What is assistive technology in education?

Education is increasingly about offering tailored learning experiences to suit each student’s needs. Never has this been more important than when working with students who have disabilities. Over the last few years, our school environments have become more integrated. Finding ways to bridge the gap and to address the needs of all students is essential if educators are to achieve the highest possible outcomes for their cohort. Thanks to the latest assistive educational technology, this is now simpler and more effective than ever. Let’s take a look at the role that this technology plays in promoting the success of students with disabilities.

Creating a comfortable and customized learning experience

As recently as 2015, surveys have shown that over a fifth of all disabled non-institutionalized adults left education before completing high school. That’s an alarming statistic, especially when we consider that there are currently more than 6 million children in the US who have disabilities. Finding ways to keep those students in the educational system is paramount to their future success.

Teachers must find ways to meet the needs of those students, and this raises many special challenges. While the problems aren’t easy to solve, the latest advances in assistive technology have simplified the situation for the nation’s educators.

Photo: Google Edu

What does assistive technology look like?

When we think of technology, we tend to imagine cutting-edge electronics. This isn’t always the case, however, especially when considering assistive technology designed for students with disabilities. Yet both simple and high-tech assistive technology designs have a proven ability to transform learning experiences for disabled young people in the classroom.

Assistive technology within K-12 classrooms improves the functional capabilities of students with disabilities. Of course, students with special educational needs have been using assistive technology for quite some time already. But the latest developments have opened up a world of opportunities for those most in need.

Portable devices now have a huge impact on how special-needs students learn. Whereas assistive technology once came in the form of large devices that only served to draw attention to physical and learning disabilities, the latest models are discreet and are even considered to be “cool.”

Of course, the physical appearance of assistive technology is, to some extent, less important than its effectiveness. The real objective of these advances is to offer students a customized learning experience. The good news is that they appear to be working. Evidence shows that the dropout rate for students with special education needs has been declining in recent years. Assistive technology is partly responsible for this success, thanks to its ability to help those students feel more comfortable and supported in the classroom.

So, what does assistive technology look like in practice? What kinds of devices exist in current classrooms up and down the country? Let’s take a look at a few of the best.

Photo: Google Edu

Best assistive devices used in classrooms

Alternative input devices

Students who have disabilities sometimes struggle to use computers. Alternative input devices make this type of technology more accessible. By including modified keyboards, joysticks, and touch screens, these devices enable students to perform a host of computer functions. Students with a limited range of movement can use different body parts, such as their feet or chin, to direct the cursor. Some innovative technology even gives students control of computer functions by breathing in and out — Microsoft’s sip-and-puff system is one such example. This allows those students who would otherwise be unable to make use of the school’s computer equipment to participate fully in lessons.

Speech-to-text

Speech-to-text software has recently become mainstream. Popular mobile devices and apps are now utilizing this technology. While it can be a convenient option for people who don’t have disabilities, it offers clear benefits for students who otherwise struggle with dexterity or mobility issues. It can also be a vital tool for blind students since they can dictate rather than typing and navigating the internet. Even better, a speech-to-text option can talk back to students, highlighting potential errors so they can make corrections.

Sensory enhancements

Understandably, some children who have disabilities learn differently than their peers. Rather than learning letters and numerals in the traditional way, children who have language barriers can benefit from colors and bright images to grasp new concepts. This is where sensory enhancements can come into play. These can include augmentative communication tools, speech synthesizers, and voice analyzers.

Screen readers

Screen readers are similar to text-to-speech but have some slight differences. They simply inform the student of what appears on the screen. This is a key tool for blind or partially sighted students who can really benefit from an audio interface.

Language Acquisition Through Motor Planning (LAMP)

This connects motor and neurological learning in such a way that students who suffer from autism and other related disorders can benefit enormously. LAMP is especially useful for students with limited or absent verbal skills. When paired with the latest technology, LAMP can allow autistic students to communicate more effectively. This enables them to achieve more highly in the academic arena. LAMP compliments a wide range of technology, including learning apps and specially made computers.

iPads

While not invented specifically for disabled students, iPads are extremely useful in the classroom. Many autistic children benefit from their use, and teachers report that these students’ attitude to learning improves when they have access to tablet devices. Apple states that its iPads are capable of “curing” sensory overload, giving autistic children an effective communication tool along with increased control. While this may be an extreme viewpoint, experts have reported that iPads and other speech-generating devices can, indeed, encourage children on the autistic spectrum to speak at an earlier stage.

E-Readers

Even tools as simple as an e-reader can help children with visual impairments in the classroom. Students with vision problems can benefit greatly from being able to adjust the font and brightness of a screen or to employ a speaking command option. Students requiring additional support in learning to read are also able to benefit from customized e-readers that enhance their experience.

Photo: Google Edu

Assistive technology in practice

The widespread adoption of assistive technology is bringing tangible benefits to our schools. While there is still a ways to go in the US before we’re able to say that we’re truly meeting the individual needs of disabled students, progress is definitely being made. Thanks to the latest assistive technology, targeted efforts, and classroom inclusion, we are slowly (but surely) seeing more special-needs students graduating from high school. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a bright new future for the next generation of students with additional educational needs.

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