And Access For All
A slight revision to existing legislation has expanded the base
of students eligible to receive assistive technologies, creating
major changes in their implementation.
NEW AND IMPROVED
interactive learning station
is an upgrade of the
company's Merlit board.
The touch screen can be
lowered to just above the
floor so it can be
even by pre-schoolers.
ON THE SURFACE the change seems minor, almost imperceptible:
What once read "requires" now reads "needs." But the amending of that single word in the
2004 update of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) automatically triggered
a surge in the number of students eligible for assistive technology in K-12 schools.
No longer are assistive technologies only made available to students whose "survival
or success"-- as Webster's defines require-- depends on their use. If, after consideration,
the student shows merely a need-- something "essential or very important," to call on
Webster's again-- then the technology must be provided. The change in terms may seem
like hairsplitting, but it created a more generous standard for who should receive
assistive technologies, increasing their availability and broadening the way they are
applied in school classrooms.
"What was once a very specialized category became a very
widespread category overnight," says Karen Janowski, an independent
assistive and educational technology consultant and an
adjunct professor of education at Simmons College in Boston.
Assistive technologies were initially developed for students
with severe learning or physical disabilities. However, a 1997
update of IDEA set a provision stating that while developing
a student's individual education program (IEP)-- a written
plan drawn up for any student with a disability-- schools must
consider whether the student requires assistive technology
regardless of the degree of the disability.
DECIDING ON A specific broad-use assistive technology product can
be a daunting task. Director Tracy Gray and her colleagues at the
National Center for Technology Innovation,
an organization funded by the US Office of Special Education
Programs, working jointly with the Center for Implementing Technology
in Education, have created an invaluable tool called
the TechMatrix to assist
educators looking to purchase assistive devices.
Through internal focus groups, Gray and her colleagues have analyzed
more than 250 products and resources and created a database
where educators can search for information and reviews on the assistive
technologies that meet their needs.
"Because we're an unbiased service, we're not pushing any one
product," Gray says. "What we're trying to do is educate teachers and
practitioners about what's out there and the kinds of features they
should be thinking about."
With the 2004 update, assistive tools are now used in both
special education and mainstream classrooms to aid any student
whose academic difficulties could be mitigated by their
use. With this expansion in the pool of students who qualify
for assistive technology, educators have gone on the hunt for
products that can meet the diverse learning needs of a full
classroom of students. And naturally, the notion of what can
serve as assistive technology has grown to encompass a wider
variety of devices. As defined in the legislation, an assistive
technology device means "any item, piece of equipment, or
product system…that is used to increase, maintain, or improve
functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."
Says Janowski, "The definition is so general that even a
pencil grip can be considered an assistive technology."
With the terms and conditions loosened up, educators are
finding that everyday consumer resources, like Google Docs
and Skype, can be as great a help to special needs students
as traditional assistive tools like interactive whiteboards and
"The definition is so general that even a pencil grip can
be considered an assistive technology."
Three years ago, Lisa Parisi's fifth-grade classroom at Denton
Avenue School in New Hyde Park, NY, was designated as
an inclusion classroom, which means her class has both special
needs and general education students; she works together full-time
with a co-teacher whose expertise is in special education.
"I've seen us go from a situation where the classified children
were in special ed classes, relegated to a corner of the school
where they were rarely seen," Parisi says. "Now we really, really
work to make sure that the classified children are part of the
class and are required to be as successful as everybody else."
Parisi's lessons now address students with and without
physical and cognitive disabilities. To help her do that, she has
been using Smart Technologies' signature interactive whiteboard,
the Smart Board, in her classroom for the past two years.
"There are things you can do with it that make things so
much better for struggling students, not the least of which is
that everything's just bigger," she says. For example, at the end
of a lesson, the teacher can save the notes made on the board
in a project folder, allowing students whose disabilities
prevent them from taking sufficient notes to receive a printout
of what was done in class. Parisi explains that the Smart
Board has value for every variety of student.
"Children who are fidgety or have trouble focusing and need
a lot of movement get what they need because the board is very
interactive," she says. "Kids who struggle taking notes, you can
print out what you've done on the board. Kids who are visual
learners, you're getting them with your videos and your flash
files. Kids who are auditory learners, there are sounds you can
incorporate; you can even put their voices into a presentation."
Parisi and her fellow fifth-grade teachers were the first in her
school to pilot the interactive whiteboards. They were such a
success that the technology is now installed in every Denton
classroom in grades 1 to 5, including the English as a Second
Language, music, and reading classrooms.
Even as schools seek tools that help a broader reach of struggling
learners, they are still targeting students with more acute
disabilities. Interactive technology company InfoCor worked
with Smart Technologies to create the Merlit, an interactive
whiteboard designed specifically to aid severely physically
and/or cognitively disabled students. The Merlit board resides
on a mobile, height-adjustable stand that allows easy access for
students who are constrained to a wheelchair or whose mobility
is limited (for example, those with cerebral palsy).
One teacher familiar with the advantages of the device is
Roman Pikula, who teaches in a special education classroom at Harold S. Vincent High School in Milwaukee. Because of
their physical and cognitive disabilities, Pikula's students
need constant supervision and daily assistance from nurses
and therapists, and their ability to communicate is limited.
The Merlit board opened up avenues of learning that had not
been previously available to them. For example, everyday
items that many students take for granted, like a calculator,
can be difficult to use for a student whose mobility is impaired.
Pikula can use the computer connected to the board to do a
Google search for the phrase big calculator.
"The Merlit has a 48-inch screen, so if you project a big calculator
from the internet onto the screen, now you have big
buttons," Pikula says. He adds that with the touch-screen
technology positioned at an accessible height for his students,
"operating the calculator becomes possible."
In October, InfoCor announced it had revamped the Merlit
board, rolling out a new design, new features-- and a new name:
the Satalight. The upgrades make it possible for the touch screen
to now be lowered to about six inches above the floor, reachable
by children of any height. Another advancement is the addition
of a short-throw projector, diminishing the glare of the projected
image, which can be a distraction for autistic children.
"'We're always told: 'Show me that the money we're spending
on technology is actually producing achievement results.'
With these programs, we can show those results."
Districts have found that purchasing software, or a suite of
software, that can be used to help many students is more than
a money saver. It also allows educators to easily master the
programs that their students rely on for assistance and ensures
a solid support relationship with the software creator. Why
have four students with different needs using four different
pieces of software from four different vendors, requiring the
teacher to master all four programs and make relationships
with a quartet of customer service representatives, when one
product exists that could meet all four students' needs?
Don Johnston's Solo Literacy Suite is just that kind of
product. It consists of four distinct programs that are designed
to build students' literacy skills, with features that appeal to
many different learning modes. The four components can work
independently or in unison to take a struggling learner the entire
way through a reading and writing program. The company says
the product "addresses the different kinds of strategies that
research has proven struggling learners need to be able to
improve and progress up to their grade level in reading."
One of the four programs is Read:OutLoud, text-to-speech
software compatible with many common formats-- digital
textbooks, PDF documents, rich text files, websites, and other
types of digital reading materials-- that provides reading comprehension
strategies to improve reading skills. Features that
hit the needs of a broad range of students include audio feedback
that reads the text out loud to the user; vocabulary support
that reads aloud a word from the text along with its definition;
a pacing strategy that allows time for reading comprehension;
and a multicolor highlighting function.
The other three components of the literacy suite are
Write:OutLoud, a word processor with extra support, including audio feedback, that teaches students
how to write; Co:Writer, a
program that helps struggling
writers expand their vocabulary;
and Draft:Builder, a visual mapping program that assists students
in outlining and organizing their ideas.
William Reeder, director of assessment, assistive technology,
and support for Fairfax County Public Schools (VA), says
teachers in his district have found that the four programs reach
across different segments of the student population, benefiting
not only students with special needs, but also students who
face other academic hurdles such as speaking English as a
Reeder points to data collected last year on 426 students in
grades 5, 8, and 11 to affirm the software's effectiveness. Virginia
students in those grades (and in grade 3) take the writing
test on the state's Standards of Learning assessment. Results
from all three
used the literacy
tools passed at
a higher rate on the writing test than those who did not use
assistive devices. The impact was most pronounced in the 11th
grade, where the margin was 78 percent to 60 percent in favor
of students who worked with the technologies.
"We're always told in technology, especially assistive technology:
'Show me that the money we're spending on technology
is actually producing achievement results,'" Reeders says. "With
these programs, we can show those results."
The push for assistive devices that hit a wide range of student
needs has led teachers to products that were developed for consumer
use. As a bonus, many of these tools are available for free.
Lisa Parisi has become a faithful user of Google Docs in her
classroom. A free download at Google's website, Google Docs
works just like any standard word processor, but because the
document is hosted on the internet, multiple students can
collaborate on the same document in real time. The application
allows access to a revision history, so if a student accidentally
hits the delete key, or alters work that shouldn't be altered,
previous versions of the document can be easily recalled.
A project between Parisi's students and Brian Crosby's fifthgrade
classroom, located almost clear across the country at the
Agnes Risley Elementary School in Sparks, NV, demonstrated
how a mainstream technology like Google Docs can be turned
into an assistive device. Using the application, Parisi's kids
teamed with Crosby's to write stories over the internet, with each
student on the two-to-four-person teams adding to the story, page
by page. Crosby teaches at-risk students; many of the children in
his class are not native English speakers and are below grade
level in their reading and writing
skills. Because of the differing
academic levels of the students
involved, the collaboration brought
Crosby's students up the ladder while allowing Parisi's kids the
opportunity to "teach" their peers storytelling principles.
Parisi was thrilled with the outcome of the project. "Because
the level of my students was higher than [that of] his students, it
really pulled them up," she says, "and my students had the
opportunity to teach the concepts they had learned throughout
the year." Crosby was also pleased: "Man, was that a great experience
for my kids. You have to understand your own story,
right? So when Lisa's kids wrote at a higher level than my
students, it pushed them to understand what was going on."
Part of the project included long-distance brainstorming
sessions using the videoconferencing capabilities of Skype, a
popular free voice over IP service provider. The videoconferences
proved to be of great benefit to a student in Parisi's
classroom who struggled with social interactions and had
difficulties working with other kids. For the student's initial
webcam session, Parisi stood off camera and prompted him
with questions to ask his partner in Crosby's classroom.
"The second time we Skyped he wanted to do it on his
own," Parisi says. "It was a lot easier for him to collaborate
when he didn't have to do it face-to-face. A lot of the social aspects that frustrated him were taken away." Collaborating
through Google Docs and Skype gave the student skills that
transferred into his group work with his classmates, Parisi
says. "It made it easier for him to become part of the group. It
was really nice to see that."
Most of these successes don't come so cheaply. For all the
benefits that extending access to assistive technology has borne,
it is also taxing schools' already tight finances. Schools must
be creative if they wish to pay for assistive devices without
breaking their district's budget.
Parisi's experience with Smart Boards began because a
vocal PTA parent had a special needs student who was about
to enter the fifth grade. "He saw them in another school and
said, 'This would be fantastic for my son,'" Parisi says. "The
parent fought for it, and our PTA bought Smart Boards for
the entire fifth grade." After the boards met with such success
in the fifth-grade classrooms, the school's technology department
began installing them throughout the school at the rate
of a grade per year. Interest from a state senator, who assisted
in securing a grant for the additional Smart Boards, helped
speed up the timeline.
When setting up a remote learning environment on short
notice for a student with leukemia, Crosby says a counselor at
his school made phone calls to all of her contacts. A conversation
with an old college roommate who now works as a local news
anchor resulted in the donation of a computer from a local hospital.
A call to AT&T concerning the donation of a broadband
internet installation for the student was an unexpected success.
"She just happened to talk to the right person," Crosby says.
"The AT&T rep said, '[We] never give away their product, but
I'm a cancer survivor, so this is going to happen.'" Because the
student and her parents had just moved in with a grandparent
temporarily and were considered homeless, they were able to
get a donation from an organization called Children in Transition
to cover the monthly costs of the internet connection.
For his classroom, Pikula was able to secure an $8,000 grant
from the Helen Bader Foundation, a Milwaukee-based philanthropic
organization. The money allowed him to purchase a
Merlit board, some external hard drives to back up his students'
work, a new computer, a digital camera, and more.
"That's a skill teachers need to have-- to apply for technology
grants-- because you'll need more than a school or a district
can provide for you," he says. "It's many hours of work, but it
For more information on assistive technology, visit
our website at www.thejournal.com. In the Browse
by Topic menu, click on Special Needs Students.
Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.