2002 Conference Proceedings

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BENEFITS OF ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY

Mary Sagstetter, M.A.Ed
AbleNet, Inc.
1081 Tenth Ave S.E.
Mpls, MN 55414-1312

Assistive technology provides creative solutions that enable individuals with disabilities to be more independent, productive, and included in society and community life. The benefits of assistive technology were first recognized by Congress in 1988 when it passed the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Public Law 100-407), as amended in 1994 (also known as the Tech Act). Congress reiterated its intent to enable students with disabilities to be included into society through technology by incorporating the Tech Act definition of assistive technology into the disabled students Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Today many people with disabilities are breaking barriers through the use of technology. For some individuals with disabilities, assistive technology is a necessary tool that enables them to engage in or perform many tasks. The availability of assistive technology devices and services enables some individuals with disabilities to:

* have greater control over their own lives;
* participate in and contribute more fully to activities in their home, school, work environments,
* and in their communities;
* interact to a greater extent with non-disabled individuals;
* otherwise benefit from opportunities that are taken for granted by individuals who do not have
* disabilities (Hosmer, 1995)

Communication, beyond all else, is the most critical component of education, as noted by Blenk and Fine in their 1995 book, Making School Inclusion Work. For children with no means of communication, the world is a difficult place. They cannot tell you how to meet their basic needs. Something as simple as wanting a drink of water is out of their reach. Finding a way to help these children communicate is very important but also very time consuming and expensive. Communication is the door to humanism and assistive technology is one of the keys to opening up a world for the significantly disabled population (Blenk and Fine, 1995). Sheets and Wirkus (1997) state, "When augmentative communication devices or strategies are placed in the classroom, not only do they provide vehicles for children who are minimally verbal, but they facilitate meaningful participation and communication for all students" (Sheets and Wirkus, 1997, p.8). They believe that by creating user-friendly environments the following benefits will occur:

* Increased self-motivation
* Increased independence
* Integrated and required participation
* Accountability
* Expanded learning and life experiences
* New opportunities for interactions and communication
* Changed vision of potential by adults, peers and child (Sheets and Wirkus, 1997)

Assistive technology is the key to making educational environments inclusive for individuals with significant disabilities. This type of technology is considered a powerful tool for inclusion. This statement is supported by Rocklage, Gillett, Peschong, and Delhorey (1995), who state "...technology in the area of assistive technology is critical and can facilitate the support and full participation of an individual in daily tasks and activities."(1995, p.3). The primary aim should be to allow children with disabilities access to assistive technology which meets their needs and provides for maximum participation in social and educational environments (Wilds, 1989, p.6). However, professionals need training in this area. As pointed out by Fischer, Pumpian and Sax (1995) who say, "Although many educators are utilizing a range of 'supplementary aids and services' necessary to educate students with disabilities with their non-disabled peers, many are not sufficiently familiar with assistive technology to use it effectively." They further report that many professionals have limited experience with the use of assistive technology. Those who attempt to acquire it for their students rarely consider applications of technology beyond computers, wheelchairs or commercially available communication devices (Fischer, Pumpian and Sax, 1995).

Blackhurst and Morse (1996) agree a lack of training exists as they point out that "Congressional research revealed that lack of knowledge about assistive technologies is a major barrier to their use by professional educators and related personnel who provide direct services to people who have developmental disabilities" (Blackhurst and Morse, 1996, p.131).

Technology and inclusion go hand in hand. Without technology supports and accommodations, many significantly disabled students cannot take full advantage of their education. Without the opportunities for interactions found in inclusive settings, students cannot truly demonstrate their abilities (Rocklage, Gillett, Peschong, and Delohery, 1995).

Assistive technology devices are only the beginning of a long road to independence, not the end (Fleisch, 1989, p.6). By combining a few simple tools and strategies, secondary-age students with significant disabilities can increase their meaningful participation across school, home, work, and community settings (Wise, 1997). According to Levin and Scherfenberg (1990), technology is the gift our generation can give to many children and adults with significant disabilities. Technology can increase access to new experiences, new activities and new environments, bridging the gap imposed by a disability.

Assistive technology devices are providing many opportunities for many individuals who have significant disabilities to actively participate in the daily experiences that a person without disabilities enjoys. Assistive technology offers them a chance for active participation. Persons with significant disabilities may share in other activities by controlling the power using assistive technology devices as other participants manipulate the materials (Levin and Scherfenberg, 1990). Using simple voice output communication system provides many advantages for a person with significant disabilities. Voice output is a natural form of communication and is easily understood both by the familiar and unfamiliar listener. As a result, persons with significant disabilities will have greater opportunities for meaningful participation and interaction in a wide variety of settings (Levin and Locke, 1999). The opportunity to order in a fast food restaurant, play a game or say "I love you, Mom" are a few examples of communication messages that provide opportunities depicting active participation in the same experiences that a non impaired person enjoys.

The benefits that assistive technologies have for individuals with significant disabilities are enormous. Not only the impact of being included in a regular classroom environment will be felt, but also being included in life is now a reality where in the past it was not even a remote dream. Life is all about communicating and interacting with one's environment. An inclusive environment promotes interactions of various kinds for all individuals. Students talk to each other, sharpen pencils, tell jokes, and write names on their papers to cite a few. Through the use of assistive technology devices, opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities can be enhanced. "Inclusive education and assistive technology go hand in hand." As pointed out by Rocklage, Gillet, Preschong, and Delohery (1995). In combination, they support each other for the benefit of the individuals with significant disabilities to become a purposeful member of a community and succeed to their fullest potential in life.

In this session, the author will present a case study sharing how assistive technology and inclusion practices were combined to provide an effective educational program. Participants will learn how assistive technology can enhance a child's inclusion and participation with peers in various classroom activities. The benefits and challenges of one student's story will be shared including the follow-up as to where she is and what she is doing today.

Blackhurst, E., and Morse, T. (1996). Using Anchored Instruction to Teach About Assistive Technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Volume 11, (3), 131.

Blenk, K., and Fine, D. (1995). Making School Inclusion Work. Massachusetts: Brookline Books.

Fischer, D., Pumpian, I., and Sax, Caren. (1995). Assistive Technology and Inclusion. [On Line] Available: http://www.asri.edu/CFSP/brochure.asstech:htm.

Fleisch, Julie. (1989). Assistive Technology: A Parent's Perspective. Nichy News Digest, Number 13, 1-11.

Hosmer, Janet. (1995). Directions: Technology in Special Education [On Line]. Available: www.dreams.org/feb95.htm.

Levin,J., and Scherfenberg,L. (1990). Breaking Barriers. (Revised Edition) Minneapolis: AbleNet.

Levin,J. and Locke,P. (1999). Making Connections: A Practical Guide for Bringing the World of Voice Output Communication to Students with Severe Disabilities. Minneapolis: AbleNet

Rocklage, L., Gillett, A., Peschong, L., and Delohery, B. (1995). Good Junk + Technology + Creativity = Positive Inclusion Experiences. Paper presented at Closing the Gap Conference. Minneapolis, MN.

Sheets, Lana and Wirkus, Mary. (1997). Everyone's Classroom: An environment designed to invite and facilitate active participation. Closing the Gap, Volume 16-Number 1, 1-9.

Wilds, M. (1989). Effective Use of Technology with Young Children. Nichy News Digest. Number 13, 6-7.

Wise, M. (1997). "Participating in High School and Beyond: AT Strategies for Learners with Significant Disabilities." Paper presented at Charting the C's, Brainerd, MN.


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