Breaking Down Barriers for Special Needs Children

No other field of education benefits as much from progress in technology as special education. Most developed and developing countries around the world have rules and acts that enable technology assisted training of children with special needs. In the United States, technology has made it possible for students with special needs to avail of free and appropriate public education(FAPE). Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, provides funds to states and territories to develop permanent, statewide programs of assistive technology. Such developments and integration of assistive technology in the educational setting have, in the recent past, considerably empowered children with special needs, with comprehensive education. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 initially provided more than $100 billion to education-related efforts that included funds to address the needs of students with disabilities. The National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT), funded by the US Department of Education and National Science Foundation, continues to provide resources to help educational entities purchase, develop and use information technology that is welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities.

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Technology benefits the special education classroom by allowing teachers to work with more students, and equalizing education for all students irrespective of their needs so that special students are not isolated from peers. Technology can be used to assist special education in two ways: to support learning or to bypass a challenging task such as handwriting or reading. Both functions build confidence and help these children achieve academic success. However, since special needs education involves a wide variety of conditions, ranging from learning and emotional challenges to physical disabilities, the type of assistive technology required by each special-needs student is unique.

Assistive technology in education typically fall under the following types:

  • Adaptive computing allows students with disabilities use digital devices through adaptations and aids. For example, visually challenged students are often provided with screen reader programs such as JAWS and HAL and adapted keyboards such as Braille keyboard to operate the computer. USB-based large font keyboards can help students with poor fine motor skills. Computers and digital equipment, provided with adaptive technology allow students with disabilities to function independently at school and home.

  • Augmentative communication enables students with speech and language problems to be able to communicate better. Augmentative communication systems use picture charts, books and special computers. Stephen Hawking's Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit is a brilliant communication device, which, while being too advanced for special education, shares the basic principle of word-prediction for effective communication among people with such needs.
  • Computer technology eases tasks such as reading and writing, communication and searching for information on the Internet, through special hardware and software. There have been significant developments in software that can provide multi-sensory experiences, individualized instruction, and repetitive tutoring to students with learning disabilities.
  • The usefulness of assistive technology in special education depends on its ease of accessibility and interactivity offered. Assistive devices cannot be generalized, but are need-based to suit the differential requirements of the learners and must allow a considerable amount of individualization. A key feature of technology based special education must be flexibility to suit a variety of disabilities. Such flexibility and individualization can be ensured by the direct involvement of the potential users at each stage of design of the tool. The tools must cater to user aspirations and needs and must be physically comfortable to use. Safety is another important feature that must be provided - both physical and emotional safety. Durability and compatibility with the geographic and cultural background of users are other factors that decide the success of assistive devices.

    Technology can play a critical role in integrating special education into mainstream education, thereby enabling inclusive education for all. Assistive technology can bridge the gap between regular students and those with physical, mental and developmental challenges by helping them learn on par with their non-special peers. Thus, assistive technology links the student's cognitive abilities to educational opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise.

    The heartening fact is that standard software and hardware companies have not overlooked the needs of people with differential needs. Almost all operating systems have adaptations that suit people with special needs. Braille displays and voice recognition software are available aplenty and apps that assist the use of technology in classrooms are easily available as well. According to Education World, more than 4000 assistive technologies have been designed for students and teachers.

    Lack of technology training and teacher education programs are the most commonly experienced barriers to use of technology in the special education classroom. Thus, all teachers, both in regular education and special education programs, must have adequate training on assistive technology use to to meet the needs of students with special needs. Another challenge to integrating assistive technology in inclusive classrooms is the cost involved in developing and providing the needed infrastructure to amalgamate special students with regular students. Funding for technology can be obtained from a variety of sources, including the government and non governmental institutions, but these sources are not always adequate to meet the needs of inclusive schools.

    The two barriers - lack of training and funds - while serious, are certainly not insurmountable. Successful assistive technology integration into both special education schools and integrated classrooms depends on diligent planning and cooperative effort among all the stakeholders. Planning must take into account variables such as student needs, readiness and learning profiles to set learning goals before choosing appropriate tools for manipulating lesson content and teaching process. The stakeholders must work as a team and the team must jointly determine the effectiveness of current technology and closely monitor students to plan necessary modifications. For individuals with disabilities, assistive technology is a sure route to breaking down barriers and integrating into society.

    Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and researcher who explores and writes about the intersection of children, technology, and education.

    Mobicip offers simple, reliable and powerful web filtering software for tablets and computers in schools. Learn more at www.mobicip.com.