Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Assistive Technology Broadens Its Range" #edchat #spedchat #assistivetech

Source:  Ramin Rahimian for Education Week

An article published yesterday by Education Week discusses how assistive technology has become more mainstream than it use to be. The author uses the vibration option on mobile phones as well as Google's voice-activated searching as examples of how society as a whole benefits from assistive technology. 

Such features are the result of developers striving to design and refine tools so that they are accessible ALL - typical users as well as individuals with a wide range of disabilities.  The reason why developers began to consider the needs of ALL users - with regards to access and ability - is something that is familiar to us, the emergence of universal design for learning.  A number of assistive technology tools address both cognitive disabilities as well as physical limitations.  There is an increasing use of such tools by students with disabilities to access digital curriculum resources and participate in online, or virtual courses. 
...Experts recommend looking for ways that a single platform might accomodate the learning differences of a number of students with disabilities - but without losing sight of each individual's needs, and without assuming that two students with the same diagnosis will benefit equally from a single technology or tool.
The article continues with discussion of how professionals best connect, or match, students with the appropriate technology or tools.  Dan Leibowitz, a learning specialist in San Francisco, shares two questions he asks when considering an assistive technology tool, "Does it help students access information? And does it help students demonstrate their knowledge?"

What I took away as one of the key messages in this article was
While universal design is making assistive technologies useful to an ever-wider cross section of students with learning disabilities, individuals’ needs are paramount.
What does this mean for educators?  I think Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, former deputy director of the National Center for Technology Innovation, or NCTI, explained it well.
The mainstreaming movement means regular teachers are learning more about assistive technologies and applying the same technologies for their whole classrooms
This statement is interesting, as assistive technology has generally been perceived in the field of education to be related to special education and not a concern of general education teachers.  This is a significant and must needed change in terms of how the term "assistive technology" is perceived.

Unfortunately, not all are happy with the broadened range of assistive technology. The disability community worries this emerging trend could mean students with multiple or severe disabilities won’t get the tools they really need.

The author responds to this concern with what I thought was another key point:
Acquiring assistive technology tools is a multistep process that involves testing, and further study and coordination with a district assistive technology specialist. Many technology providers offer trial tests of their products, and educators can test-drive the various assistive technologies on display at education conferences.
Just because some assistive technology features and tools are becoming more mainstreamed does not mean the disability community and special education professionals should do away with the established best practices in considering and determining the most appropriate assistive technology solutions for students with multiple or severe disabilities.

This article also provides universal advice for schools with regards to selection of assistive technology tools:
  • Do not overlook technologies or tools that are already available.
  • School computers are likely to have some basic assistive technology tools built in at the platform level.
  • Explore the accessibility features of software your school or district currently has installed on school computers, such as Microsoft Office.
  • Consider comprehensive software packages that have many features
  • Look software\tools that are easy to install and learn—for teachers and students alike.
  • Products offering free or relatively inexpensive upgrades
  • Finally, and perhaps most important, rely on research by education-technology groups like the Tech Matrix by NCTI.

-  Jeremy

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