Technology helped Schuylerville IT Director Eric Blakely, Assistant Principal Michelle McDougall (top right) and Assistive Technology specialist Julie Leffler integrate second-grader Caeden into the general student population.

Apr 13 2009

Assistive Technologies Help Meet Students' Special Needs

Schuylerville Central School District provides technology that keeps students with disabilities up to speed.

Schuylerville CSD provides assistive technologies to meet students’ special needs.

Taking a spelling test is a pretty ordinary, if not necessarily favorite, activity for most elementary school students. But for one second-grader in Schuylerville Central School District in upstate New York, being able to take a test by himself is a milestone, marking both his own tenacity and the extraordinary support offered by his community’s school system.

Until this school year, Caeden, who has a neuromuscular disorder that affects his speech and motor skills, relied on an aide to help him record the answers to his school-work and communicate with his teachers and classmates. Now, using a Lenovo tablet computer in conjunction with the electronic whiteboard in his classroom, he is able to work independently for the first time.

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“We did a complete assistive technology evaluation with Caeden to see what would work for him,” says Julie Leffler, assistive technology specialist for Schuylerville CSD, which serves about 1,900 students from seven townships in the Hudson Valley. “Lots of technologies were tried to see what access problems they helped or created. The tablet worked best for him.”

While New York state and federal laws mandate assistance for students with special needs, Schuylerville CSD stands out because it provides an unusual level of direct intervention within a child’s home school, Leffler says. In many other school systems, special-needs students are frequently offered serv ices in facilities out of the district.

Schuylerville CSD is deeply committed to integrating special-needs students into the general population of its classrooms, says Michelle McDougall, assistant principal of Schuylerville Elementary School. Providing necessary services requires hefty financial and human resources, especially in tight budget times, but the investment is central to the way Schuylerville CSD sees its mission and methods, says McDougall.

“This is a very innovative district, especially when it comes to solving problems for students,” she says. “The IEP [individual education plan] is the covenant that requires us to exercise whatever means necessary to mitigate the disability.”

Up to Speed

The Lenovo X61 ThinkPad tablet proved to be the best choice for Caeden primarily because it allowed input using either a stylus or fingers on the touchscreen, says Eric Blakely, director of computer services for the district.

Caeden’s classroom is equipped with a 77-inch interactive electronic whiteboard. Software from the whiteboard has been loaded onto Caeden’s computer, and his teachers (Cara Cogan-Carpenter and Amy Jordan) work with Leffler and Blakely to load all the documents they want to present to the class onto the tablet in advance. He can then use his touchscreen to manipulate documents on the tablet just as his classmates do on the whiteboard.

Eric Blakely says a Lenovo tablet and word prediction software helped bring Caeden up to speed with his classmates.

Photo Credit: Mark McCarty

Using the Lenovo tablet along with tools such as word prediction software, Caeden is now able to respond at nearly the same speed as his classmates. And he can now work without the intervention of his aide for a significant portion of his time in class.

“The time constraints are not really there for him anymore,” says Cogan-Carpenter. “And his parents are extremely happy because he’s now able to bring home actual pieces of work he’s done all by himself.”

Caeden’s new independence is “remarkable,” says McDougall, and it helps him more fully integrate into the activities of the classroom.

More than that, says Leffler, using the tablet has revealed some of Caeden’s previously undiscovered aptitudes.

“He remembers things when we work together and then he even shows his aide how to do them,” Leffler says. “He navigates very well through all kinds of software.”

Because they were already using the interactive whiteboard in the classroom and typically plan lessons a month in advance, Cogan-Carpenter says she and Jordan quickly learned to maximize the value of the tablet. Scanning paper documents and loading them onto Caeden’s computer are the only extra steps that require the teachers’ time.

Creating Confidence

Education publishers are making things easier for students with disabilities and their teachers by producing an increasing number of textbooks and support materials in digital formats, Leffler says. Many of the materials and websites now available to Caeden are fun as well as educational, which gives him new freedom in unstructured time.

“There are downtimes in the classroom when kids can choose an activity, and Caeden’s choices had been limited,” Leffler says. “With programs on his computer, he has something both for study time and for leisure time. Now you often see kids gathered around his wheelchair, wanting to use Starfall [an early literacy website] or something else with him.”

All the games and programs the school loads on Caeden’s tablet computer are educational, Jordan says. He can also easily take school-work back and forth between home and school on a Flash memory stick. The impact of the technology on Caeden’s life extends well beyond his schoolwork.

“He now has the ability to have control over his activities, and he can share things with buddies,” Jordan says. “It gives him a true feeling of self-worth and confidence. I’m just happy to be part of it.”

The IT staff at Schuylerville CSD consists of Blakely and two others, and they scramble to keep all the systems and software up and running in the district’s two schools. But they are deeply invested in making assistive technologies work for students who need them, Blakely says.

“The willingness to adopt new things to solve problems is something you feel throughout the district,” he says. “Everyone on my staff is willing to do whatever it takes.”

Like all students with special needs in Schuylerville CSD, Caeden will be re-evaluated each year, and his assistive technology will be altered to fit his changing needs and abilities. No matter how tough the economic times become, that process will continue, as will the district’s commitment to providing the most effective assistive technologies, says McDougall.

“There’s no crystal ball, but we focus on the needs of our students,” she says. “That’s not going to change.”

Computer-Based Assistive Technology

Here are some examples of assistive technology that schools can provide to special-needs students:

  • Alternative input devices
  • Braille embossers
  • Word prediction programs
  • Light signal alerts
  • Onscreen keyboards
  • Refreshable Braille displays
  • Screen magnifiers
  • Screen readers (used to verbalize everything on the screen)
  • Speech recognition software
  • Speech synthesizers
  • Talking and large-print word processors
  • TTY/TTD conversion modems

Finding the Right Solution

When a student in Schuylerville CSD is identified as having special needs, an exhaustive process begins to determine which technologies and strategies will help the most, says Julie Leffler, the district’s assistive technology specialist.

Once the district is aware of the need, an evaluation begins with information gathering — lots of it. Parents, regular education teachers, special education teachers and any others who have been involved with the child’s learning are asked to fill out detailed questionnaires to assess both cognitive and physical skills. After the questionnaires have been completed and the information from them has been assessed, the school system sends out an evaluation team to meet with the student.

The evaluation team brings along hardware and software for real-life testing with the student. The choice of test technologies is the result of extensive research and building relationships with manufacturers, who often lend their products for student trials, Leffler says.

If all goes well, the result is a fit between the student’s needs and technologies that can maximize his or her abilities. “You have those moments that make all the effort so worthwhile,” Leffler says. “I’ve worked with students in the past who were locked up in dysfunctional bodies with no way to make themselves known. Then you find the right technology to let them express themselves and you see how much ability they have and how much they have to say.”

<p>Mark McCarty</p>