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.

And Access For All

InfoCor's Satalight
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 reached
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.

Purchasing Power

And Access For AllDECIDING 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 text-to-speech software.

"The definition is so general that even a pencil grip can be considered an assistive technology."

Smart Investment

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."

Suite Success

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 second language.

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 grades showed students with disabilities who used the literacy suite and other assistive 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."

Expanded Options

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."

Finding Funding

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 pays off."

For more information on assistive technology, visit our website at 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.