Teachers are often tasked with the challenging job of working in classrooms with large class sizes and difficult compositions. Teachers are masters at catering their lessons to their students. You may wonder, what do you do when there is such a large range of needs amongst students in one classroom? Assistive technology can be a way to aid in leveling the playing field for our students who have diverse learning needs.
Assistive technology (AT) is defined as any product, piece of equipment or system that enhances learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities. AT can be high-tech and expensive, such as reading software like Kurzweil or Dragon Naturally Speaking, or it can be low-tech and budget friendly such as pencil grips for students who have dysgraphia.
Some teachers shy away from the use of assistive technology because they believe that it requires additional specialized staff training, it’s expensive, it’s difficult to integrate into their lesson plans or they are concerned about technical difficulties. Hopefully this article will highlight how this is untrue.
Who Benefits from Assistive Technology?
In classrooms, AT will likely be implemented to support the following students:
1. Students with dyscalculia (deficit in understanding and learning numbers and math).
2. Students with dysgraphia (deficit with handwriting and fine motor skills).
3. Students with dyslexia (deficit with reading and language processing skills).
4. Students with nonverbal learning disabilities (deficits related to interpreting facial expression or body language).
5. Students with Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit (deficits in reading comprehension or spoken language).
6. Students with dyspraxia (a deficit in muscle control).
Students who have ADHD, executive functioning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and students with physical disabilities may also benefit from AT.
Although AT is often created and implemented to support people who have disabilities, AT is beneficial to all people. Have you ever used the “Hey Siri” function on your iPhone, or Alexa on Amazon Prime? This is an example of assistive technology that has evolved to be accessible to anyone and be beneficial to everyone. This is an example of universal design. Although dictation and smart readers were designed for people who have learning disabilities, it has evolved to benefit everyone. As such, implementing AT in classrooms benefits all students.
How can you implement AT in your classroom?
Creating an inclusive classroom should be ethos of all educators. It starts with how we set up our classrooms. Is the atmosphere calming by reducing the overhead lighting? Do you implement a visual schedule to reduce anxiety with students? Do you incorporate flexible seating, or use chair elastic bands or seat cushions? These are all relatively low cost and easily integrated in your classroom.
For students who struggle with dyscalculia, have you considered utilizing hands-on math manipulatives like counting tools, or allowing students to use calculators? Is it important to force all students to fit into a box and have memorized math fluency facts? I encourage you to ask yourself, how often do you use the calculator on your phone? What was the last math problem that you did using a calculator? As technology evolves and becomes more accessible, is it still important memorize facts when we can find information at our fingertips? Would it be equally as beneficial for students to understand how to calculate those facts or find correct information, rather than then simply having the answer memorized?
As previously mentioned in this article, students with dysgraphia can utilize pencil grips but they can also use speech-to-text software. Dragon Naturally Speaking costs approximately $625 however, a lower cost alternative could be Google Read & Write. The free version provides text to speech and some dual highlighting.
Google Read & Write can also be a low-cost alternative for students who have Dyslexia, or other oral/written language disorders and students who have difficulty with reading comprehension. The premium version of Google Read & Write costs $99 a year, which includes reading documents and PDFs. I encourage you to investigate whether your educational institution has educational licenses with google and if your school already has access to Google Read&Write. As an aside, Google Read&Write is relatively user friendly and requires very little if any specialized training.
Students who have nonverbal learning disabilities will likely work with an occupational therapist and speech pathologist to implement a communication device. Again, AT for students with nonverbal learning disabilities can be high or low tech. A low-tech option for students with nonverbal learning disabilities could be the use of Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). These PECS could be laminated and used in conjunction with a first-then board with Velcro could be used in conjunction with a first-then board, or with an iPad app such as PECS IV+.
I would highly suggest utilizing Widgit Software in your classroom. Widgit allows you to create labels with PECS and worksheets with PECS embedded in them. Utilizing an app like Widgit to diversify student work can help both students with dyslexia and students who have nonverbal learning disabilities complete work when they otherwise would have not been able to.
Universal Design and Assistive Technology
Universal design (UD) is defined as the process of creating products and environments that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics. An example of UD is large curb cuts which we can see at most crosswalks. Curb cuts were initially designed for persons who use wheelchairs, but they are also beneficial to bikers, skateboarders, people wearing rollerblades, someone walking with a stroller, or someone with a cart, the list goes on and on.
If we approach AT with the same open mindedness as we do curb cuts, we know that the implementation of AT will benefit all students in our classroom. Visual schedules using PECS, access to manipulatives, text to speech, speech to text, flexible seating, and an overall inclusive classroom environment benefits all students. When lesson planning, consider allowing students the option to express their knowledge in multiple ways. Does a test always have to be completed with a pen and paper? Or could you give a student an oral test? Consider allowing students to engage in project-based learning to allow students to express their knowledge in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t be successful with. Finally, although most AT doesn’t require any specialist training, the training is worth it for the benefit of all students, and ultimately our society.
Advocating for AT in your Classroom
As illustrated throughout this article, AT can be low or high cost. When advocating for Assistive Technology in classrooms in a world where education is drastically underfunded and understaffed, it should be advocated for. AT reduces barriers for students and makes education more equitable. Assistive technology should not be seen as a special privilege or a way for some students to get ahead. Assistive technology is a way to ensure that education is more equitable, as opposed to equal.
If you are working in a school environment where budget is tight and only students who require AT have access, it should be clarified to students that equitable education is ensuring that every student gets what they need to be successful as opposed to everyone get