Assistive technology for young children in special education

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Assistive technology for young children in special education

  1. 1. Assistive Technology for Young Children inSpecial Education: It Makes a DifferenceA discussion on the many types of assistivetechnology tools that are available for children withdisabilities.By Michael BehrmannA discussion on the many types of assistive technology tools that are available for children with disabilities.Technology can level the playing field for students with mobility, hearing, or vision impairments.Credit: IntelliTools, Inc.Technology has opened many educational doors to children, particularly to children with disabilities. Alternativesolutions from the world of technology are accommodating physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments in many ways.Much of the technology we see daily was developed initially to assist persons with disabilities. Curb cuts atstreetcorners and curb slopes, originally designed to accommodate people with orthopedic disabilities, are used morefrequently by families with strollers or individuals with grocery carts than by persons with wheelchairs or walkers. Theoptical character reader, developed to assist individuals unable to read written text, has been adapted in theworkplace to scan printed documents into computer-based editable material, saving enormous amounts of data entrylabor.Children with disabilities often feel better about themselves as a result of using technology.
  2. 2. Credit: IntelliTools, Inc.Technology -- an EqualizerTechnology can be a great equalizer for individuals with disabilities that might prevent full participation in school,work, and the community. This is most evident in the case of individuals with mobility, hearing, or vision impairments,but is also true for individuals with limitations in cognition and perception. With technology, an individual physicallyunable to speak can communicate with spoken language. Using a portable voice synthesizer, a student can ask andrespond to questions in the "regular" classroom, overcoming a physical obstacle that may have forced placement in aspecial segregated classroom or required a full-time instructional aide or interpreter to provide "a voice."Improvements in sensor controls enable subtle motor movements to control mobility devices, such as electricwheelchairs, providing independent movement through the school and community. Text and graphics enhancementsoftware can enlarge sections of a monitor enough to be seen by persons with vision impairments. Text can be readelectronically by a digitized voice synthesizer for a person who is blind. For persons with hearing impairments,amplification devices can filter extraneous noise from the background or pick up an FM signal from a microphone ona teachers lapel.Word processing, editing, spellchecking, and grammatical tools commonly found in high-end software facilitate theinclusion of students with learning disabilities in regular classrooms by allowing them to keep up with much of thework. Not inconsequentially, the children often feel better about themselves as active learners.Technology is providing more powerful and efficient tools to teachers who work with children with disabilities. Thesetools enable teachers to offer new and more effective means of learning while individualizing instruction to the broadrange of student learning needs. Educators are using computers as tools to deliver and facilitate learning beyond drilland practice, to provide environments that accommodate learning, and to ensure enhanced and equitable learningenvironments to all students.Access to the World Wide Web, email, listservs, and other electronic learning environments is common in manyclassrooms. In these environments, students around the world can interact in real time via onscreen messaging orvideo and audio transmissions. In most of these learning situations, a disability makes no difference at all.
  3. 3. The range of potential assistive technology devices is large and includes both high-tech devices like computers and low-tech, manually operated devices.Credit: IntelliTools, IncAssistive Technology DefinedThe definition of assistive technology applied to education is extremely broad, encompassing "any item, piece ofequipment, or product system whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used toincrease, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."As a result, the potential range ofAT devices is incredibly large, and both "high-tech" and "low-tech" devices are included. High-tech devices may becomputers, electronic equipment, or software. Although electronically operated, high-tech devices need not beexpensive, a simple low-cost switch that controls a battery-operated toy can be considered a high-tech device, as cana tape recorder. Low-tech devices are manually, not electronically, operated. This group includes devices such aspencil grips, mouth sticks, and mechanical hoists.This definition also expands the consideration of potentialeducational applications with its focus on devices "used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities ofpersons with disabilities." As educators, we try to increase or add new academic, social, and daily living skills andknowledge to the functional capability of all children. This is a basic goal as we prepare children to take their place insociety.In the case of children with degenerative impairments, such as muscular dystrophy, educators may beworking to keep children functioning at their current level. They may be striving to help students maintain theircapability to function in the world. Teachers work with students to improve skills and knowledge, making existing skillsand knowledge even more functional and improving fluency so that functional capabilities may be generalized intodifferent settings.It is critical to understand the implications of this definition to comprehend its effect on children withdisabilities in our schools. It is fairly easy to understand how the definition is applied with regard to children withphysical or sensory disabilities. To see a young child who had been unable to speak for her first five years say herfirst sentence with a speaking computer device presents an exciting and clear picture of assistive technology. Thebenefit of AT is also easy to comprehend when a child who cannot hear can understand his teachers directionsbecause real-time captioning converts the teachers speech to text projected onto his laptop computer.The definition of assistive technology also applies to the more difficult-to-gauge tools that teachers use to deliver andfacilitate learning, including instructional applications of technology. These applications range from drill and practicetutorials to facilitated learner-based environments provided through the Internet or interactive hypermedia andmultimedia-based instruction.It is important to understand that virtually all applications of technology -- tools forchildren to learn, as well as tools for teachers to provide learning opportunities -- can be defined as assistive
  4. 4. technology. This is true for individual children with disabilities whose disability has a primary impact on academicperformance (e.g., learning disabilities) or functional performance (e.g., multiple physical and visual disabilities).Michael Behrmann is professor of education and director of the Helen A. Kellar Center for Human Disabilitiesat George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.This article is excerpted from Assistive Technology for Young Children in Special Education, by MichaelBehrmann, Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Copyright 1998ASCD. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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