Differences of ability shouldn’t exclude children from participating in the classroom or achieving their learning goals — students with special needs simply require specialized tools. And a whole new generation of tech tools are ready to meet those special needs and learning challenges.
These tools don’t typically require bulky equipment or a hefty investment either. In fact, many solutions are accessible on mobile devices.
Technology enhances inclusion
Assistive technology plays a crucial role in making classrooms more inclusive. Tools such as audio players and recorders, talking calculators, and accessible software can help students overcome unique challenges and achieve better learning outcomes.
“Using a tool like Natural Reader, students can copy text or import a document, choose from a variety of speaking voices and speed, to listen, or read along as the text is read for them,” educator and consultant Rachelle Dene Poth writes.
Education writer Amelia Harper notes that a growing number of apps allow students with disabilities to work on the same devices as their peers, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. “Features like voice-to-text capability, eye-gaze technology, virtual reality devices and other apps, and browser extensions are replacing some devices that required special qualifications and funding in the past and offer new ways to help special education students learn and express themselves,” she explains.
Schools that use Microsoft Office 365 have access to software that makes reading more accessible, writes the team at Getting Smart. This software includes a visual dictionary and Immersive Reader.
According to Understood.org, almost all smartphones and digital tablets have assistive technology capabilities. So there’s no need to buy a special app for text to speech and word prediction.
Some apps are designed to assist with a specific need. For example, students with autism may benefit from a wearable picture-based scheduler like the one offered by learning solutions provider Enuma. Students with dyslexia may be better able to engage with class content if they have a literacy support tool such as Spell Better.
Solving accessibility issues with today’s tech
One issue people with disabilities face is resetting accessibility settings when logging into different devices. For instance, a blind user who uses high-contrast screen settings may have to reset those preferences on each new computer or application. That’s changing.
Education Week reporter and 2019 Spencer Fellow Benjamin Herold says Google is leading the way to ensure specialized features, like select to speak, Braille displays, and AI tools are linked to a user’s account — rather than the device itself. This means users won’t have to constantly reconfigure their accessibility settings when switching between devices at school, home, or when with a health practitioner.
In a push to make computer science education accessible to students with disabilities, more than 100 companies, universities, and advocacy organizations have signed an accessibility pledge. Bootstrap is one of those groups. Based out of Brown University, the research project develops computer science curricular modules for K–12 classes in math, physics, and other subjects.
Bootstrap’s goals include making user interfaces friendlier. This helps students who face unique challenges — those, for example, who are unable to use a mouse. Another goal is to incorporate screen readers that read the output of a program created by a student.
“The most ambitious [goal] is to create a ‘toolkit’ that can be integrated with multiple programming languages, read code aloud, and also verbally describe the code’s structure and purpose — in multiple languages, at age-appropriate reading levels,” explains Herold.
Robots and VR: The future of classroom accessibility?
Robotics is another area that continues to advance and aid with student learning. Robots have been especially helpful for those with autism.
“Early studies have found that tools like robots can pique the interest of autistic children, improving engagement in therapy sessions and teaching them skills and behaviors that they apply in everyday situations,” says Nora Fleming at Edutopia. One robot that holds great promise is Milo, whose voice-activated lessons help students practice identifying emotions and facial cues.
Virtual reality is also a constantly evolving technology with many use cases. “One example is the startup Eyeflite,” says cognitive accessibility consultant Betsy Furler. “Eyeflite is using a VR headset, Oculus Go. They are developing software that allows people with difficulty typing or activating a touch screen to access a computer with their eyes,” she explains.
VR allows users with disabilities to easily browse the internet, send text messages, and play games. For students who experience difficulty moving their hands or arms, this type of technology can help them more easily find information, communicate, and play just as other students do.