining at Information Society’s margin because “although reading and spelling problems may be compensated to varying degrees, the residual difficulties of dyslexic adults typically include low reading speeds, phonetic spelling and poor written expression”2. It is easy to deduce that people with this kind of problem may have difficulty in understanding website’s content for example, and may find some common problems using the Internet such as: small fonts, poor contrast backgrounds (either too low or too high), large blocks of text, cluttered page layouts, animated images or blinking/moving text, lots of capitals or italics, or justified texts (resulting in uneven spacing between words).3 This is the reason why it is very important that web developers become more and more aware of the difficulties some people have to face, and encourage them take measures to enhance web accessibility and usability for dyslexics so as to avoid digital and social exclusion. Thus regarding, a specific contribution is given by ICTBell project with the report ICT in English Language Teaching and Learning in support of the dyslexic individual4, by Boris Stoyanov. It has been demonstrated, in fact, that digital and social exclusion are linked: it is not by chance that the use of technology increases with wealth, that 2/3 of non-users are unemployed, that 62% of people without any professional qualification are non-users, as compared to the 6% having a college degree, and that 75% of socially excluded people do not go online 5. These data suggest that it is very important to promote the use of computers and new technology starting from primary school. Dyslexic students in particular should become familiar with the computer as a compensative tool. Computer programs like modern word processors (with their automatic-correction tools), computer readers (and especially their speech synthesis component), audio-books or specific software for the rehabilitation of dyslexics, if largely available at schools, could represent a way to counteract dyslexia. In the last few years, the idea that a “machine”- that is computer rather than a teacher - can help, has become common among researchers and accepted by political and social institutions. On the other hand, the situation from the point of view of the materials at disposal can vary from situation to situation, from school to school, and from country to country. E-learning as well is becoming more and more common, due to its widely proclaimed advantages. E-learning is a wonderful tool for bridging distances, accommodating different learning paces and catering to differing cognitive styles. Nevertheless, without the proper adjustments and ad hoc solutions, rather than promoting e-inclusion education may create paradoxically barriers for students with cognitive disabilities in general, and dyslexia in particular.6 The nature of these adjustments does not have to be necessarily technological, and may consist in moderating and tutoring strategies. It is important to remember that to this regard the Riga declaration states that “ICT contributes to improving the quality of everyday life and social participation of Europeans, facilitating access to information, media, content and services, to enhanced and more flexible job opportunities, and to fight against discrimination. Improving ICT access for people with disabilities and elderly is particularly important. To convincingly address e-Inclusion, the differences in Internet usage between current average use by the EU population and use by older people, people with disabilities, women, lower education groups, unemployed and “less-developed” regions should be reduced to a half, from 2005 to 2010”.7 2 Snowling, quoted in Rainger P., A Dyslexic Perspective on e-Content Accessibility, available at www.techdis.ac.uk 3 Vassallo S., Enabling the Internet for people with dyslexia, available at http://www.e-bility.com/articles/dyslexia.php 4 http://www.tutor-italia.com/content/ictbell/Survey_of_the_relevant_ICT.pdf 5 Ministerial debate on e-Inclusion Policy, available at http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/events/einclusion_lisbon/docs 6 B. P. Woodfine B.P., Baptista Nunes M., Wright D.J., Constructivist eLearning and Dyslexia: Problems of Social Negotiation in Text-Based Synchronous Environments, International conference on Multimedia and ICT in education available in www.formatex.org.micte2005/97.pdf 7 Ministerial Conference “ICT for an inclusive society” , the RIGA declaration available at http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/events/ict_riga_2006/doc/declaration_riga.pdf eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 3 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 4. In recent years the idea that Internet would contribute to a new era of participatory democracy and a revitalisation of the “public sphere”, to use Jurgen Habermas’s words, has become dominant, but there is the real risk that what has been proclaimed as a tool of democracy can turn into a factor leading to social marginalization for those who are not able to master the processes of reading/writing proficiently. To avoid this risk, it is necessary that the educational and social institutions consider the problems and difficulties that people with disabilities have to face when they use modern technology, and provide them with specific tools like training, and software. Only in this way can technology be considered, if not the solution, at least a part of the process to minimize the impact of dyslexia on individuals, to promote social inclusion assisting with the difficulties, the anxieties and the problems that the dyslexic have to face in everyday situations. Let’s consider the working environment: speaking and writing in English is becoming very important for workers today, so dyslexic people, who have to cope with important difficulties with the written language (and with learning foreign languages in general) may find themselves at a disadvantage in the global job market. ICTBell: a case of social inclusion via ICT In this perspective, the European project ICTBell aims to investigate the field of dyslexia and language learning, with the final purpose to create a specially designed Business English Language Learning ICT-based course and a virtual learning environment (VLE) where dyslexic learners can thrive through the integrated e-learning content, virtual learning environment and online tutorage. The general objectives of the project are to support improvements in quality and innovation in language learning for adult dyslexics while supporting participants in language learning. This goal can be achieved by developing innovative training activities in the acquisition of language skills and qualifications that would facilitate the personal development of the participants. Thus, the specific objectives of the ICT bell Project include the transfer of innovative technologies from the ICT sector to the sector of English language learning for adult dyslexics and the development of ICT-based Business English language learning content (online learning services, innovative e-pedagogies). This would encourage the target group to accelerate language skill development to enter the EU market and business environment. The foreseen project outcomes include ICT integrated Business English language learning electronic content (e-content), the testing of the methodology and online tutoring handbook for trainers, the building of an open sources based Virtual learning environment (VLE) and the development of a website integrated with a virtual collaborative environment (VCE). The partnership that is implementing the project is formed by organizations and experts in the areas of Dyslexia, language learning, European projects and ICT enhanced learning (e- learning) that operate in 5 European countries: ONECO, Spain (promoter); Infoart, Bulgaria; English at Work GmbH, Germany; GNW, Hungary; in Italy, TUTOR European Centre for the Development of Advanced Expertise and Liceo Linguistico Internazionale. During the first phase of the project, the partners investigate the foreign language learning conditions of dyslexics students in tertiary education in each participating country, their views on this topic as well as their foreign language trainers’ point of view. This research was carried out through a questionnaire addressed to both adults that define themselves as dyslexic and those who do not. Analyzing the questionnaire results, it emerges that for dyslexics, the most difficult task is writing, while for non dyslexics, it is the proper use of grammar. We have to consider that writing, even if in the mother-tongue language, is a complex process we have acquired in our primary education: it is not a naturally acquired skill, on the contrary it is culturally transmitted through formal instruction. eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 4 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 5. Writing involves a large number of cognitive processes. People with dyslexia suffer from inefficient automatic information-handling processes, and have impaired Working Memory, therefore they are disadvantaged in writing. Another explanation for writing problems in people with dyslexia is that these students have difficulty with phonological representations resulting from the phonological core deficit we have already mentioned. Specifically, they have difficulties in constructing, maintaining, and retrieving phonological representations. 8 This impaired capacity to preserve and process the information, has a negative impact on the organization and planning of written work. It is self evident that people who have difficulty in learning to read, in mastering the phonology of, and writing in their own language, will find it extremely arduous to learn to speak and write in a foreign language. Short-term memory difficulties make it likely that learning vocabulary will also pose problems for the dyslexic learner. Combined with the extra time required to access words from memory, the pupil may have problems in maintaining concentration for a sufficient time to decode, comprehend, respond and encode the message in the foreign language.9 The analysis of the results of the learning needs questionnaires for the ICTBell project (Dyslexic Students and the Second Language Learning. A study on the learning needs - European review10) indicates that dyslexics feel that they do not receive appropriate support in foreign language learning: in particular they referred that they had some useful help in primary school, but they felt abandoned in the following years of education. The results of the survey conducted for the ICTBell project underline that e-learning is considered a valid method of foreign language learning for dyslexics. While non-dyslexics feel that they can learn well from books with more traditional methods which imply the perfect mastery of the processes of reading, for dyslexics this obviously represent a much harder task. Once again we see how much the dyslexic population differs from non-dyslexics as far as learning methods and learning styles are concerned. The questionnaire also aimed to examine the trainer’s view on the topic. The trainers’ familiarity with dyslexia seems to be rather contingent and was gained primarily through experience. This means that, although dyslexia is quite widespread (and this is confirmed by the fact that the majority of trainers from the five countries had already taught dyslexics students) there is no systematic and effective training regarding learning disabilities in general (and dyslexia in particular). This lack of training has the result that, as the research has shown, most of the trainers do not even understand exactly what kind of problems dyslexic students have to face. According to the results of this study, the trainers believe that the greatest problems for dyslexic students are understanding written texts, learning new words and using grammar rules, while for dyslexic students, the biggest problem in learning a foreign language is learning new words and the correct pronunciation. Instead, comparing trainers’ and students’ views of second language usage, we see that they rank difficulties in a similar way, both of them confirming that the greatest difficulty for dyslexics is writing in a foreign language. As far as the preferred learning methods, learning language through personal contact is considered the most efficient method by both trainers and students, but e-learning also appears to be a popular learning tools. ICTBell project will further contribute to the topic with the Business English Language Course "Effective Mediated Business Communication Program", targeted at dyslexics' learning, and the "Trainers Handbook", intended to support teaching to dyslexic students. Both contributions will be available on line at ICTBell project website from middle 2010 on, together with European and national additional resources about adult dyslexics language learning. 8 Van Genuchten E. , Cheng P.Leseman P.P.M, Messer M.H., Missing working memory deficit in dyslexia: children writing from memory, available at http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2009/papers/357/paper357.pdf 9 Crombie M., Foreign Language Learning and Dyslexia, available at http://hilarymccoll.co.uk/resources/Dxa1.pdf 10 http://www.tutor-italia.com/content/ictbell/Dyslexic_Students_Study.pdf eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 5 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 6. Conclusion Considering the enormous difficulties dyslexics have to face in our Age of Information we can see how much bigger could be the risk for them to be excluded from the democratic process of e-inclusion indicated by the Riga declaration. If educational institutions want to promote equal study opportunities for all students, they have to understand the specific needs of students with learning disabilities, and to provide them with those learning tools that can reduce their handicap. From the analysis of the results of the learning needs questionnaires for the ICTBell project emerged that this is encumbered by the lack of a systematic and effective training for teachers and their consequent lack of awareness of the problems dyslexics have to overtake. As far as foreign language learning, the results of the survey underline that for dyslexic students, the biggest problem is learning new words and the correct pronunciation, that the most difficult task is writing, and that e-learning is considered a valid method. We have said that, make ICT an inclusion tool, rather than a factor of social exclusion for people affected by learning disabilities, educational institution should promote researches and innovation to produce those compensative tools that can reduce their handicap. Aiming to support improvements in quality and innovation in language learning for adult dyslexics and having the final purpose to create a specially designed Business English Language Learning ICT-based course, ICTBell project is a good example of how ICT can be applied to promote the social inclusion of a disadvantaged part of the population. References Crombie M., “Foreign Language Learning and Dyslexia”, available at http://hilarymccoll.co.uk/resources/Dxa1.pdf Gabrieli J.D.E., “Dyslexia: A New Synergy Between Education and Cognitive Neuroscience” Downloaded from www.sciencemag.org on November 17, 2009 Gyarmathy E., Mahlerbe C., Pichel P., Stoyanov B., Tartari T., "Dyslexic Students and the Second Language Learning. A study on the learning needs - European review", available at http://www.tutor- italia.com/content/ictbell/Dyslexic_Students_Study.pdf Meloni M., Sponza N., Kvilekval P., Valente M.Carmela, Bellantone R., La dislessia raccontata agli insegnanti, Firenze,Libri Liberi, 2002 Pernet C., Andersson J., Paulesu E., Demonet J.F., "Human Brain Mapping", 30: pages 2278–2292 (2009) Rainger P, “A Dyslexic Perspective on e-Content Accessibility”, available at http://www.techdis.ac.uk/seven/papers/ Sabbadini G. (a cura di), "Manuale di neuropsicologia dell’età evolutiva", Bologna, Zanichelli, 1995. Savelli E., Pulga S., "Dislessia Evolutiva: attività di recupero su analisi fonologica, sintesi fonemica e accesso lessicale", Erickson, 2007 Stella G., "La dislessia", Il Mulino, Bologna, 2004 Stoyanov B., "ICT in English Language Teaching and Learning in support of the dyslexic individual, available at http://www.tutor-italia.com/content/ictbell/Survey_of_the_relevant_ICT.pdf Van Genuchten E., Cheng P.Leseman, P.P.M, Messer M.H., “ Missing working memory deficit in dyslexia: children writing from memory”, available at http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2009/papers/357/paper357.pdf Vassallo S., “Enabling the Internet for people with dyslexia”, available at http://www.e- bility.com/articles/dyslexia.php Woodfine B.P., Baptista Nunes M., Wright D.J., “Constructivist eLearning and Dyslexia: Problems of Social Negotiation in Text-Based Synchronous Environments, International conference on Multimedia and ICT in education”, available at http://www.formatex.org.micte2005/97.pdf eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 6 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  • 7. Authors Giovanni Torrisi University of Urbino, Italy giovanni.torrisi@uniurb.it Sonia Piangerelli University of Urbino, Italy sonia.piangerelli@uniurb.it Copyrights The texts published in this journal, unless otherwise indicated, are subject to a Creative Com m ons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivativeW orks 3.0 Unported licence. They may be copied, distributed and broadcast provided that the author and the e-journal that publishes them, eLearning Papers, are cited. Commercial use and derivative works are not permitted. The full licence can be consulted on http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ Edition and production Name of the publication: eLearning Papers ISSN: 1887-1542 Publisher: elearningeuropa.info Edited by: P.A.U. Education, S.L. Postal address: C/ Muntaner 262, 3º, 08021 Barcelona, Spain Telephone: +34 933 670 400 Email: editorial@elearningeuropa.info Internet: www.elearningpapers.eu eLearning Papers • www.elearningpapers.eu • 7 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542