There are more computers in public schools than ever before — approximately one for every 5.3 students — but students with disabilities are often unable to benefit from this technological access. Inadequate funding and training has led a lack of assistive technologies in classrooms and computer labs. They have become places where students with certain conditions are unable to make any meaningful progress. This inevitably leads to the further stigmatization and isolation of such students.
Every teacher should strive to highlight the differences among students in a positive way, but accessibility issues can still deprive students with a disability of a quality education, especially when it comes to technology. In the modern world, where technological skills are directly linked to employability, this is not an acceptable state of affairs.
If you want to help ensure that your own child is receiving the education that they deserve, make sure the school’s computer lab is equipped with these five essential assistive technologies:
Students with a disability can benefit from touch screens, which can be more intuitive to use than a traditional mouse. This is especially true for learners with fine motor skill issues or developmental challenges. Navigating menus, selecting desired elements, and otherwise engaging with class material is much easier through a touch screen.
They can even help many students engage with certain teaching strategies. Gamification, a process of enticing students to learn through game-like elements, often literally incorporates games during instruction. These activities are often much easier to use with a touch screen.
They have also proven to be particularly effective when combined with software designed for literary studies or to strengthen communication skills. Around the nation, learners with autism or Down syndrome have benefitted from the use of tablets equipped with apps designed for this purpose.
Traditional keyboards can pose a serious challenge to students with a disability. Here are two types of keyboards designed to improve accessibility to technology:
- One-Handed Keyboards: Students with limited or no use of one hand are at a disadvantage in most computer labs. Some accommodations like sticky keys can help these users access all the computer shortcuts that they need to, but there is no arguing that composition on a standard keyboard is an arduous task with one hand. However, some keyboards are designed to be used with a single hand, and they come in both right and left-handed variants.
- Large-Key Keyboards: Students who are learning proper typing technique frequently must look down to their keyboard between keystrokes. Visually impaired students usually struggle to do so accurately. Furthermore, most keyboards can be difficult to use for children with poor fine motor skills. Large-key keyboards resolve both of these problems. These keyboards may sometimes lack traditional function keys, but they are typically well suited for K-12 computer labs.
Screen Magnifying Hardware/Software
Students greatly benefit from being able to zoom in on their screens. Students with Visually impairment (VI) may need to zoom in to make text more legible. Learners with autism may benefit from zooming in to what they must focus on, since it eliminates the “background noise” of other elements on the computer screen. If your school’s operating system does not have an easy-to-access magnification system built-in, it should have screen magnifying hardware or software.
Both of these solutions are affordable for school districts. A simple screen magnification filter costs less than $100, and some software solutions — programs that allow users to create shortcuts to access a “zoom in” function — are even free.
Speech Recognition and Output Software
In order for students with VI to make meaningful progress in the computer lab, they need a way to interpret and engage with information. Speech recognition and output software is the key. As noted by Slate, this software has seen some remarkable advancements in the last few years. Today, learners can access programs, listen to dictated text, and even compose essays by simply listening and speaking.
This technology, like some of the previous examples in this list, can also benefit children with motor skill issues or developmental disabilities, who may find this mode of interacting with computers to be more intuitive.
EMG Switches & Eye-Tracking Software
Students who lack the ability to use their limbs require assistive technology to make progress in the computer lab. However, there is a method of input that doesn’t require the use of your arms: an EMG switch. When placed on any muscle, an EMG switch will register muscle movements as a “click.” When paired with eye-tracking software (much of which is open source and only requires a compatible camera for use), learners can simulate the control of a mouse. Furthermore, virtual keyboard software can allow these students to write.
There are clear accessibility issues in many K-12 computer labs across the nation. As noted by Dr. Carl Hermanns of ASU, “We need to understand and address … inequities so that every child, in every classroom, every day is being provided excellent and equitable educational opportunities to find success.” These technologies can help level the playing field for students with special needs. Giving every student the capacity to learn and explore the technological world is a necessary step to future success. Public schools have a responsibility to help achieve that goal.
Have you had any experience using any of the technologies listed above? Can you think of any other assistive technologies that can help exceptional learners? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
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