21st Century Classroom

Merging IT with AT: Assistive Tech Joins the Mainstream

As consumer technologies are being fitted with assistive capabilities, special needs students are gaining access to the same tools and opportunities that mainstream students have.

When Apple's iPad hit shelves earlier this year, it was met with a barrage of media play and a frenzy of consumer excitement. But apart from all the attention the flashy new gadget received for what it could offer mainstream users, educators and educational software developers were already thinking about what it could mean for students with learning and communication impairments.

In that regard, though it may have been a breakthrough in other ways, the iPad is certainly not unique. The line that once separated consumer tech tools from those designed to aid the educational experience of students with special needs is growing ever more faint.

"What we're seeing is a growing convergence in technology for general consumers and technology for different needs," says Tracy Gray, director of the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), a Washington, DC-based, federally funded organization concerned with the development and commercialization of assistive technologies. As a result, students with physical or learning disabilities are getting access to the same powerful technologies that mainstream students use.

"Assistive technology is evolving into becoming part of the fabric of the school day and the classroom," says Jennifer Thalhuber, president and CEO of AbleNet, which develops technology tools and educational programs for people with disabilities.


The National Center for Technology Innovation's (NCTI) annual Tech in the Works grants are awarded to teams of researchers and vendors for conducting research on the impact of assistive learning technology on students with special needs. The 2010 winners each received $20,000 to help them carry out their projects.

As an added benefit, the larger market for mainstream devices also means their prices are lower than many assistive technologies. "Because these are mainstream devices, [schools] don't have to invest a huge amount of money in the technology," says Andre Lukatsky, director of computer services at the Hadley School for the Blind in Illinois, which tests consumer technologies to determine how useful they are to the blind and visually impaired.

Part of the impetus behind the blending of assistive capabilities into consumer products, Gray says, comes from technology companies looking for ways to serve an aging baby boomer population, whose members may also need their computers modified to make them more accessible. Closed captioning, easily adjustable contrast and text size for computer displays, and text-to-speech capabilities are among ways that manufacturers are tailoring their products to a wide range of users.

One of the initiatives NCTI is supporting through its annual Tech in the Works awards is a project joining software developers with researchers at the Auburn University College of Education's Center for Disability Research and Service. The project aims to develop applications for Apple's iPad, iPhone, and iPod that can help students with autism spectrum disorder or other communication impairments express themselves better.

The school's researchers are testing the use of the iPad as an augmentative communication device with an application called Pic-a-Word. Created by Push Product Design, based in Birmingham, AL, northwest of Auburn, Pic-a-Word helps students communicate during snack time by showing pictures of different foods and drinks that they can choose from. Once downloaded, it runs as an independent app on the iPad; students touch the screen to make their selections. When an image is touched, a recorded child's voice speaks the item's name; before, teachers and staff would have to rely on laminated cards to communicate with speech-impaired students.

"It's a fuller communication experience," says Push product designer Foster Phillips, who worked with the Auburn researchers on developing Pic-a-Word. This past summer the tool was tried out on 10 nonverbal students at a camp for autistic children. The researchers found that the children adapted to it easily and were able to communicate their needs and wants clearly. Phillips expects the app to be available through iTunes later this year.

"It's exciting to see how effective it really has been," says Scott Renner, coordinator of assistive technology at the Auburn research center.

For their next project, Renner is collaborating with the team at Push on the development of an application called Storyboard, which will include videos depicting common social situations and demonstrating proper ways to respond. Renner says he also sees potential in building tools for the iPad that coordinate with classroom interactive whiteboards.

"The greatest thing about the iPad or iPhone as a development platform is it's already out there," Phillips says. "We're able to piggyback on Apple's development. There's no way we could have started from scratch and built a touchscreen communication device."

An important benefit of the merging of consumer and assistive technologies, according to Tami Folks, an occupational therapist for Florida's Orange County Public Schools, is that it makes students who need assistive devices less reluctant to use them, because they don't feel that their use makes them stand out.

"One of the problems is other technologies make kids look so different," Folks says. "Kids don't want to be seen with them. [Now] they can download a book, put it on an MP3 player, and listen to the same book everyone else is reading."

With more than 175,000 students, Orange County Public Schools is one of the country's largest school districts, which means Folks and her colleagues are responsible for finding learning solutions for students with a host of special needs. "Just about everything," she says.

One trend Folks observes is the incorporation of text-to-speech capabilities, which were once specific to specialized assistive technologies, into mainstream devices. Text readers, she says, make a big difference for students who have reading disabilities or are visually impaired.

Folks' district uses Texthelp Systems' Read&Write software, which integrates with many popular applications, including Microsoft Word, Safari, Internet Explorer, and Adobe Reader. The software highlights and reads text aloud, so students who previously may have been dependent on having content read to them can now pull up materials within these programs and listen to them through Read&Write.

Consumer technology vendors are beginning to build text-to-speech functionality right into their own products. One example is the Kindle, Amazon's popular electronic reading device. Earlier versions of the Kindle could translate text to speech for books and content, but not for menus and book listings. That meant, Lukatsky explains, while the e-readers may have been suitable for users with low or impaired vision, they weren't accessible to the blind. Amazon rectified that with its newest upgrade of the Kindle, enabling all content listing and menu options with text-to-speech capability.

"As long as those features are built in, it should be a great tool for the blind and visually impaired communities," Lukatsky says.

The text-to-speech mechanism means expanded and immediate access to books, textbooks, and course materials. Blind students would used to have to wait for materials to be transcribed into Braille. They can now make use of them as quickly as other students do. "It really levels the playing field," Lukatsky says.

While the possibilities for teaching students with disabilities are richer than they've ever been thanks to this ever-expanding arsenal of tools, one of the key challenges is making teachers aware of what technologies are out there and how to best use them in the classroom.

"That's the weakest link in the chain," NCTI's Gray says. "We need to teach educators how to use such tools to maximize the experience for students."

"The technology is there," Folks says. "The biggest challenge is the awareness piece. I think people have to be open to what the possibilities are for our kids. Our kids are learning so differently today, there's no reason they can't accomplish anything with the right tools."

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of THE Journal.