2000 Conference Proceedings

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Assistive Technology for Individuals with Learning Disabilities

(Adapted from Raskind & Higgins (1998) and Raskind (1998)

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D.
Director of Research

Trafford Center for Technology and Learning Disabilities

Tobey Shaw, M.A.
Coordinator, Trafford Center for Technology and Learning Disabilities
The Frostig Center
Pasadena, California

This workshop will present an overview of assistive technology for persons with learning disabilities through a series of lectures and demonstrations. Technologies will be discussed and demonstrated relative to their usefulness for helping persons with learning disabilities compensate for difficulties in the areas of reading, writing, math, memory, and organization. Research on the efficacy of these technologies will be reviewed. Guidelines for selecting technology will also be presented. The following is a summary of the areas to be covered within this workshop.

Defining Assistive Technology

According to the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, an "assistive technology device" is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities (p.102, Stat. 1046)." For purposes of this presentation, assistive technology will further be delineated as any technology that enables an individual with a learning disability to compensate for specific deficits. It is important to emphasize that assistive technology is not aimed at "curing," "fixing," or remediating learning disabilities; rather, it is used as a strategy to compensate for, or circumvent, areas of difficulty, generally, by "playing to" an individual's area of strength. Furthermore, assistive technology is not intended to teach or instruct (as is the case with computer-aided instruction), although it can be used to increase access to instruction.

Types of Assistive Technology

Assistive technologies for persons with learning disabilities include such items as (a) word processors, speech synthesis/screen review systems, spell checkers, word prediction programs, speech recognition systems, outlining software and semantic mapping programs for difficulties in writing, (b) optical character recognition (OCR)/speech synthesis systems, books on audiotape, and "books on disk" (combined with speech synthesis) for reading problems, (c) talking calculators and math processors for math difficulties, (d) electronic personal data managers, free form databases, and tape recorders for memory and organizational difficulties, and (e) personal FM listening systems and variable speech control tape recorders for listening problems.


Until recently, the benefits of assistive technologies were derived primarily from anecdotal reports. However, growing research is illustrating the effectiveness of helping individuals compensate for their difficulties through the use of assistive technology. Some of the earliest studies illustrated how word processing can help college students with learning disabilities with the writing process (Collins, 1990; Primus, 1990). Other research (Raskind & Higgins,1995) has shown that speech synthesis/screen review technology can enhance the proofreading efficiency of postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Results of the study indicated that the use of the technology enabled students to find significantly more errors in their written compositions as compared to having their writing read out loud to them by another person, or by reading their compositions without assistance. Research on the use of OCR/speech synthesis technology has shown to improve the reading comprehension of college students with severe reading disabilities, but interfere with the reading comprehension of others with milder reading problems (Higgins & Raskind, 1997). Similarly, research (Elkind, Black, & Murray, 1996) found that reading machines enhanced reading rates, comprehension, and attention to reading of college students with dyslexia. Research on speech recognition (Higgins & Raskind, 1995) indicated that the use of the technology by college students with learning disabilities resulted in higher holistic writing scores as compared to the use of a human transcriber or writing without assistance.

McNaughton, Hughes, and Clark (1993) investigated the spelling performance of college students with learning disabilities under five writing conditions (handwriting, handwriting with conventional dictionary, handwriting with handheld spell checker, word processing, word processing with integrated spell checker) and reported that word processors with integrated spell checkers outperformed the other conditions. In an ethnographic study of technology usage in the workplace by adults with learning disabilities, Raskind, Higgins, & Herman (1997) found that the use of assistive technology such as tape recorders, speech synthesis systems, speech recognition, telephone dialers, and word processors, were instrumental in achieving job satisfaction and success.

Although a majority of studies on the compensatory effectiveness of assistive technologies focused on adults with learning disabilities, it should also be noted that there have been a number of recent studies investigating the efficacy of assistive technology for children with learning disabilities.

These studies have investigated word processing (e.g., MacArthur, Graham, Schwartz, & Shafer, 1995), optical character recognition (e.g., Elkind, Cohen, & Murray, 1993), speech recognition (e.g., Raskind & Higgins, 1997; Wetzel, 1996), speech synthesis (e.g., Leong, 1995; MacArthur, in press [a]) word prediction (e.g., Lewis, 1996; MacArthur, in press [a]), spell checking (e.g., MacArthur, Graham, Haynes, & De La Paz, 1996; McNaughton, Hughes, & Ofiesh, 1997) and the integration of assistive technology into the homes of children with learning disabilities (Raskind, Higgins, Slaff, & Shaw, in press).

A Further Rationale for the Use of Assistive Technology

In addition to research that has illustrated the effectiveness of technology in compensating for specific areas of difficulty, assistive technology for persons with learning disabilities can also be endorsed for several other reasons. First of all, the persistence of learning disabilities provides an incentive for the provision of assistive technology, since there would be little need to promote the use of assistive technology for persons with learning disabilities if "sure-fire" instructional strategies existed for fully alleviating/remediating deficits.

Secondly, research has indicated that persons with learning disabilities tend to be overly reliant on others, and assistive technology can provide a means by which to accomplish many difficult tasks independently. Finally, assistive technology (especially portable technologies) enables persons with learning disabilities to compensate for difficulties in the multiple environments in which they function (e.g., school, home, work, social).

Selecting the Appropriate Assistive Technology

Selecting the most appropriate technology for individuals with leaning disabilities, requires a careful and systematic plan. It is important to stress that not all assistive technologies are appropriate for all individuals in all situations. People with learning disabilities have their own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, special abilities, interests, and experiences.

Therefore, a technology that may be appropriate for one person may be inappropriate for another. Similarly, a technology that that is helpful for one purpose in one particular setting, may be of little value in another situation or setting. Consequently, selecting the appropriate technology for an individual with a learning disability requires careful analysis of the interplay between

(a) the individual; (b) the specific task/functions to be performed; (c) the specific technology; and (d) the specific contexts of interaction (Raskind & Bryant, 1996). The figure below illustrates the dynamic interplay of these factors.


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