Oct 12 2006

Cover Story: Plugging into Inclusion

Current legislation mandates that schools accommodate disabled children in the classroom. Find out how technology as an inclusion tool that helps disabled students and non-disabled students learn side-by-side.

“I DID IT!” HEARING THOSE THREE WORDS CAN BE ONE OF THE BIGGEST PERKS OF A TEACHER’S JOB. Just ask Gina Vasquez, a kindergarten special education teacher at The Children’s School (P.S. 372), Brooklyn’s only fully inclusive school. Vasquez heard a selectively mute student shout it out after adaptive technology let her read a book on her own for the first time.

Or ask Sue Shields, the assistive technology specialist at Speed School District #802 (Special Education Joint Agreement) in Chicago Heights, Ill. One of Shields’ students, non-verbal with cerebral palsy and severe physical limitations, joined the school newspaper thanks to a custom-designed keyboard. “It was quite a moment,” Shields says. “It was incredible.”

Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Equal Access to Software and Information Act require schools to provide technology to help students with disabilities thrive in the classroom. And witnessing the difference adaptive technology makes for just one student is enough to sell teachers like Vasquez and Shields on its value.

“The technology has given them independence,” Shields says. “They can now complete projects that they never could before and they feel better about themselves.”

Adaptive technology can be as low-tech as a magnifying glass or as high-tech as speech-recognition software. There are captioning systems that translate spoken words into text for students who are deaf; picture boards that let non-verbal students point to objects to communicate; Braille printers and keyboards for blind students; and adaptive switches that let students with physical disabilities operate computers by moving their tongues or jaws, blinking their eyes or breathing into a tube.

Essentially, adaptive technology lets people with disabilities work independently, perform the same functions and experience the same emotions as their peers, explains Richard Keller, director of the office of access and services for individuals with disabilities at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

For instance, when Keller, who lost his vision in college, was completing a two-year internship in Kingston, N.Y., he couldn’t just pull out a photo of his son when he was missing him the way other parents could. Instead, he recorded his son’s voice on a digital recorder to comfort him.

“ ‘Hi Daddy,’ ” he says with a smile, recalling his son’s message. “It let me connect with him for that one second.” Adaptive technology can provide the same type of emotional connection for students who use it.

Making The Right Choices

At the start of each year, Vasquez meets with the regular education teacher and paraprofessional in her classroom to review the independent education plans for each student. They also develop annual learning goals and short-term objectives for other challenges the students face, including speech, counseling and behavior. Then they choose the technology to help students best meet those goals.

“We believe that children learn in different ways,” Vasquez says. “So we modify our teaching to meet each child’s needs.” That initial assessment phase is critical, but it’s “usually short-shrifted,” Keller says. Teachers and technology specialists must ask themselves what function they’re trying to perform for the student. Then they can provide the technology to the student and train students and teachers to use the equipment, he says.

“We’re very good at providing people with technology, but we don’t give enough time to assessment and teacher training,” Keller adds. It’s important that those choosing the technology for students are well-versed both in technology and education so, for instance, they can determine that a child’s poor grades stem from a memory disorder, then select the best tools to help address that problem, he says. “You have to be able to bridge both education and technology,” he adds.

Another challenge, Shields notes, is keeping on top of the latest technology. “There’s always something new,” she says. And it’s not just new products; researchers are developing ever-evolving strategies to help students adapt to the classroom, she adds.

With prices dropping significantly in recent years, adaptive technology is more accessible than ever for those students who don’t have severe disabilities but may still fall between the cracks, she adds.

“As the years progress, the technology just gets more advanced,” Vasquez says. “We just have to educate ourselves about what’s out there.”

Customized Learning

There are tools to meet just about every need in the classroom, Keller says. “The amount of stuff out there is virtually limitless,” he adds.

If a child has trouble with math, Vasquez might provide the student with a number grid or counting cubes to help with calculations. Or she may opt for a more high-tech software program that talks the student through problems.

For children who have trouble reading, there are programs that adjust the size of words or spaces, as well as reading words and sentences aloud while highlighting them on the screen. Students with undeveloped motor skills can use grips that give them more control of writing utensils, while those with trouble writing on flat surfaces can use slant boards.

“These things just help the children put their thoughts on paper,” Vasquez says. “It helps keep them concentrated on the process of writing instead of the mechanics of writing.”

There are even devices that state the color of objects when pressed so that blind people can better grasp their surroundings.

Speaking programs are common tools for students with vision impairments or learning disabilities, Keller notes. They speak everything that’s being typed, highlighting words as they speak them. “That may be very useful because it captures their attention,” he adds.

Some programs even work like hypertext links, letting students add text or recorded notes to certain words or phrases. So when reviewing their notes, they can click on highlighted words and read or hear the detail they added to that section.

Even standard operating systems contain accessibility features. For instance, Microsoft Windows has an on-screen magnifier and keyboard, and it contains features that help people with motor skills disabilities control their keystrokes.

Technology may be the primary means of communication for children who are mute or autistic, adds Colleen Kelleher, a special education teacher in a third- through sixth-grade classroom at Waiau Elementary School in Pearl City, Hawaii. Technology helps them learn, get around, convey their needs to others. “It’s survival in a lot of ways,” Kelleher says. “The computer can be their voices.”

Kelleher recently had a student who struggled with his fine motor skills. The class was compiling a book on Hawaii, with a page-long contribution from each student. Writing 10 paragraphs would have taken him days, but Kelleher gave him dictation software so he could speak his thoughts into the computer and complete the assignment.

“He was ready to give up,” she recalls. “If you’re so jammed up just trying to write one sentence ... you’re never going to be able to produce what’s inside you.”

Kelleher had another student who was mute. Each morning, during calendar circle time, when the other kids would recite the days of the week and months of the year, he would make sounds but he couldn’t produce words, she recalls. She gave him a device that would speak out the objects he pressed on a keypad, so he was able to recite the days of the week along with the rest of the class. One week, he even led his classmates in the exercise.

“Oh, he loved it,” she recalled. “He would get a big smile. He was just like any other student. And we all got excited, too.”

It also helped Kelleher to teach him more effectively. “It’s hard to tell if students without language really understanding what we’re teaching,” she says. “But when they can use something other than their voices, you can see that they’re making connections.”

By using technology to help students adapt to classrooms with regular and special-needs students, everyone benefits, says Vasquez.

“If I had a child, I’d want him in an inclusion classroom because this isn’t a perfect world, and our classrooms are diverse, so the children learn that different people have different needs,” she says. “They learn compassion and understanding and patience.”

The Human Touch

“This is how I remain safe,” Keller says, opening his collapsible walking cane. “It stops me from falling down subways. It keeps me from walking into things.” But when he pulls out that cane, he is, unmistakably, blind.

At first, he had trouble accepting the fact that he was losing his vision. So to avoid using his cane, he learned tricks to get around. But when he fell over a fence in Washington Square Park and landed in a pile of pigeon excrement, he decided it was time to learn how to get around safely.

Not surprisingly, Keller understands that students may be unwilling to use even the most helpful technology if it sets them apart from their peers. So he counsels that, when choosing technology, educators keep emotional issues in mind and be patient and understanding. “It’s not good enough to say, ‘You’re learning disabled. Here’s a speller. You’re going to use it,’” he adds.

It’s also important to remember that technology isn’t always the answer, Kelleher says. While a talking device may work well with that one student, it could frustrate another because he works faster than the device can speak. And while prices have dropped, the cost of adaptive technology is still not insignificant, Keller says.

Kelleher agrees. “We still struggle to a certain degree,” she explains. “We wish we could have unlimited funding to give all disabled children all the technology they need. But the reality is we have limited funding.”

But, Vasquez adds that once educators overcome obstacles, technology can open up a new world to students. “When children are excited and want to share their work, you know they’re proud of what they did,” she says. “Thanks to adaptive technology, we have that happening every day.”

Principles of Adaptive Education

To ensure the greatest degree of participation from the widest audience possible, Richard Keller of Columbia Univ ersity’s Teachers College says classrooms should be designed for:

• Equitable use

• Flexibility to accommodate a wide range of disabilities

• Simple and intuitive use regardless of experience, knowledge, language or concentration level

• Perceptibility so that information is communicated effectively regardless of students’ sensory abilities

• Tolerance for error and anticipation of varied learning paces and prerequisite skills

• Minimized physical effort to allow for maximum attention to learning

• Appropriate space for students with varying sizes, postures, mobility and communication needs

• Community learning that promotes interaction and communication among students and faculty members

• Instructional climate that’s welcoming and inclusive with high expectations for all students