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Improving Communication and Coordination of Assistive Technology Services

Edwin R. Irwin, BS BME, Manager
Center for Excellence in Rehabilitation and Ergonomic Science
Mercer Engineering Research Center
135 Osigian Blvd.
Warner Robins, Ga. 31088
Tel: 478-953-6800 ext. 2426
Email: eirwin@merc.mercer.edu

Background:

The provision and support of assistive technology for students with disabilities presents significant challenges to the public school system. Much attention in the research and practice literature has been focused on barriers within the assessment, specification, and procurement phases of AT provision. However, there are just as many, or more, barriers to meeting the implementation, training, and maintenance/adjustment needs. Lahm (1989) listed the following barriers, among others:

* New and complex skills on the part of the teacher are required to use the newer equipment.
* Equipment does not work as expected.
* There is no financial support for teacher time and effort. A recent survey showed that 95% of the teachers using technology spend up to 10 hours each week beyond their regular responsibilities to learn to use the technology, but only 20% of them are paid extra for it.
* There is a lack of human resources to assist in the use of technology and in teaching with technology - few teachers have technical assistance available when it is needed.
* There is a limited supply of knowledgeable teacher trainers.
* Teachers are trained in content, not problem-solving skills.
* With so many things competing for a teacher's attention, (i.e. IEP process, behaviour management, classroom management, etc.) he or she may not have the time or desire to get involved in learning about technologies.
* Time allocation is stable and fixed-that is threatened by technology.
* It requires too much work to change teaching strategies to accommodate AT.

In addition to the school-based barriers to AT use by students, family issues, including lack of information and ethnic or socioeconomic background present further complications (McInerney, et. al. 1994). It is important for a student with a disability, who needs AT in the classroom, to have access to the same technology at home in order to extend and enhance the learning process in the same fashion as non-disabled students. Temkin (2000), in a survey of organizations that provide AT-related information and referral services, found that "poor families have particular problems getting technology information because they do not know where to go or what questions to ask, tend to lack basic information about technology, and have difficulty communicating their interests to school systems and service providers. Functionally illiterate parents cannot read brochures or booklets and thus are not effectively reached by outreach efforts that rely on printed or on-line materials." Other identified barriers include families' inexperience with and distrust of technology, travel limitations, and overwhelming pressures faced by families due to poverty and unemployment.

The Bibb County Program for Exceptional Children has invested a great deal of manpower and money into developing an AT support system within the public schools in the County. A multi-disciplinary AT team has been developed and refined over the past 9 years. However, the barriers identified above still exist. The AT team sees a great need for improved training, increased collaboration, more efficient and effective integration of families into the students' educational processes, and better classroom-level support of technology to help these students succeed.

Methodology:

A project, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, has been developed to attempt to address these needs. It has five major goals: 1. Establish a computer-based system that will provide video conferencing, asynchronous communications, and a means for tracking student objectives and required AT for students; 2. Improve implementation and maintenance of AT for individual students in the Orthopedically Impaired Program; 3. Improve training of, and collaboration among staff working with students in the Orthopedically Impaired Program; 4. Improve integration of families in the school teams serving students in the Orthopedically Impaired Program; and 5. Monitor the impact of the project and effect changes to promote continuous improvement.

We are using the Via Video personal computer conferencing systems to establish video conferencing between classrooms, consultants, and parents. These relatively inexpensive systems provide excellent resolution and depth-of-field imaging with up to 30 frames per second video transmission. The via video also provides complete data communications protocols, including application sharing, file transfer, whiteboard, and chat capability.

Student intervention and tracking has been accomplished through the development of a custom database and user interface program, called ICCATS. This program, developed at Mercer Engineering Research Center, integrates the Assistive Technology Consideration, Planning, and Implementation protocols developed by Kim Hartsell at the Georgia Project for Assistive Technology. It also integrates the complete set of data collection forms needed to allow the AT Team members to make recommendations and plans, and to track student's progress over time.

The conferencing system is being used to help promote collaborative support among staff. Training needs were identified through staff surveys, as well as specific expertise each member has. Training opportunities are developed to meet identified needs. Those staff who have expertise that match support needs of others are set up to provide such support on an as needed basis.

Parents of students in the OI program are individually contacted and interviewed by a parent peer supporter hired by Disability Connections, the local independent living center in Macon. The parents current perceived level of satisfaction with the OI program, their training needs, and their perceived needs for home support of their children are collected during the interview. We also collect a list of problems they have experienced with the OI program in order to develop a baseline of satisfaction. A parent support group, Parents are Vital in Education (PAVE) has been developed to provide a forum for parents to support each other and to receive training in areas in which they feel deficient. The parent peer supporter also identifies issues that the parent may not have expressed to Bibb County staff, and helps the parent advocate with the school. Mentoring dyads are being set up among the parents to better systematize the provision of support, and promote its continuation even after the end of the grant period.

Discussion:

The project is nearing the end of its first year. The video conferencing system has been set up in 7 special education and therapy classrooms across the county. The Orthopedic Impairment consultant and the Assistive Technology Coordinator for the county also have conferencing systems. In addition, conferencing systems have been set up at an independent living center for parent access and at Mercer Engineering Research Center. The systems work well, both for intra-LAN communications and for contacting the sites exterior to the Bibb County system. The only problem with this aspect of the project has been bandwidth limitations that sometimes interfere with the quality of service. The Bibb County wide area network is currently running at an average of 95% of capacity, with regular peaks of 105%. Extra bandwidth is being implemented, which will resolve this issue.

The ICCATS database has been fully implemented on the network. This is proving to be an excellent tool for planning and tracking the assistive technology and services that students need. We are currently tracking services for 8 of the children in the OI program, and are collecting data on the remainder. Quantitative data on intervention performance, compared to previous performance will be reported at the conference.

Problems in development and implementation of the system have impeded progress in implementing the staff collaboration component. This is in progress, and initial results will be ready for reporting at the conference in March.

PAVE meets on a monthly basis. Attendance currently averages 12 families. Mentoring parents have been identified, although they have not yet been matched with their collaborating partners. We have interviewed 60% of the families of students in the OI program. These interviews form the initial stage of a Delphi process. This is a participatory action research technique used to form consensus among experts. Early results indicate problems with the Individualized Education Planning process. Most parents feel they need more involvement in the process, together with training on how to work with the school system more effectively. There is a strong feeling that parents need better support for exerting their influence in the process. Parents have also identified a need for improved AT support in the home environment, and for increased mainstreaming of their children. This survey will be repeated at the end of the school year in order to identify progress in the problem areas.

This projected is supported by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs

Lahm E.; "Issues and Trends for Special Education Technology in the 21st Century: First Year Findings," In J. Presperin, Ed. Proceedings of the RESNA International '92 Conference, pp. 394-396. RESNA Press, 1992.

McInerney M., D. Osher, M. Kane; "Improving the Availability and Use of Technology for Children with Disabilities;" Chesapeake Institute of the American Institutes for Research; on-line resource at http://www.air.org/TECHIDEAS ; January, 1997.

Temkin, T.; "Families Needs for Technology Information: Results from a National Needs Assessment," in CSUN 2000 conference proceedings. On-line resource at http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf2000/proceedings/0065Temkin.html.


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