The Accessible Classroom: How Technology Helps Students with Disabilities

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Technology is something that every student will need to be familiar with when they enter the world of work, but being aware of the tools that are available and how they can be used might be particularly important for students who have disabilities. Disabilities, particularly those that limit sensory perception, reading and writing, or mobility, can make it more difficult for people to use the conventional tools of work and learning. Technology can help people to break through these limitations, opening up new worlds of independent work and study.

Access and Opportunity

Schools are used to making adjustments for students with all kinds of special educational needs, and technology has a key role to play in this process. Teachers have access to a growing pool of resources that can be used to create the best learning experience for every student.

Many of the same technologies that are being used with the entire class can be adapted to make them more accessible for any students who are affected by disabilities. Mainstream technology almost always comes with accessibility settings that can be adjusted for individual users. Both Microsoft and Apple provide guidance for educators on how to make use of these settings, which include options such as screen magnification, text readers, and voice activation. Text is no longer static. It can be resized, read aloud and manipulated to create resources that are accessible for everyone. These resources are available to students at any time, so they are no longer reliant on classroom support to continue their work. Teachers can even come up with creative ways to use the technology, such as recording an audio periodic table or letting students dictate their thoughts before beginning a writing assignment.

Teachers can also use assistive technologies in the classroom that have been specially designed to help students with particular disabilities or special educational needs. A wide range of different tools, apps and software are available. For example, Apple has created Safari Reader to provide a less cluttered online experience to help to prevent sensory overload, as well as a selection of apps to help students with special educational needs. Assistive technologies are becoming smaller, cheaper and more powerful all the time, making learning easier for students with all kinds of disabilities. A lot of the tools that students need can now be used on their smartphone or iPad, rather than requiring specially purchased recorders, screens or other equipment.

Moving On From School

The technologies that students encounter in school can also help them through higher education and during their working lives. Being able to read resources independently, having the tools to type up, record or dictate notes and essays for oneself, or simply being freed from having to manage large, heavy textbooks, can boost students’ self-esteem and ensure that they enjoy the same learning experiences and preparation for the workforce as their peers. Experience of using assistive technologies in school can enable young people with disabilities to move on to the next stage of their life with confidence. Students who have been taught through technology to work more independently feel more capable of tackling the challenge of higher education and getting a job. Young people who know what they can achieve with technology will also know exactly which adjustments to ask for at work to allow them to perform at their best. By making use of these technologies in the classroom, teachers are not only giving their students the best possible education, but also preparing them for the future.

The Future

As our personal and working lives become ever more mediated by technology, it is increasingly important for all students to have the chance to work with technology in the classroom. However, we need to be aware of how disability can impact students’ interactions with this technology, and the opportunities it presents to enhance rather than impede the education of students with special educational needs. The technology is advancing every day, and the accessibility options and specialised programs that are available today may soon be combined with technologies that can do so much more. Among the projects that are currently being developed are improved speech to text software for dictation, better handwriting recognition that could help students with dyspraxia or limited mobility, image recognition software that could enable visually impaired students to access the information in pictures, maps and graphs, and prosthetics that could give students with disabilities the opportunity for greater participation in practical work. Technology has the potential to enhance the education of students with all kinds of disabilities, and not just in wealthier countries like the UK, but around the world.

Resources:

1. Adjustments for Disabled Students, Disability Rights UK Factsheet F11, accessed 22 November 2014
2. School District Uses Familiar Technology to Make Learning More Accessible for All Students, Microsoft Case Studies, accessed 22 November 2014
3. Apple iOS for Special Education, Apple, accessed 22 November 2014
4. Choosing Assistive Technology, National Center for Learning Disabilities, accessed 22 November 2014
5. Technology makes higher education accessible to disabled students, Fionnuala Duggan, The Guardian, 28 April 2013, accessed 22 November 2014
6. What Technologies Do Disabled People Need? The Royal Society, 12 June 2014, accessed 22 November 2014
7. Innovation and Technology for Persons with Disabilities, Nabil Eid, UN, accessed 22 November 2014

 

This blog post is a freelance contribution from Gemma Franks

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