Oct 31 2006

Assistive Technology

Teachers, educational companies and advocates for diverse learners are developing new ways to create curriculum materials for students with disabilities.

Skip Stahl

DURING THE PAST 25 YEARS, DIGITAL technologies have steadily altered the culture of the classroom. Surprisingly, the primary resources used in most elementary and secondary classrooms—textbooks and associated materials—continue to be print-based.

For many students, these print technologies do the job just fine. For students who can see, read standard written English at grade level, hold a book, turn its pages and extract meaning from what they’ve read, textbooks continue to be a viable resource. However, for students who cannot complete one or more of these prerequisites, print resources act as a significant barrier to learning.

The accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 require that the instruction of nearly all students must occur in the general education classroom. From this perspective, the limits of a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum materials and the measures that assess student achievement have become increasingly clear. How can schools meet the diverse needs of struggling students with materials that work for only some of them?

Technology provides an answer.

The same instructional content contained in textbooks can, if available in a digital format, be provided to students in a variety of ways, each matched to unique learning needs. Braille, large text, accessible HTML, digital talking books, digital audio (with or without foreign language equivalents) and digital materials with embedded American Sign Language associations are all technologically possible. Over the next few years, these resources may well be available in a classroom near you.

New Educational Mandates

Using technology, educators, curriculum developers and advocates for diverse learners are developing new ways to create and deliver curriculum materials. For some students with disabilities—those with visual and/or physical impairments—new mandates for states and districts are included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Beyond addressing the needs of students eligible for this specialized distribution system, states and districts are charged with providing accessible instructional materials to any student receiving special education services who may require them. How can schools prepare for this change?

For students with disabilities, the first step may involve including a “consideration” clause for alternate format materials in a student’s Individualized Education Plan or Section 504 Plan. This approach would effectively place the determination in the hands of a student’s teachers, specialists and parents—precisely where it belongs.

New Classroom Tools

For teachers, the availability of core materials in different formats will expand their toolbox. Many classroom computers already have talking word processors ranging from freeware products such as ReadPlease 2003 to commercial ones like Write:OutLoud.

Most developers of this type of software are already planning to add support for digital talking book file formats. In addition, the availability of HTML-based textbooks is expected to expand, and products like ReadingBar2, SOLO and Mozilla’s Firefox browser have the ability to magnify, speak aloud and translate HTML pages into languages other than English.

Digital versions of traditional print materials make curriculum content more accessible and customizable. In addition, they can provide embedded learning supports for increasing student skills. For instance, the Thinking Reader from Tom Snyder Productions provides a research-based approach to increasing reading comprehension for elementary and middle school students. Similarly, the i Text products from Prentice Hall are flexible and can be adapted to individual student needs. They combine core textbooks with organizational and note-taking support to keep students on track.

In addition, digital versions of core instructional materials eliminate the problem of trying to match ancillary educational software to the standards-based curriculum.

Market-Based Solutions

Two elements that are encouraging states and curriculum publishers to explore market-based solutions are the U.S. Department of Education, through the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard initiative (which aims to make digital versions of textbooks and other teaching materials available in Braille, text-to-speech and other formats) and the associated expectations that learning materials be made more appropriate for students.

States and districts can induce publishers to develop flexible digital materials by giving purchasing preference to publishers that offer these materials for sale alongside print textbooks. Publishers, in turn, are being encouraged to develop flexible, feature-rich digital materials that states and districts will want to buy.

This approach frees educators from the costly and redundant task of retrofitting their recently purchased materials and allows them to recommit that time to the art of teaching.

Director of technical assistance at CAST in Wakefield, Mass., Skip Stahl is among the many speakers scheduled to present at this year’s Technology, Reading and Learning Difficulties (TRLD) Conference. Learn more about this topic and many others by attending TRLD on January 26-28, 2006. TRLD will be held at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. This is the place for learning how to be a catalyst for change in your district! For more information and to register for the conference, go to www.trld.com.

Tools for Learning

Here are some links to learn more about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and various accessible technologies that are available for students with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act

ReadPlease 2003, ReadingBar 2

Write:OutLoud, SOLO

Thinking Reader

Interactive textbooks from Prentice Hall

Mozilla’s Firefox browser