By Dr. Sylvia Charp Editor-in Chief An individual is defined as having special education needs if he or she has significantly greater difficulty in learning than his or her peers, or has a disability that prevents or hinders use of resources available in the typical educational institution. The U.S. Department of Education uses the following categories of disabilities: Learning, emotional and mental impairments; learning disabled; mentally retarded (includes mildly, moderately and severely retarded learners); seriously emotionally disturbed; and other health-impaired learners (e.g., autistic children). Physical and sensory impairments, orthopedically impaired, deaf and hard of hearing, visually impaired (includes partially sighted and blind) deaf/blind, speech or language impaired, and multiply handicapped learners. In 1976, Public Law 94-142 stated that the rights of all handicapped children include: 1) an education, 2) a free education, 3) an appropriate education, 4) the least restrictive environment for education, 5) due process under law, 6) confidentiality of information, and 7) non-discriminatory actions. Technology Aids Special Learners Computers can assist with learning difficulties. They are helping learners overcome their problems both as communication tools and learning aids. A wide range of devices now exist to enable learners with disabilities to take advantage of computers. The technology includes screen readers for blind people, alternatives to keyboards (switches, speech input, etc.) for physically disabled individuals, and keyboards with overlays of pictures or words for individuals with cognitive difficulties. An interesting program is in operation at Public School 47, School for the Deaf in New York City. Young adults design, print, assemble packages, bill, collect, market and sell sign-language products.
Learners with emotional difficulties are experiencing success and gaining self-esteem. Autistic learners have learned to express themselves through computers. However, too little is known about the use and effectiveness of assistive technology in special education programs. A recent study -- conducted by the Analysis of Technology Assistance to Children (ATAC) -- of 405 special education teachers in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee found that use of technology is growing. The most frequently utilized devices include computers, academic and leisure software, tape recorders and video instruction. Less frequently used items include books on tape, closed circuit TV, word processing, speech synthesis devices and other enabling hardware. Teachers' comments on specifying the forces that limit their use of technology were: funds, teacher training, obtainability, expense, teacher knowledge and time. Benefits cited included greater independence for students, as well as skill improvement and a better self-image. Learning opportunities that are possible due to the growing array of electronically delivered content and service providers must be made available to all, including non-traditional students. All students must have access to quality learning opportunities. Schools need to be held accountable for setting learning goals in using technology. International Conference "Educating Special Needs Students" was one of the many sub-themes of the 11th International Conference on Technology and Education held in London, England, March 27-30, 1994, sponsored by T.H.E. Journal and the University of Texas at Austin. The keynote speech for that sub-theme was delivered by Dr. Alba Ortez, from the University of Texas. Her remarks included the following: Educators must believe all students are learners. They must be attuned to diversity and understand the learner. Teachers must be trained to know how technology can be used. Emphasis must be on prevention. The overall theme of the conference, "Deciding Our Future: Technological Imperatives for Education," was designed to give direction to the international educational community and covered areas such as: International Cooperation and Partnerships, Technology for Education in the Developing World, Curriculum Design and Development, Research and Assessment Tools, and The Changing Role of the Teacher. Over 1,000 registrants representing 40 countries attended paper presentations, panel discussions, debate sessions and hands-on labs. I particularly enjoyed the informal discussions and interactions with my colleagues from around the world. Some general comments: Partnerships between education and private sectors are increasing. Interest and programs in distance learning is growing. On-going need for help in implementing technology still exists. International cooperation has expanded. Accountability must be taken seriously. Next year's conference is bound to include many exciting activities. Mark your calendar -- the 12th International Conference on Technology in Education will be held February 28 through March 3, 1995 in Orlando, Florida.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.