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Cindi Dudley, OTR/L, ATS
North Kitsap School District
Poulsbo WA 98370
360-297-3631 ext 470
Learning Disabilities are invisible disabilities. They can be very handicapping for the individual attempting to function in today's society, yet the individual does not appear different superficially. Only when a person attempts to complete common tasks may the disability become apparent. Assistive devices and strategies can significantly minimize a disability. Ideally, the device or strategy is so commonplace that the casual observer may not even recognize its significance. How many times do we reach for our planners or PDA's, jot a sticky note or set an alarm for a reminder. To the individual with a learning disability these common activities may be much more than a convenience, they may be essential to the ability to function. The technology has become an adaptation to a limitation in ability; it maximizes upon a strength that the individual possesses. Most people are able to function without these devices, but find their assistance extremely helpful. Individuals with disabilities are able to function because the device compensates for an ability that they do not possess or in which they severely struggle.
The question in education has become one of access to the curriculum for students with Learning Disabilities. Instructional issues are frequently at the heart of these issues, with the technology needed as an instructional tool. Concurrently, educational systems are under pressure to adapt instructional strategies to reflect our multicultural society and individual learning styles. Diversified instructional strategies can provide a first step toward universal access to education. Lessons need to be experienced through a variety of senses in order to allow all learners the opportunity to process the information in accordance with their individual needs. Technology can provide additional tools to facilitate this process.
So when does educational technology become assistive technology? When is the technology something that every teacher would like to have available to support learning, or something that is critical to a particular student's ability to access his education? These questions become critical in nature when an individual student becomes the focus of the question and an advocate is promoting costly, high tech, interventions as a necessity. The law states that the school district must provide the Assistive Technology necessary for the disabled student to access a free and appropriate public education. The student's Individual Education Plan team is to determine what Assistive Technology may be appropriate. This places an enormous burden upon the team to have a comprehensive understanding of the student's strengths, as well as his or her weaknesses and possible adaptations that may minimize them. Is the technology an instructional tool that should be provided to facilitate the learning of all students and therefore paid for by the general technology allocation? Or is the technology truly an adaptive device that is needed by that individual student in order to access their education and therefore paid for by Assistive Technology funds?
Assistive Technology is technology designed to help individual students access the mainstream curriculum. The curriculum itself does not change to meet the individual needs of the student. The individual uses tools designed to overcome aspects of their disability that are limiting their ability to learn.
The burden of adaptation is on the individual learner. There is another frame of reference that places the burden of adaptation on the curriculum and leaves Assistive Technology to address the truly individual needs. This frame of reference is termed Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and was recently outlined in the Journal of Special Education Technology (Rose 2000). The analogy of learning barriers being the same as physical barriers, such as stairs into a building, is created. Both block accesses yet can be redesigned to be more useful to everyone. Like stairs, reading educational materials can pose an insurmountable barrier to some. By providing materials in alternative formats we can open the doors to learning. This will allow for a curriculum that provides options for all and leaves Assistive Technology to address the truly unique needs of the individual.
But who will pay the cost of replacing or supplementing materials in our schools if we are to adapt the mainstream curriculum? To continue on with the stairs analogy, retrofitting old buildings is very costly but applying the principles of Universal Design in new buildings is very cost effective. Administrators need to think beyond the confines of the printed page when adopting new curriculum materials for use in today's classrooms. When students are succeeding there are likely to be fewer questions about whether or not they are receiving a free and appropriate public education. Adaptation of the existing curriculum and consideration of technology applications that will benefit diverse student needs is another way we can move towards Universal Design for Learning. If we consider the big picture, the needs of the students and the high cost of being reactive to litigation, the result is very cost effective.
So how is the student's Individual Education Plan team to determine what technology is assistive for a student and when the technology is remedial, instructive, or just more convenient? As stated by Amy Eckman "Although basic skills like reading and writing can't be ignored, educators must achieve a balance between using remedial methods that address weaknesses and compensating for those weaknesses by developing a student's strengths." (Eckman 2000) Educators need to consider a child's age, how important a skill will be in the future, and the amount of time required to develop the skill based on the level of disability. Emphasis needs to be on multisensory exploration with effort applied to maximizing the student's strengths and mitigating their weaknesses (Eckman 2000). Raskind and Higgins (1998) specify that Assistive Technology is not remedial, but is used to compensate, circumvent or bypass a specific disability. Assistive Technology may be effective to compensate for a disability with one student and counterproductive for another. They feel that it is unclear if Assistive Technology leads to improved academic outcomes, but do find the tools effective for specific tasks such as writing papers. Low or no tech compensations may be more effective interventions; high tech solutions may not be cost or time effective.
The Individual Education Plan team must formulate a plan. Bryant, Bryant, and Raskind (1998) outline one technology team approach to assessing the use of Assistive Technology during cooperative learning activities for students with Learning Disabilities. Many others are addressing the same issue for all disabled students. The team formulates a Technology Integration Plan which incorporates consideration of the specific classroom setting demands, the individual's characteristics (capabilities and limitations), the needs related to participation, and then the evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention. In this approach, the technology is being used to circumvent specific aspects of a single individual's disability. The technology is then an adaptation that improves the functioning of that individual. This is in accordance with the definition of Assistive Technology as specified by the Tech Act, and must be documented on the Individual Education Plan.
This same device could also be a tool in the classroom that is available for use by all; the technology would then be considered Educational Technology. Technology recognized as appropriate for the use of students with learning disabilities needs to be made available in the resource rooms that support these students for use at the teacher's discretion wherever needed. Staff and students need to receive instruction and ongoing consultation in potential uses of the technology to support classroom activities. Funding for this technology needs to be provided by the technology allocation specified to support these students in their classrooms. The Assistive Technology Department should continue to provide technology that is truly unique to specific individual needs as Assistive Technology.
Movement towards the philosophy of Universal Design for Learning is important for the benefit of all of our students and the efficient use of our resources. The principles are clearly in alliance with the federal mandate to provide resources that allow students to participate in the general curriculum. The philosophy additionally allows for the generation of learning goals that can be customized to align with individual learning styles and differences that are in accordance with the principles of multi-cultural education and the theory of multiple intelligences. Comprehensive Assistive Technology assessment should be focused on resolving the truly complex issues that individuals with multiple or severe disabilities can present. Issues such as those related to mild specific learning disabilities should be accommodated in the classroom with standard classroom and instructional adaptations.
Bryant, Diane Pedrotty; Bryant, Brian R.; and Raskind, Marshall H. (1998). Using Assistive technology to enhance the skills of students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic 34(1), 53-8.
Eckman, Amy (2000). Respecting differences: LD adults have advice for educators. Curriculum Update; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Fall 2000.
Raskind, Marshall H.; and Higgins, Eleanor L. (1998). Assistive Technology for Postsecondary Students with Learning Disabilities: An Overview. Journal of Learning Disabilities 31, 27-40.
Rose, David H. (2000). Universal design for learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15(1), 67-70.
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