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Assistive Technology Helps All Kids Learn

When 11th grader Tom returns to school this fall, he'll join his classmates in laughing about summer stories and commiserating over the impending workload of Advanced Placement math. This camaraderie is particularly noteworthy, since Tom is blind and his classmates are sighted.

Eighth grader Sharon can't wait for school to begin, because fall means the start of cheerleading. Being deaf hasn't stopped Sharon from becoming assistant captain of her middle school's cheerleading squad.

How does a blind student use a calculator? How does a deaf student catch the beat and stay in sync? Talking calculators and highly specialized hearing devices are two of the many new types of assistive technology that are now helping make school life full and rewarding for all students.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than six million school-aged children (3-17) currently receive special education services. The National Education Association reports that, as of 2004, nearly every general education classroom across the country includes students with physical and/or learning disabilities. Because of exciting new technologies, many of those students now are able to work right beside their classmates.


Assistive technology is defined as any item, piece of equipment, or system of products that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Adaptive technology aids users by adapting content or user responses into a medium appropriate for the user. For example, screen readers "adapt" conventional text by converting it into content spoken by a synthetic voice, thereby making standard text accessible to blind students. Assistive and adaptive technology tools enables all students to become active participants in the general classroom environment. New technology innovations include:

  • Speech Recognition ("Voice Recognition") Systems allow students to control their computer by simply speaking.
  • Personal Reading Machines scan a printed page and instantaneously read the page out loud.
  • Talking Calculators recite numbers, symbols or functions as keys are pressed. They also can read back answers to completed problems.
  • Video Description: Just as captioning provides additional text for the hearing impaired, an additional narrative track describing the on-screen action in videos enable blind and low-vision students to participate.

These newer technologies are joined by other long-standing and effective tools:

  • Large Print/Screen Magnification Hardware and Software function like magnifying glasses, automatically moving over a page. That allows visually impaired students to more easily read textbooks, magazines, maps, charts or fine print.
  • Assistive Listening Devices transmit and amplify sounds to hearing impaired students. Students who experience difficulty processing auditory information might also benefit from using those devices.
  • Captioning displays text transcription of auditory information on a screen (such as a television screen or LCD). Captioning allows hearing-impaired viewers to follow spoken dialogue or narration by reading text.

According to the most recent data, 55 to 64 percent of schools nationwide that had students with disabilities provided assistive or adaptive hardware, and 39 to 56 percent provided assistive or adaptive software.

About one-third of public schools reported that there were too few computers with alternative input/output devices for students with disabilities, and insufficient evaluation and support services to meet the special technology needs of students with disabilities.


Laptops, wireless Internet systems, CD-ROMs, and e-books are making today's classroom more inclusive than ever. Using those tools, students with disabilities can access books and electronic media right from their desks. As of 2003, 32 percent of schools with Internet access used wireless networks. In a national survey of teachers by NCES, more than half of those surveyed said that encyclopedias and reference books on CD-ROM were essential for their classrooms to function.


The classroom of 2005 finds both general and special education students taking tests using computers instead of the traditional paper method. Many accessibility features can be built into computer-based testing; for example, optional visual and/or audible cues are now available in exam software. Those features greatly increase the legitimacy of test results for students with disabilities, and "progress monitoring" software can track specific students' progress in many areas. Each child receives a personal assessment, and thus the teacher is able to provide extra help as needed. The software also is helpful for accountability purposes, and allows parents to see exactly how their child is progressing in school.

Special education students are not the only children to benefit from computer-based testing. For example, a middle school student who broke his arm was permitted to take tests on a computer in the classroom. Because the technology was available to him, he avoided missing assignments and kept up with the rest of the class even though he was unable to write.


Washington fully recognizes the significance of these 21st century educational tools and their importance to both the general student population and to specialized learners. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education allotted more than $11 billion in grant funds for the development of technology-based programs. Where is the money? Ed-tech Online is a comprehensive Web-based directory of Department of Education grants that are geared towards increasing the technological capacity of public schools.


As well as changing the face of K-12 education, technology also is changing postsecondary school and our workforce. Technology is aiding young students in learning about traditional subject matter, but learning the technology itself is important too. Computers are a staple in college dorms and libraries and represent a fundamental 21st century job skill. Today's students will be ready for the world they are growing up in, thanks in part to education technology.

Article courtesy of Bridge Multimedia.

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