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Assistive Technology Benefits All Students:
An Interview with Assistive Technology Developer Steve Timmer

Technology tools that contribute to the academic success of those with physical disabilities or learning differences might help more students than we've traditionally assumed. In this informative Education World interview, Steve Timmer, founder of Premier Assistive Technology, explains how assistive technology tools can help all students succeed. INCLUDED: Information about a grant program open to all K-12 schools.

Assistive technology -- software or hardware designed to benefit users with physical disabilities or learning differences -- is rapidly becoming common in regular classrooms. Teachers wear microphones to amplify speech for students with hearing disabilities. Students with learning or processing difficulties take their tests on computers on which both the questions and their responses are read aloud. Such tools certainly help students with challenges succeed, yet assistive technology isn't just for those with identified disabilities. Education World recently spoke with Steve Timmer, founder of Premier Assistive Technology, a company that develops affordably assistive technology tools, about the universal benefit of such tools.

Grant Information

Premier Assistive Technology offers a grant that provides schools with an unlimited site license for an entire suite of Premier products for one full year. Grants are awarded on a "first come, first served" basis, and the application takes about 5 minutes to complete. Go to Breaking Down Barriers to Assistive Technology for more information and a grant application.

Education World: Mr. Timmer, can you tell us how your own life experience led to your interest in assistive technology and the founding of Premier Assistive Technology?

Steven Timmer: I was a nuclear engineer when I began to lose my eyesight to Macular Degeneration. I was dismayed by the lack of cost-effective options for assistive technology, so I started to develop them myself. That led to the creation of Premier Assistive Technology in 1999. Later, I discovered that my son is learning disabled; that led to the development of many more assistive technology tools that are now among the products Premier sells.

EW: What, in your opinion, is assistive technology?

S.T.: The body of knowledge surrounding assistive technology has progressed in leaps and bounds during the last 4-5 years. Historically, assistive tools and technologies were targeted to individuals with "clinically obvious" needs related to visual, auditory, or other physical challenges. I believe, however, that assistive technology is any tool that can make someone's life easier.

EW: What role does assistive technology play in the regular classroom?

S.T.: Let's look at 5th grade and above. By the time a student is in 5th grade, reading should be a building block for more learning, regardless of the subject matter. Those who cannot keep up with reading start to fall further and further behind. That's a particular problem if the student who is struggling is not prescribed as eligible for "special assistance." That is where assistive technology becomes critical; it is designed to help struggling students meet academic requirements.

EW: Who benefits from this type of software? Are there students who could benefit that teachers might not think of?

S.T.: A number of nationwide studies indicate 15-20 percent of the general population is in need of some type of "cognitive task assistance." Only in recent years, has momentum been growing for the widespread understanding of various categories and classifications of learning disabilities -- attention deficit/hyperactivity, dyslexia, and so on. Even with those broader classifications, we still are aware of a large population of "at risk" students -- those who clearly have challenges, but because they don't fit easily into a diagnostic profile, are left without any assistance whatsoever. Conceptually, even the "poor reader" or the individual learning English as a second language can be considered part of that expanding universe of individuals with special needs.

We have found that when assistive technology is offered to everyone, unanticipated benefits ensue. Most obviously, the assistive technology helps those who are really struggling. It might enable a failing student to achieve a passing grade. It might take a student from a D to a C. We have seen it give a C student that little bit of help needed to get a B; in one case it took a failing student to an A.

EW: Can you tell us about some of the assistive technology tools that might be useful in a regular classroom?

S.T.: Premier Assistive Technology offers several products that are useful in the regular classroom.

  • Universal Reader. This is our easiest program to use: Just highlight what you want to read, click the READ button, and the software reads it to you.
  • Talking Dictionary. Highlight a word in any program, press a hot key, and Talking Dictionary looks it up and reads the definition aloud. This software will help find a word even if you misspell it. It also is the only dictionary on the market that will help find words you don't know how to spell. It has an integrated thesaurus and search capabilities that let you look up words when you know only part of the spelling.
  • Talking Word Processor. With both a built-in talking spell check and talking word prediction, this program can repeat words and letters while you type, as well as read entire documents (with visual on-screen tracking). The program also can create and edit standard Microsoft Word documents.
  • Text to Audio. This software turns digital documents (such as e-text books) into audio files. Use it to make your own audio books on CD or MP3.
  • PDF Magic. Many times, teachers find that a PDF file they want to use is inaccessible. PDF Magic can convert PDF files to MS Word files or to any of 11 different formats.
  • Scan and Read. Place a book on a scanner and this program captures hard copy text in digital format and reads it aloud.
EW: Can you share a few student success stories?

S.T.: One student I had hated Harry Potter -- absolutely hated it. I gave him a copy of Scan and Read. His mother called a few days latter to say that her son had stayed up all night reading Harry Potter. The success was not that he had read Harry Potter, but that he now knows he CAN read Harry Potter if he wants to.

One mother who was a school dropout -- she is severely reading challenged -- found herself alone with two children, unable to find meaningful work. She went back to school and started using both Scan and Read and the Talking Word Processor. Later, she sent me her report card. She had gotten a 98 percent on her final exam. Now, she can do it. I got a follow-up letter a year later. Her oldest daughter -- who once struggled just like her mom -- is now passing school as well.

Our tools are about giving people the ability to succeed, and to be self-reliant and independent.

My own son (faced with learning disabilities) made the school honor roll last year. His academic achievement wasn't what I was most excited about, though. It was that I saw genuine confidence in an individual who had had none before. He can make it now because he believes he can. That feeling of confidence is something that cannot be taught; it has to be discovered and experienced first hand. By providing assistive technology tools to every student, educators are likely to find hidden benefits for those kids who just need a little extra help.

EW: What technical specifications must be met to use Premier Assistive Technology software in a typical classroom?

S.T.: Hardware specifications are very straightforward. No special equipment is required. All software runs on PC's (not Macs). A minimum of 64 Meg of RAM and 20-60 Meg of disk space are necessary for various applications. A 300MHz processor is sufficient. For applications that employ scanning/OCR, general purpose scanners (TWAIN compliant and USB compatible) costing less than $75.00 suffice.

EW: What advice would you give a teacher who is interested in using technology to enhance learning for all students?

S.T.: All teachers should be pushing to use assistive technologies as tools for the education of all students, not just students with special needs. Everyone stands to benefit when assistive technologies are used; when used effectively, such programs can level the education playing field for all students. Just because a student is getting Bs doesn't mean he or she doesn't need help; even students who are doing well, with a little extra help might do better.


Article by Lorrie Jackson
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 02/26/2009