Technology Provides Independence for Students with Disabilities

Text-to-voice converters, a smartpen that records what it writes, speech-generating software — education technology has been making significant strides for students with special needs. Assistive edtech has been getting more advanced in recent years: slimmer, wireless, and more discreet for students with specific learning needs. The right technology can help a student in leaps and bounds in the classroom. The trick is finding a good match and taking the time to train the student with the tool.

At The Carroll Center for the Blind, Ashley Brow helps visually impaired students use technology to help them become more independent. These students are also sometimes cognitively disabled, ESL students, or have motor problems such as hand dexterity, so finding the right technology for each student is a prescriptive match.

When deciding what technology would work best for a student, Brow said there are many factors that need to be taken into account. For students with motor skill issues, Brow figures out what technologies students are physically capable of using. She also has to determine the skill level of the student and how complex the technology can be that she uses with them. She looks at portability of the product and how time effective the technology actually is.

“If somebody can use something, but they are only typing a couple words per minute or they’re reading a few words per minute, that’s not going to work, so you have to think — what’s something they can just pull out of their bookbag, turn on, and start using.”

Once the right technology is placed in the student’s hands it can change everything. “Technology equals the playing field in terms of accessing information and storing information, and it gives you more power over how you want to do your work,” said Brow. “You don’t have to wait for someone to read you something or just memorize things. You can have more control over what you’re doing.”

Brow, blind herself, said she doesn’t often use apps, but uses many programs and devices with her students. The most common technologies Brow uses with her students are JAWS Screen reader, digital voice recorders, Refresherbraille, and Victor Reader Stream.

Brow stresses that technology is only going to be helpful if the students know how to use it. “You can’t just hand anyone an iPad and expect it to be okay. You have to assess if it’s going to be helpful or not,” said Brow. “Expensive technology is not the answer and low-tech is still okay. If somebody can only use a tape player, let them use a tape player.”

Recently, casual technology is being used more for assistive tech. Brow integrates iPad and iPhone use for her students because she said many students already have this technology. With iPhones and iPads, many people are already familiar with the gear so it’s easier to use, easier to fix, and more discreet.

Dr. Arlene Stewart, the Director of Student Disability Services at Clemson University said it’s great that students are finding more independence by using the technology they already know. “They don’t have to depend on someone else to do something for them,” said Stewart. “They are in charge.”

One recent way Clemson University’s disability services is helping students gain their independence through technology is by adopting Flashnotes, a website that connects students with notes, flashcards, and Q&A material written by students.

Stewart said the university started Flashnotes to help the students as well as to help the faculty. “We typically have over 400 students each semester that are eligible for notes from their classes. Most instructors, especially in the survey courses, don’t know the students and they have trouble helping students find notetakers, so Flashnotes will give students access to the notes and the real benefit is that it’s all done anonymously.”

Although notes provided on Flashnotes are often sold for a price, Flashnotes says on their website that they provide these services for free to disability programs.

Stewart, who has been working in disability services for over 40 years said that complicated systems has been the biggest fault for disabled students. Software with multiple steps to go from beginning to end and complex processes are the biggest problems she’s seen. She said Learning Management Systems can also be an issue for students with disabilities.

Since there is so much edtech out there, students are given many options. Stewart said she takes every opportunity to talk to colleagues to see what other people have found to work. “That’s how we get most of our exciting things like different apps or different ways of doing things.” Stewart said conferences, word of mouth, and newsletters are great ways of finding good assistive edtech.

Photo credit: Exchanges Photos

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.