Technology helps level playing field for special ed students

It turns out special education isn’t just for special education students.

And, it seems there’s an app for almost everything and everyone.

When Kim Janssen talks about how Attleboro schools use technology to teach students with disabilities, for example, she refers to something called “universal design.”

Janssen, the assistive technology coordinator for Attleboro schools, said universal design is a concept that recognizes the wide range of human ability, taking into account physical, perceptual and cognitive disabilities, as well as body types.

She said designers use it to create products and methods that are beneficial for everyone.

Consider curb cuts on city streets.

“Curb cuts were designed so people in wheelchairs could get on to the sidewalk, but parents pushing their children in strollers use them, too,” she said. “It’s an example of how universal design makes everyone’s lives easier.”

In an education setting, Janssen said, she and other educators try to integrate universal design into the schools’ assistive technology program to help all students learn – not just the district’s almost 1,000 special education students.

Janssen said some students are allowed to choose their own tools they think will help the most. She separates the options into “no-tech,” “low-tech,” and “high-tech” categories.

“Highlighters and magnifiers are an example of ‘no-tech’ tools that help students with vision problems,” Janssen said. “They help students clear away the clutter and focus on one section.”

She said audio books are an example of low-tech tools, adding that printed school books are also available in audio format for students who have difficulty with reading comprehension.

Another low-tech tool students use is a program that types what students say into a computer microphone.

Or, low-tech tools can be as simple as changing the font, or the contrast of text displayed on a computer screen to make it easier for some special needs students to understand the content, Janssen said. For students unable to speak, Janssen said Attleboro offers some high-tech options, such as TouchCat, an iPad and iPhone app that allows students to communicate using pictorial graphics.

Proloquo2Go is a similar app that uses symbols with words to help non-vocal students express their needs and learn vocabulary.

Janssen said the apps allow students “to have full-fledged AAC,” or “augmentative and alternative communication,” and help with communication skills and language development.

Linda McSweeney, Attleboro’s special education director, said classrooms are evolving.

“Teachers are becoming more involved, more in tune with how devices can be a big help to special-ed students,” she said. “And, as a result, we’ve become more liberal with our policy regarding devices.”

“Smartphones, for example, are powerful learning devices. They level the playing field for students with disabilities,” McSweeney said.

She said the district is looking into a “bring your own device” policy, a shift from traditional classroom learning. The idea mirrors Janssen’s universal design model, allowing both traditional and non-traditional learners in Attleboro to use apps to facilitate their education.

“This is an area we’ve seen rapidly grow,” McSweeney said. “It’s exciting to see that spark that students are able to enjoy learning in a different way, which strengthens their academic growth.”

In Norton, 9-year-old Evan Diercksen uses an iPad to practice counting by fives, telling time and writing short words with his fingers on the screen.

In some apps, when he completes the task at hand – successfully matching the clock to the time or matching pictures with words to string together a short sentence – a congratulatory noise rings out and Evan knows he’s done his job.

Besides giving Evan immediate reinforcement – the modern equivalent of getting a sticker on a job well done – many of the apps track his progress, so his teachers can see how he’s improving and where he might still be having some trouble.

Michele Fruci, an educational assistant and Evan’s one-on-one support, said the iPad helps Evan grasp a variety of concepts. Practicing writing on the screen helps with his fine motor skills and Fruci is able to use the iPad to break down content and add visuals to help him better understand different concepts.

Providing examples for Evan to see, such as placing pictures of covers of non-fiction books along with the characteristics of that genre, help him connect, Fruci said, and the iPad helps to enable that.

“He’s able to look at it more concretely,” she said. “He’s still with the rest of the class, but he’s getting it presented in a way he can understand it.”

Fruci said when they appear to hit a roadblock – whenever Diercksen, who enters the fourth grade next fall, is struggling to learn a new concept, such as counting by fives – she searches online to see if there are any apps, videos or other tools that can help.

She screens and previews the things she comes across to ensure they’re appropriate and helpful and the things he likes.

Counting by fives was tough for Evan to grasp, but when he heard a song about it, he quickly connected with the concept and picked it up. Now, he reviews it and then goes on to complete whatever math activity he’s assigned.

“It makes me happy,” Evan said of using the iPad.

Evan is one of many students in Norton with different learning needs at different school levels, said Jeanne Sullivan, director of pupil personnel.

Chromebooks and iPads are used by many, while Smartboards are helpful because they allow students to physically make connections and touch and manipulate things on the board into a way that makes sense for them, she said.

Some students use speech to text apps to help them communicate with teachers, and for some students, a short amount of free educational time on the iPad is used as a motivator to encourage focus on the task at hand.

Using iPads and Chromebooks are great, Sullivan said, because they’re light and can be carried with a student in and out of classrooms and can go with the student to different services they receive and specialists they see.

Sullivan said there are many students whose individual learning plans outline technology as a learning tool, and said they do an assistive technology evaluation to help determine what will work best for each student, especially since technology is a financial investment.

“I want to make sure it’s going to work for them,” she said.

Sullivan said teachers are good about accommodating students using technology in their classrooms, saying teachers want to see their students succeed and are supportive of them using different tools to do so.

“It’s so different from how we learned,” Sullivan said. “You can reach many more kids.”

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