Addressing the Needs of Students with Disabilities in Math (Part 1)

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Students can have a range of physical, cognitive, sensory, and learning disabilities that affect their entire lives. Any of these might pose unique academic challenges, particularly when learning mathematics. The good news is that technology is removing barriers for the education of students with disabilities in regular classrooms. Unfortunately, not all software is based on principles of universal design, and what might work well for one student might not work for another. Thus, knowing what's available and its suitability for use with particular groups of learners challenges many classroom teachers and school systems.

Often, teachers' attitudes, their preconceived notions about what students need, their presentation styles for lessons, and lack of training in strategies for teaching students with special needs complicate the learning process. I suspect that my undergraduate training to teach mathematics in regular classrooms was much like that of many other educators. It did not include appropriate methodologies for teaching special populations. However, I recall the year, well before the infusion of computers in education, when a blind learner, accompanied by his scribe, became one of my students in an algebra class. It was a wake up call to expand what I knew.

Inclusion has changed what teachers now need to know to help all learners succeed, along with the fact that many learners with disabilities are not exempt from passing state mandated standardized tests. I'm still learning about the advancements in technology that enable learners with disabilities to master mathematical concepts just like anyone else. Let's examine some of those. In part 1 of this series, I present the nature of accommodations and assistive technologies that might be needed in math classes. You'll also find resources for expanding your own knowledge base on inclusion, teaching strategies, and products appropriate for individuals with disabilities. In part 2, you will find details about specific products from several vendors, which have been designed with specific disabilities in mind for learning and communicating math. Some of those are appropriate for all learners. Several vendors noted also produce software and learning support tools for other subject areas, making this series of value to all K-12 educators and parents.

Accommodations
The intent of an accommodation is to ensure best ways that students can demonstrate what they know unimpeded by any disability. What is altered is the way an activity is presented, not the content nor grading of the activity or assessment itself (National Center for Learning Disabilities [NCLD], 2005, sec: Grades K-8, Accommodations: http://www.ncld.org/content/view/306/377/). To fully include students with disabilities in any classroom, teachers should not presume to know the accommodations learners might need related to a particular disability or assignment.

An individual education plan would indicate accommodations for students who have already been diagnosed with a disability. Often the student can relay a particular need. Some disabilities don't come to light until teachers have worked with students for a period of time and observed certain behaviors. What would trigger them to recommend a professional diagnosis for a learner who struggles and can't seem to do math?

Rochelle Kenyon (2000) points out that a learning disability manifests itself "by significant difficulties in acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills" (sec: Definition). Students with a potential math disability might not be able to recall basic number facts, easily forget rules, procedures, formulas, or what they are doing when solving problems. When computing, they might be unable to copy problems correctly, write numbers or letters backwards, misread operation signs in a problem, or have difficulty keeping score in a game. Connecting abstract or conceptual representations with concrete representations or reality challenges them (e.g., time and direction). Students might also struggle with comprehending visual-spatial and perceptual aspects of math. They might lack organization skills, or become overwhelmed and unable to continue solving problems when too many are presented at one time on a page.

Online resources help to identify particular accommodations and teaching strategies. For example, the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) team at the University of Washington developed a Student Activities Profile form for math and science. DO-IT promotes the use of computer and networking technologies in education and employment for individuals with disabilities.

DO-IT also has a number of videos. The Winning Equation: Access + Attitude = Success in Math and Science illustrates strategies for fully including students with disabilities in science and math activities. Learners with mobility problems will benefit from note takers, copies of lecture outlines, and test taking alternatives like dictating to a scribe, using a computer for interactions, or extra time on tests. Deaf learners might need sign-language interpreters. For all learners, particularly the hearing impaired, educators are reminded to face the class while speaking and to repeat questions from the class before answering. Students will benefit from written assignments and lab instructions and summaries of demonstrations. Videos and slides will need captions. Visually impaired benefit from enlarged print, audio tapes, electronic formats for texts and handouts, tape recordings of classes, and alternative test taking arrangements.

Depending on disability, sometimes a computer simulation could take the place of a hands-on lab activity that a learner might not otherwise be able to complete. In mathematics, for example, virtual manipulatives, such as those available from ExploreLearning.com for grades 6-12, might equally well help students to master concepts in cases where they could not physically work with concrete manipulatives.

Contrary to what some might think, a learning disability does not go away with treatment, so learners who have one also benefit from many of the accommodations already noted. Plus, some might need frequent breaks, oral exams and visual, oral, or tactile demonstrations, testing in a private room or at another site, or testing at an alternative time of day. Dyscalculia.org provides teaching and learning strategies for learners with dyscalculia (math LDs) and dyslexia (reading LDs). Among its many resources is an online diagnosis, which is available for a fee.  

What's an Assistive Technology?
Assistive technologies help people work around their deficits, rather than fixing them. The tools and devices can be motivating and enable individuals who use them to have greater freedom and independence from seeking help from others. A device is defined in the Assistive Technology Act of 2004 as any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities" (sec 3: Definitions). According to Amy Brodesky, Caroline Parker, Elizabeth Murray, and Lauren Katzman (2002), students' strengths and needs related to their cognitive processing, language, visual-spatial processing, organization, memory, attention, psycho-social, and fine-motor skills affect their success in mathematics (p. 1). Those skills then influence the choice of accommodations and assistive technologies they might need.

Many of those technologies as they apply to instruction potentially benefit anyone. They can be as simple as using highlighters, color coding, taped books, tape recorders, special calculators, enlarged fonts, or different color backgrounds on computer screens. More complex systems involve computer screen readers for converting text to speech, or speech recognition software for converting speech to text, talking calculators or big onscreen calculators, or intelligent word-processing software that predicts words frequently used or edits words frequently misspelled (NCLD, n.d., sec: Grades K-8, Assistive Technology: http://www.ncld.org/content/view/307/378/). Students might require special hardware such as larger keyboards with more space between keys, keyboards for use with only the left hand or only the right hand, programmable keyboards, touch screens, switches, eye tracking devices, head-pointing devices, track balls, and so on.

Enhance Your Knowledge
Learning Disabilities Online is a comprehensive resource on learning disabilities and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. You'll find an in depth series for teaching students with math disabilities, and for understanding the nature and legal aspects of individualized education plans, accommodations and modifications.   

CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, is meeting the demand for inclusive education policies and practices through its focus on universal design for learning. Publications on effective classroom practices and curriculum enhancements, teacher practices for engaging students with disabilities, and general and special education policies from its National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum are available on the Web or for download. One of the latter of particular interest regarding testing is Jay Heubert's (2002) High-stakes testing: opportunities and risks for students of color, English-Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

SciTrain, formerly Barrier Free Education, is a research initiative from the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access at Georgia Tech. Its purpose is to enhance the effectiveness of high school math and science teachers who have students with disabilities. This is accomplished via their research, instruction on how to make coursework, classrooms and labs more accessible, and information resources for teachers including assistive technology for their courses.

Begin your search for vendors and products for children and adults with special needs at Closing the Gap. The extensive resource directory of computer-related products includes hardware, software, other assistive technology, producers, and organizations (e.g., those in your state) that serve this population. You can search for software by disability, access aids, professional management, skill level, academic content area, or define your own category. Hardware can be found via disability and input/output device. Plus, you can search by product category. There's also a bi-monthly newspaper and annual conference.

This should serve as motivation to come back for part 2 in this two-part article series and a look at some specific products.

References

Assistive Technology Act of 2004. Available: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h108-4278

Brodesky, A., Parker, C., Murray, E., & Katzman L. (2002). Accessibility strategies toolkit for mathematics. Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc. Available: http://www2.edc.org/accessmath/resources/strategiesToolkit.pdf

Kenyon, R. (2000, September). Accommodating math students with learning disabilities.  Focus on Basics, 4(B). Available: http://www.ncsall.net/?id=325 

National Center for Learning Disabilities (2005). Grades K-8: Accommodations for students with LD. Available: http://www.ncld.org/content/view/306/377/

National Center for Learning Disabilities (n.d.). Grades K-8: Assistive Technology. Available: http://www.ncld.org/content/view/307/378/

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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