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Barry W. Birnbaum, Ed.D.
Northeastern Illinois University
In most cases, the words "assistive technology" cause fear and apprehension among school personnel because of the lack of understanding of how assistive technology can and should be used in the classroom. Teachers sometimes think that "huge machines" or "noisy devices" will invade their classroom space while school administrators fear the expense of purchasing technology for children with disabilities. While there is no replacement for these more advanced technologies that students require, many teachers are unaware that some common classroom tools, such as paper, chalk, cardboard, etc. come in handy to assist some students in completing simple tasks.
As the advent of inclusion continues to grow, the number of general education teachers who understand their responsibility of teaching those disabled students in their classes is limited. The need for accommodation in the general classroom is prevalent, however, adapting the environment for that purpose can be difficult for those educators who have never learned the benefits assistive technology plays for modifying the curriculum for these students. In order for inclusion to work, all individuals who are involved with the disabled child must be aware of how to modify, change, and accommodate the curriculum so that the student learns and retains skills needed for graduation and adult life.
There are times when a little creativity and ingenuity can be used in order to modify the curriculum for the child with a mild to moderate disability in cognition, vision, hearing, and/or communication. In some instances this modification does not have to involve a great deal of preparation, training, and implementation. Nor is it always necessary that sophisticated computer equipment be used. Understanding the components of commonly purchased software packages and using these components correctly can make a world of difference to a child who is mildly or moderately disabled.
A low level assistive technology is one that does not require a long time to create nor does it require sophisticated computer skill to operate. It does not always have to be motoric, nor does it have to only run in conjunction with a computer program. In fact, things that are available around the house, the classroom, and the community can be easily adapted for the student with minor disabilities in communication, vision, hearing, or cognition.
Teachers must be aware that items used every day are examples of simple assistive technologies. Modifications made in the home every day are usually done in order to make a task easier for a non-disabled individual. While curb cuts are built to accommodate wheel chairs, non-disabled individuals use them to make moving heavy items easier. They eliminate carrying and lifting and allow for easy mobility from one place to another. Many phones come with volume-controls so that the sound from the conversation can be adjusted for different circumstances. Teachers who use plastic grips on pens, for example, are unaware that this is a technology that helps them avoid writer's cramp, and can be used by a student who has poor motor control but can write. The grip provides the user a more secure hold to the pencil sometimes making writing easier and more legible.
The multitude of classroom materials available for adapting learning is vast. Color-coding materials such as textbooks, spelling words, parts of speech, etc. may help the cognitively delayed youngster to understand relationships, categories, and similarities. Doing this requires construction paper and/or colored pencils or markers. Organizing material alphabetically using this approach also becomes easier as does enlarging text size for those students who are visually impaired.
The previous examples are simplistic ones, however, every day, in some manner, classroom teachers use these common devices that make their lives easier without thinking that these items can be used as an assistive technology for a disabled student. Sometimes, a little bit of creativity can be useful in order to make learning easier for others. In many cases, the cost of implementing these devices is nothing, or at best minimal.
While many schools provide access to computers for the teachers and students, many commonly used software programs that are not based in educational pedagogy are rarely used to modify the curriculum. These popular programs, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software are easy to use but not always considered as teaching tools, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. The power of these packages is enormous and can be incorporated as an assistive technology for curriculum adaptation and accommodation.
A large number of software programs can be used to increase learning opportunities for individuals with disabilities. These programs require little knowledge of computer language and can be a motivational as well as a challenging way to teach material. Many of the tools built into these programs allow the teacher to create lessons that rely on various levels of modality input. Additionally, the packages can include animated graphics, imported sounds, and timing devices that allow the teacher to individualize instruction for the student in a manner that will increase the chances of retention.
For example, many individuals limit the use of Power Point to presentation and they neglect to realize the impact it has on teaching concepts, reviewing material, and assessing learning outcomes. The ability to import information, use animated graphics and sound, and adapt text size and style is readily at hand. The same holds true for other programs, such as Inspiration, that teach organization, chronology, and sequence.
An example of using Power Point for this purpose is given below:
Learning Modality: Visual
Objective: Understand a Concept
Adaptation: Enlarge Text and control entry of words in sequence Include recordings of words with volume control and sound reinforcement. Each slide can contain from one to ten words introduced in scheduled modules of time determined by the teacher or student
Another example involves the creation of tables by the teacher that contain information by category. The words, pictures, and graphics can be color-coded and spaces for student input can be provided, as well. Students can be taught simple cut and paste skills so that the information can be copied or replicated in another table that will be created by the student. In some instances, the incorporation of sound including the teacher's voice may be of benefit.
While this paper only provides a very limited resource of how low-level assistive technologies can be used in the classroom, it addresses several key points. Ensuring that service delivery for children with disabilities is of high quality, the knowledge base of teachers, particularly those in the general school environment, must be increased. Not only will the academic performance of the students increase, the awareness the teachers gain in terms of curricular delivery systems will be greatly enhanced.
This session will provide those in attendance with specific examples of how to provide all teachers with ideas for developing low-level assistive technologies from devices commonly found in the home and the classroom as well as how to use popular computer software programs to reinforce learning. Strategies for teaching concepts, mastery, and assessment will be given using alternate formats to paper and pencil. A list of websites appropriate for this purpose will also be disseminated.