Students with Disabilities: Software and Learning Support for Math (Part 2)


Students who have physical, cognitive, sensory, and learning disabilities might find learning mathematics particularly challenging. Appropriate accommodations and technology can help them learn and demonstrate their mastery of mathematics just like anyone else. Unfortunately, software might lack features and learning supports that make it fully accessible to all learners.

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.

In part 1 of this series, I presented the nature of accommodations and assistive technologies that might be needed in math classes and resources for expanding your knowledge on inclusion, teaching strategies, and products appropriate for individuals with disabilities. Here, I delve further into specific math software and learning support materials and tools for individuals with visual, pencil, cognitive, learning, and hearing impairments. The software is not necessarily restricted for use by particular groups of learners with specific disabilities. When developed according to principles of universal design noted at the Center for Applied Special Technology, the programs would be appropriate considerations for all learners. Several vendors noted have software and appropriate hardware for other subject areas. These and the additional resources provided, including databases of software, hardware, and other assistive technology and checklists for software accessibility, make this snapshot of value to all K-12 educators and parents.

Visual Impairments
Individuals with visual impairments are blind, have low vision, or color blindness. Using a mouse poses a problem because it requires hand-eye coordination. Keyboard access to content is, therefore, essential. These individuals might also use screen readers. Low vision individuals benefit from hardware or software magnifiers to enlarge text. They and individuals with color blindness need good contrasting colors in software and Web applications (IBM, 2007).

For a small annual membership fee, Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic provides access to audio CD versions of copyrighted books to individuals and K-12 and post-secondary institutions with students who have difficulty reading. All books are selected for their educational nature and support for a formal academic curriculum.

Membership is for people with documented disabilities, such as a learning disability, visual impairment, or other physical disability. You'll need a specially equipped CD player and CD-reading software to listen to the audio books, which can also be purchased from RFB&D. Well known publishers such as Addison-Wesley, Everyday Learning, McGraw-Hill, Harcourt School Publishers, Houghton Mifflin, Scott Foresman, Saxon Publishers, and others are among those providing audio books for K-12 math.

Led by John Gardner, members of the Science Access Project at the University of Oregon developed the Audio Graphing Calculator for use by students with visual impairments. It is a Windows version of the handheld graphing calculator and available from ViewPlus Technologies. Universal-use features include describing of graph shape through audio tones and cues, speaking menus, scalable visual display, keyboard navigation, and tactile output options.

ViewPlus also has IVEO technology for universally accessible graphical information, which is described as "a self-voicing tactile audio system that transforms existing files such as maps and graphs to make them speak when touched." It comes with a drawing program to create and edit tactile-audio documents, a tool to import existing images into IVEO from virtually any program such as Powerpoint, CorelDraw, and PDF, a touchpad that connects through USB for reading tactile-audio images, and free downloadable viewing software for reading IVEO documents on-screen or with the IVEO touchpad.

Pencil Impaired
Henter Math develops products for the pencil impaired (i.e., visually impaired, motor-impaired, or learning disabled). Virtual Pencil (VP) Arithmetic includes addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, including fractions and decimals; VP Algebra delves into quantities, radicals, exponents, subscripts, Greek letters, absolute values, matrices, and fractions and has many editing features. Both are for Windows 95 or higher.

The value of VP Arithmetic lies in options to change its look and behavior, like the font size and color, the amount of information displayed or spoken, sound effects, hot keys, and message strings. Keyboard commands can be reconfigured, including a single-key command mode. It is compatible with alternative input devices such as on-screen keyboards, IntelliKeys, switches, and voice input. Blind users can use it with JAWS, Connect Outloud, or Window Eyes screen-readers. VP Algebra can be used by itself with no special access technology, such as when a teacher demonstrates techniques or creates assignments. It can also be used with alternative input devices, like IntelliKeys or other keyboards, track balls, switches, or onscreen keyboards. However, the present version is only configured for use with the JAWS screen reader.

Metroplex Voice Computing develops products for speech recognition mathematics, enabling math to be done without keyboard or mouse. Online demos are available. MathTalk is for all levels of math, including prealgebra, algebra, trig, calculus, and statistics, as well as for Ph.D. levels and for professional use. This includes voicing graphs and voice commands to translate into Braille. It's paired with Scientific Notebook with more than 600,000 combinations of voice commands. The software requires Dragon NaturallySpeaking software 7.0/8.0/9.0 for converting voice to text.

Cognitive and Learning Disabilities
Individuals with learning disabilities have "significant difficulties in acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills" (Kenyon, 2000, sec: Definition). Cognitive disabilities affect one's ability to access, process, or remember information. Individuals with cognitive or learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, benefit from applications designed with simplicity, redundancy, and consistency. For example, learners' comprehension could be improved if textual content they see is simultaneously accompanied by having it read aloud (IBM, 2007).

Attainment Company is dedicated to helping people with cognitive disabilities. Among its offerings are a basic talking calculator (item CAL-T01W) and a talking hand-held Coin-U-Lator (item PG-90W), the latter of which helps individuals learn how to count money by using photographic coin buttons and a dollar bill instead of standard numbers on a regular calculator. The company offers IntelliKeys, an alternative keyboard that helps individuals with cognitive, physical, or visual disabilities access any software. IntelliKeys Overlays were designed specifically to enhance accessibility of several of their software programs, including Basic Coins and Basic Fractions, First Money, Spending Money, Making Change, Match Time, Show Me Math, and TimeScales for mathematics.

Attainment Company is also offering new research-based curricula, Teaching to Standards: Math. The program, developed by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, targets students with significant developmental disabilities, including autism, grades 6-12.

IntelliTools, part of Cambium Learning Technologies, features Classroom Suite version 4, based on principles of universal design and technology for accessing the computer (e.g., IntelliKeys, Overlay Maker, switch access products).  Classroom Suite is for regular classroom use and for struggling preK-5 students who use assistive technology, have individual education plans, have limited English proficiency, or need additional instructional support for any reason.  Classroom Suite meets the accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is increasingly becoming important for software purchases in K-12 schools.  It comes with free online demos.  Other IntelliTools math products include Number Concepts 1, Number Concepts 2, MathPad, and MathPad Plus, which provide interactive and customizable experiences for mastery of K-8 concepts. 

Math (number sense), reading, and writing are featured in the new release of IntelliTools Classroom Suite 4 for students in grades preK-5.  The math modules are suitable for learners with disabilities. Classroom Suite version 4 includes many virtual math manipulatives: ten frames, ten rods, number lines, arrays, base ten blocks, skip counting on a hundreds chart, fraction bars, decimal grids, and more.  According to CEO Arjan Khalsa (personal communication, January 23, 2008) who gave me a personal tour, visually impaired learners were kept in mind during product development.  Deafness is the hardest disability to accommodate, but there are tons of things in the software that will appeal.  While no captioning is built into the product, it can work with third-party software. 

I found the beauty of Classroom Suite lies in the multiple representations available for building conceptual understanding and the research-based pedagogies that are used.  One problem might be investigated using a number line, ten rod, or ten frame, for example.  Onscreen manipulative models, building skills via a computational hierarchy, and direct explicit instruction with "show me" models, practice sets, and challenge sets make this a truly exciting piece of software for learning. Sessions can be customized for any learner and data tracked.  Once an activity is set up with a number of challenge sets available (e.g., 3) for a level of mastery (e.g., 80 percent), prescription is automatic.  Feedback in practice sets enables students to get everything right before moving on to challenge sets.  When mastery is not demonstrated for a challenge set, the program provides another practice set.  If mastery is not achieved for the number of challenge sets specified, the activity will automatically end and teachers can get a report.  Students can continue to work on other modules of the software, however.  "Show me" videos automatically adapt to changes in options for customized activities. There's an optional timer, which also measures latency when used.  This enables it to adjust to needs of individual learners.  For example, the timer will stop while learners manipulate assistive devices.

Tobii Assistive Technology develops hardware and software solutions for a variety of users with special needs, primarily those with speech impairments and physical disabilities. According to Dorothy Fitch, vice president of software development (personal communication, January 21, 2008), the company's software, including Stages Math: Number Sense for K-3, supports learners who need to access the software with switches, head pointing systems, touch screens, and standard and alternative keyboards. There are many settings for adjusting prompts, feedback/rewards, and access methods. Auditory scanning is available for those with visual impairments. However, in some Stages Math activities at the present time, the feedback for incorrect responses that would help guide a learner to the correct answer is spoken only, which then might pose an accessibility issue for deaf and hearing impaired.

Hearing Impaired
The primary concern for hearing impaired is that an equivalent visual form accompanies any audio output information provided in applications (IBM, 2007). For educational media with sound, deaf learners need text equivalents, or captioned versions, or media using sign language. Hearing impaired might need sound-enhancement devices to fully benefit from media and interactions.

The Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) lists a number of multimedia resources for instruction delivery to deaf learners. iCommunicator is among those and available from several vendors noted at its Web site. It meets Section 508 requirements for electronic and information technology accessibility and is proving to be a valuable alternative for deaf or hard of hearing students in regular classrooms and other settings when sign-language interpreters are not available. The software converts speech to text and video sign language in real time, and speech to text to computer generated voice. The computer generated voice is valuable for users who cannot speak or who have oral issues. By typing what you want to say on a laptop computer with a PC platform, the iCommunicator will speak for you. As with any disability, intended users should be evaluated to ensure there is a good match between their communication access needs and the features of this technology. Fortunately, iCommunicator suggests those candidacy considerations and provides onsite training.

Specialized signs are needed for communicating mathematics to learners using sign language. Embee Outreach, formerly Needs Outreach, provides a series of free short videos illustrating the American Sign Language equivalent for specialized vocabulary found in elementary through secondary math and other selected academic areas. At Purdue University, researchers led by Nicoletta Adamo-Villani and Ronnie Wilbur are developing Mathsigner. This program is described as "a highly interactive learning tool to improve the mathematical abilities of deaf children. [It] uses three dimensional animated signers to teach students and parents sign language for K-8 mathematical concepts through a variety of interactive activities."

Deaf high school learners at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind have successfully used Successmaker in the math resource lab. Successmaker is diagnostic and prescriptive software from Pearson Digital Learning designed for non-disabled learners as well.

Enhance Your Knowledge
What I've presented is just representative of products to help students with special needs to communicate and learn math. Several organizations maintain databases on hardware, software, and assistive technology specific for individuals with disabilities.

CITEd and National Center for Technology Innovation developed TechMatrix, an excellent resource for locating math, reading, writing, and assistive technology products for K-8 students with special needs. Products in the searchable database have been reviewed for technology and instructional features: differentiation, cursor control options, customizable interface options, input/output options, text to speech capability, embedded resources, drafting options, word prediction capabilities, and text-embedded prompts.  Links to vendors are provided.

Closing the Gap, introduced in part 1 of this series, is noteworthy for its extensive resource directory with hardware, software, other assistive technology, producers, and organizations (e.g., those in your state) that serve children and adults with special needs. You can search for software by disability, access aids, professional management, skill level, or 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.

Finally, consider using checklists when previewing software for accessibility. IBM's Software Accessibility Checklist and the University of Minnesota's Software Accessibility Standards would be helpful.






IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center (2007). Understanding disability issues when designing web sites. Available:

Kenyon, R. (2000, September). Accommodating math students with learning disabilities.  Focus on Basics, 4(B). Available:

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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

Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].