Software - Focus on Special Needs


Students with disabilities or special needs often have special challenges in a standard classroom setting. Many products and software applications are emerging to help such students learn, develop skills, and explore the Internet. From programs that translate the Internet into Braille, to programs that help children learn to navigate their wheelchairs, educators will find products to suit almost any special education need.

With a little help, students with attention difficulties can learn to concentrate in school. Play Attention is a school-based system that combines tested teaching methods and proven technology to help students improve attention skills and reduce behavior problems. It is specifically designed for teacher use, and gives educators detailed reports on student progress.

The system hooks up to a PC, and features a helmet with sensors that measure the brain waves associated with focus and cognitive processing. An interface unit translates the brain waves, so students can control objects on a computer screen through attention alone. With coaching, students learn to maintain focused awareness, and grow to recognize what behaviors detract from it. Gradually, students learn to apply their powers of concentration to reading and attentive listening in class.

The system has five levels, each focusing on a different educational objective, such as increased time on-task, short-term memory sequencing, and discriminatory processing. Play Attention aims to help students understand and control both positive and negative habits, offering immediate feedback and reinforcing positive behaviors. The system’s attention-training techniques are similar to those developed by NASA and the Air Force.

For students with reading difficulties, Scientific Learning Corp. has expanded its Fast ForWord family of training programs, offering an updated language-training program and a self-paced tutorial to help educators implement the training exercises. Fast ForWord cross-trains students on a broad set of language skills to help them learn how to read or improve reading ability.

Adaptive technology adjusts to each individual’s beginning skill level, and monitors ongoing progress as the student acquires such skills as phonemic and phonological awareness, language comprehension, auditory processing speed, working memory, syntax, grammar and sequencing. An Internet database allows educators to follow the progression of the training from any location.

Scientific Learning Corp.’s family of neuroscience-based products also includes Away We Go!, a skill-building software title for children with developmental ages of 4 to 7 years old. This software helps children learn key language and cognitive skills that are needed for success in pre-K through grade 2. A series of storybooks is also available on CD and CD-ROM to help children prepare for school.

Some may think that Web surfing would be impossible for the blind or visually impaired, but in fact, several technologies are emerging to facilitate their use of the Internet. The Productivity Works has developed Hear the Web Speak, a program aimed at offering blind, visually impaired and learning disabled users access to cyberspace. The software allows users to listen to the contents of Web pages and/or view the pages in large character type. Educational institutions and personal Web site builders who enroll in the program receive discounts on PW WebSpeak and all the Productivity Works’ products.

Additionally, a technological innovation by the Library of Congress allows Braille readers to read books on the Internet. Web-Braille offers online access to more than 2,700 electronic Braille books, with hundreds of new titles added each year.

Braille, a system of raised dots that is read with the fingers, has historically been embossed on paper. Thanks to new computer technology, Braille readers may now access Web-Braille digital book files with a computer and a refreshable Braille display or a Braille embosser. The books are available on the Internet for download or online use by eligible individuals, libraries and schools with a computer and a Braille-output device.

The Library of Congress also produces Braille versions of many national magazines and is now exploring the feasibility of adding these magazines to Web-Braille.

A catalog from HumanWare offers several helpful products for the visually impaired. The ClearView 100 video magnifier, from Optelec and Tiemen, plugs into the video input on a television of any size and magnifies whatever is placed beneath it. For the blind, the Monty Braille and large-print editor for Microsoft Windows works with Mountbatten braillers and printers, allowing users to produce Braille and large-print documents. A self-contained word processor and numerous translation options work with files produced in other text file formats. In HumanWare’s own product line is the compact ALVA 544 Satellite Braille display, a 44-cell piez'electric display featuring enhanced ergonomic design and offering access to even the most complicated graphical computer screens. The 544 Satellite offers superior Braille output, ease of use, enhanced navigation possibilities, portability and durability. HumanWare also offers Lexia, a diagnostic and reading skill development software package by and for educators, aimed at students with reading difficulties. Designed for integration with classroom curricula, Lexia is available in two series: phonics-based reading for elementary grades 1, 2 and 3, and Reading S.O.S., Strategies for the Older Student, for grade 4 through adult instruction.

The Computer Center for Visually Impaired People in New York City offers courses in Windows, MS Word, Excel and Internet Explorer, featuring large print and/or speech assistive technology for people who have trouble reading the standard screen. Experienced instructors and tutors teach students how to use assistive computer technology, in courses encompassing a variety of skill levels. The courses are offered through Baruch College at CUNY.

For those who have difficulty with manual tasks, Conversa Web 3.0 allows users to surf the Web hands-free. With voice-activated text links and images, the program enables users to access virtually any element on a Web page without reliance on a mouse and keyboard. A popup military alphabet list allows users to enter URL addresses and text by voice, as well. Text-to-speech technology lets users listen to links, rather than reading from the screen, and voice-enabled icons represent toolbar commands, graphics and other Web page elements. There is no need to train the system to recognize any user’s voice.

For all computer users with physical disabilities, Winsted Corp. has developed a 7" Pedestal Riser component that expands console configuration to accommodate wheelchairs or additional accessories. When the shelf is positioned at a standard 28" height, it provides additional economical rack space above the shelf for easy access to VTRs and other electronics.

New technologies can also help the hearing impaired get the most out of films and presentations. Museum Technology Source, Inc., offers The Captioning Board, a closed captioning "sign box" that offers a unique and unobtrusive way to silently communicate information from televisions and video monitors. Equipped with a small decoding computer that reads standard closed captioning from video signals, The Captioning Board sends the captioning to a separate, easy to read display. Rather than obscuring the video image, the captioning is presented on a unit 2’ wide by 5" high, which can be placed atop or below the television or monitor. Captioning provides indications of who is speaking, sound sources and sound effects. The unit is easily plugged into any video source.

We Media Inc., which publishes We magazine for the disabled, has activated a service to provide Internet access to blind and disabled individuals. The for-profit site at offers shopping and access to online college courses, chat rooms, lists of jobs at accessible workplaces and real estate brokers who specialize in accessible homes. The software will be written so that the Web page is compatible with such tools as the vibrating mouse, which allows the blind to feel boxes and images on the computer screen. The tools will enable the disabled to do such things as take online college courses and participate in discussion groups.

For children with special needs, RJ Cooper & Associates’ program Wheels! is an action game for PCs and Macs. Designed originally for power-wheelchair/joystick training, the game features 3D mazes populated by clowns and robots at whom the user must throw pies. The game is very forgiving, has incremental levels of difficulty, sound effects and music, and important feedback for power wheelchair training. Colors are bright and lines are thick, so children with visual disabilities or cognitive challenges can see and understand the graphics.

As a sign of growing public and governmental interest in assistive technology, the U.S. Department of Education’s Outreach Projects for Children with Disabilities program has granted $450,000 to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). The grant will allow the NTID to bring communication technology known as C-Print to deaf and hard-of-hearing students throughout the country.

Developed by researchers at NTID, C-Print is a transcription system that trained captionists use to type lectures or discussions as they happen, displaying them for deaf students in text format on a laptop computer or television monitor in the classroom. The grant will fund a three-year project to train new captionists and develop a national network of C-Print service providers.

—Elizabeth Amberg

[email protected]



Play Attention

Unique Logic & Technology
Asheville, NC
(800) 788-6786

Fast ForWord

Scientific Learning Corp.
Berkeley, CA
(888) 665-9707

Hear the Web Speak

The Productivity Works
Trenton, NJ
(609) 984-8044


National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC
(202) 707-9279

We Media, Inc.

New York, NY
(212) 931-6700

HumanWare, Inc.

Loomis, CA
(800) 722-3393

The Computer Center for Visually Impaired People

New York, NY
(212) 802-2140

Conversa Web

Redmond, WA
(888) 487-4373

Pedestal Riser

Winsted Corp.
Minneapolis, MN
(800) 559-6691


The Captioning Board

Museum Technology Source, Inc.
Winchester, MA
(800) 729-6873


RJ Cooper & Associates
Dana Point, CA


National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester, NY
(716) 475-6700

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.