Technology in Special Education

James Paterson
James Paterson
MS in School Counseling

Technology is quickly and dramatically changing education, and it’s perhaps making some of the biggest inroads when it comes to students with special needs.

There are a variety of methods and tools for these students that can improve their access to education, which is a goal of schools and a mandate of federal law.

Ways Technology Can Assist Students with Special Needs

Experts say educators working in the field, or entering it, should understand how this technology works – from an FM audio system that helps hearing-impaired students access a lesson, to “smart pens” with tiny computer systems that allow students or teachers to improve communications by recording audio as they write. Technology like this can guide a blind student or one with a learning challenge through a book with an accompanying audio recording or help a student with paralysis operate a computer with their mouth.

“Technology can help teachers provide personalized, just-in-time instruction and intervention for all students, which are especially important when supporting…students with disabilities,” two researchers write in a white paper on the topic. They note it can help these students understand lessons in class, study individually, and accurately display their knowledge in assessments.

Engaging Students with Difficulty Learning

Many students struggle because of a limitation such as a learning disability, but those problems are then magnified by the frustration they feel because school and traditional teaching and learning is so difficult.

Teachers can engage them by making the technology seem exciting or fun, but also by patiently showing the student how it will improve their understanding and ability to complete work – how it will help them be successful.

Teachers and schools have to embrace new technology, learn how to use it effectively and understand that providing it often is expected by law, experts say.

In one recent study in the International Journal of Special Education that reviewed research about the effectiveness of the devices and applications, researcher Areej Ahmed at Ohio University found that educator attitudes about the usefulness of technology in special education often determines its effectiveness. She says some in education believe it inhibits a student’s learning and independence, but she concludes that research has proven its value. She also says that “assistive technology can aid students with disabilities in overcoming or bypassing their learning challenges,” in areas like reading, listening, organizing information or writing.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act notes assistive technology should be provided to “increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities” and that it helps schools provide the required “least restrictive environment” for learning.

Devices and Applications

In teaching some of the most fundamental skills, assistive technology can play a role, specifically reading, writing, and math.

Audio books help students who struggle with reading or are site impaired acquire content, but also practice reading as they hear material read to them or bookmark areas they want to relocate. Picture-supported text also is now more often available online and can be created by teachers with the right applications.

Optical character recognition devices allow students to scan written materials with a handheld unit or computer application, save it, and have it read aloud; and screen readers can present text from a computer audibly.

In math, electronic or online worksheets make it easy for students to check and correct their answers, and video or audio support can help users set up and complete math problems in practice sessions rather than get stalled early. Talking calculators also benefit visually impaired students.

An abbreviation translator allows students to shorten words or phrases to essentials, and word prediction software can recommend a word for writers at various levels.

Portable word processors have been in use for some time by students to take notes and organize their thoughts, while transcription applications or speech recognition programs can turn their spoken words into writing.

Alternative keyboards have special overlays that change the function or simplify a keyboard, allowing a student to have reduced choices, keys that are grouped more easily, or graphics that provide guidance.

Special devices also can allow a paralyzed student or one with fine motor skill issues to use their mouth or other part of their body to operate a device.

Limited organizational skills can be enhanced with information or data managers that can combine and structure calendar information, tasks, contacts and other information electronically and help students structure it, aiding them with their current work and teaching them organizational skills.

Students can provide feedback through new polling software that indicates to teachers each student’s level of understanding – or even can notify a person who supports them if they are confused or overly stressed.

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