According to the National Education Association (NEA), the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent over the past 10 years. Additionally, the NEA reports that nearly every general education classroom in the country includes students with disabilities, as three out of every four students with disabilities spends part or all of their school day in a general education classroom.
But as the number of students in special education programs has increased, the supply of special education instructors has not kept pace. Based on the Department of Education’s Teacher Shortage Area Nationwide Listing, 47 states in the 2014-15 school year were in need of special education instructors.
One tool to help students with disabilities even in the face of a special education teacher shortage is assistive technology. Today, assistive technology can help students with certain disabilities learn more effectively. Ranging in sophistication from “low” technologies such as a graphic organizer worksheet to “high” technologies including cutting-edge software and smartphone apps, assistive technology is a growing and dynamic field. Several areas of assistive technology and sample products may be found in any given classroom, making a difference in how students of all abilities learn.
Text to Speech
As an assistive technology, text-to-speech (TTS) software is designed to help children who have difficulties reading standard print. Common print disabilities can include blindness, dyslexia or any type of visual impairment, learning disability or other physical condition that impedes the ability to read. However, other students can benefit from TTS technology, such as children that have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or an intellectual disability.
The technology works by scanning and then reading the words to the student in a synthesized voice, using a large number of speech sounds that make up words in any given context. With the advances in speech synthesis, TTS technology is more accurate and lifelike than ever.
The Intel Reader is a mobile handheld device that uses TTS technology to read printed text aloud. It features a high-resolution camera that captures printed text, converts it to digital text and reads it to the user. During playback, words are highlighted as they are read aloud, and the user can pause and have the device spell out highlighted words. The available Intel Portable Capture Station functions as a stand for the Intel Reader to easily and quickly capture text from books and other documents.
At about the size and weight of a paperback book, the Intel Reader is mobile enough to use in any environment. Students can also transfer content from a home computer, or save generated audio versions of printed materials to a computer. Available voices vary in gender, pitch and speed.
The Kurzweil 3000 is a leader in TTS software for individuals that struggle with literacy. In addition to a range of TTS features, the full-featured software program integrates abilities that can help students in other areas, potentially appealing to those who may have a non-print disability or those who may not typically consider a TTS program. Some of the features include:
• Multiple TTS voices
• Support for 18 languages and dialects
• Talking spell-checker
• Picture dictionary graphics for more than 40,000 words
• Text magnification
• Tools for test taking, essay writing, note taking, reference and more
The Kurzweil 3000 strives to provide students with a multi-sensory approach to literacy learning. It is available for Windows and Macintosh.
Graphic organizers can be effective in helping students organize their thoughts during the writing process. As an assistive technology, graphic organizers can be a strong choice for students with dysgraphia or disorders of written expressions — particularly the conceptual aspects of writing.
Graphic organizers work by helping the student map out a course of action. Depending on the type of writing, the graphic organizer can prompt the writer to describe an object, chart out a course of events or perform some other task that can help in planning the piece. Graphic organizers vary by type and technological sophistication.
Graphic organizers do not need to be technologically advanced; in fact, they can exist in simple handout form.
Sample handouts can be found at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company. The sandwich chart can assist students with paragraph writing. The sequence chart can help with narrative writing and the ordering of events. The sense chart is designed for descriptive writing, where writers are prompted for terms that characterize and express an item. Dozens of other sample charts exist and can help students with virtually any type of writing.
Draft:Builder is a writing tool that integrates outlining, note taking and draft writing functions to break down the writing process into three steps. Using a graphical organizer, the program helps the student visualize the project and insert information into the appropriate place without having to conceptualize the whole process. It then automates the process of creating the paper, where the student can drag and drop what is written in each note to the rough draft.
Other features include a talking spell checker that uses TTS technology, a bibliography tool, a dictionary and the ability for teachers to add locked text into the program for further guidance. Draft:Builder is available for Windows and Macintosh.
Assistive Listening Systems
A variety of assistive listening systems, or hearing assistive technology, can help students who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as those with other auditory and learning problems. According to the National Association for the Deaf, assistive listening systems can be used to enhance the reach and effectiveness of hearing aids and cochlear implants, or by children who do not need those tools but still need help hearing. Assistive listening systems use a microphone, a type of transmission technology and a device for capturing and bringing the sound to the ear. The specific transmission technology used in the system is typically what contrasts one type of assistive listening system from another.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), FM systems are the best choice for children with sensorineural hearing loss. The most common type of hearing loss for all ages, sensorineural hearing loss occurs when the inner ear (cochlea) or nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain are damaged.
FM systems work using radio broadcast technology. With a transmitter microphone and a receiver, the teacher and student can maintain a consistent sound level regardless of distance and background noise. Additionally, ASHA notes that the hearing aid microphone can be turned off, so the student can concentrate on the teacher alone.
Sound-field systems are a strong choice for classrooms that need to assist listening for all children in the class. ASHA notes that these systems benefit not only children that have hearing loss, but those that have other auditory and learning problems, such as language delays, central auditory processing disorder, articulation disorders and development delays. Additionally, sound-field systems can be used for students who are learning English as a second language.
Sound-field systems use a microphone that projects sound through mounted speakers around the classroom. In classrooms that have good acoustics, sound is able to travel evenly throughout space, eliminating problems of distance between the speaker and each listener.
Sip-and-puff systems are used by students who have mobility challenges, such as paralysis and fine motor skill disabilities. These systems allow for control of a computer, mobile device or some other technological application by the child moving the device with his or her mouth. Similar to a joystick, the child can move the controller in any direction and click on various navigational tools using either a sip or a puff. An on-screen keyboard allows the child to type using the same movements.
Sip-and-puff systems are a type of switch device, which refers to the technology used to replace a computer keyboard or mouse. Other switch devices include buttons or other objects that a student can touch, push, pull, kick or perform some other simple action that can then control the device.
The Jouse3 is a sip-and-puff system that allows children to control a device using any part of the mouth, cheek, chin or tongue. Due to its accuracy and quick response, home users can use it for drawing or computer games. It can mount to the desktop, a bedframe or any other type of structure; it does not require a headpiece or placement on the body of the user.
The product supports Windows, Macintosh, Linux and Unix based computers, in addition to Android and iOS mobile devices. It can support one or two external switches, and has two types of mouthpieces.
Sip-and-Puff Systems From Origin Instruments
Origin Instruments offers a range of sip-and-puff products that students can use to control an electronic device. Using a head mounted or gooseneck user interface, or available tubing for a custom solution, the child can control a mouse, joystick or keyboard with ease. The primary system is powered using USB technology.
The product supports Windows, Macintosh and Linux based computers. Two pressure switches connect the system to the user interface solution for use on electronic devices.
Proofreading software is a branch of assistive technology that goes above and beyond the typical proofreading features found in a word processing system, such as correcting words frequently misspelled by students with dyslexia. A number of other features offered within this category can help students work on his or her English skill set to become a more effective and accurate writer.
Although primarily geared towards individuals with dyslexia, proofreading software can be helpful to those with any type of learning disorder that makes writing and reading challenging.
Ginger offers several features that can help students with dyslexia and other learning disorders with writing. It is also designed for speakers of languages other than English. Some of the features include:
• Grammar checker that analyzes context to determine any errors or misspellings. For instance, Ginger can recognize whether “there,” “their” or “they’re” should be used in a sentence, which is a common mistake in writing.
• Word prediction and sentence rephrasing tools that can be helpful for students learning how to construct sentences properly.
• TTS functionality so students can hear what they’ve written.
• A personal trainer that provides practice sessions based on past mistakes made by the student.
Ginger is available for Windows and Macintosh systems, as well as for use on iOS and Android mobile devices.
Ghotit is specifically designed for students with dyslexia and other learning disorders who have difficulties with writing. The name is inspired by the word “Ghoti,” which is a constructed term that illustrates irregularities in the English language. And since many spellings are counterintuitive — especially for those with dyslexia — Ghotit dedicates itself to assisting children and adults who struggle with writing accurately.
It features the ability to learn from the user’s past mistakes, personalizing suggestions for spelling and grammatical errors. Ghotit can predict words, check passages of text contextually, read text aloud using TTS technology and recognize split and merged words. It also includes an integrated dictionary for students to quickly look up a word.
A range of technology and tools can help students that have trouble with math, most commonly found in a learning disability called dyscalculia. Dyscalculia makes it difficult to grasp numbers and it is characterized by a general lack of understanding in the field of math.
Assistive technology in math is not just for those with dyscalculia. It can also help students with blindness, fine motor skill disabilities or some other type of disability that makes it difficult to perform math-related work.
MathTalk is a speech recognition software program for math that can help students with a range of disabilities. From prealgebra to Ph.D. level mathematics, students can perform math problems by speaking into a microphone on their computer. The program works with Dragon NaturallySpeaking programs for voice-to-text functionality, making it ideal for students who have fine motor skill disabilities. Students with blindness or vision disabilities can use the integrated braille translator.
In addition to these audiences, MathTalk also appeals to students with dyscalculia. The program functions as an electronic math worksheet, allowing the child to organize, align and work through problems on the screen, making it helpful for students who have difficulties performing math problems on paper.
Math simulations can help students with dyscalculia visualize math problems and concepts. As a result, students can better understand the application of a particular type of problem, since many students struggle with the conceptual aspects of math.
Examples can be found at the NASA website. From video to animated simulations, teachers and students can visually see how a math concept or problem would work. And with some math simulations, students can work through the problem and then see the result play out in the simulation.
The Takeaway for Students, Parents and Teachers
Thanks to the rapid advances in assistive technology, students, parents and teachers have a seemingly limitless number of tools at their disposal.
As these tools start to appear in the home and in the classroom, parents and teachers can utilize them for students’ academic and personal growth. But technology alone is not enough – to successfully use these tools, it’s critical to develop a plan for their use and have regular check-ins to ensure the student is gaining the most value possible and not becoming overly reliant on these tools.
But while assistive tools have become plentiful, the same cannot be said for special education instructors. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of states in the 2014-15 school year reported a need for teachers in special education. And many general education classrooms instruct children with special needs.
Certification is a faster way for current teachers to qualify to teach this growing population. At Alvernia University Online, teachers can pursue a special education certification for grades PreK-8 or 7-12 to help make a difference for children with special needs. They will also improve their marketability in the process, gaining additional opportunities for their career.
Overall, more teachers are needed in this area. Although the advancement of technology in special education is promising, the same increase is needed for the number of special education instructors. Certification offers one solution to quickly meet this need. Learn more about Alvernia’s program today.