Assistive Technology and the Expanded Core Curriculum

What Is Assistive Technology (AT)?

Assistive technology (AT) refers to the special devices and software that people with disabilities can use to access the environment and gain information. The law defines an AT device as any item, piece of equipment, or product system (whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized) that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

AT does not only refer to complex high-tech electronic systems. Many useful solutions are decidedly low tech. AT can be as simple as a book stand to hold a textbook at a comfortable position so a student with a visual impairment does not have to bend over the desk to read. It can be as complex as a computer system with screen reading and voice recognition software for students who have difficulty both seeing the screen and using the keyboard. Most students need a range of both low and high tech devices. For example, hand-held monocular telescopes can help a student with low vision read the menu overhead at McDonalds; screen magnification software can help that same student read the computer monitor more easily. There is no "one size fits all" solution; the AT needs of students are as unique as the students themselves.

Why Teach Assistive Technology as a Specific Area?

In most schools in the United States, technologies for reading, writing, and research are so widely available in classrooms there is an expectation that students will finish school adept in their use. The traditional paper-based tools of textbooks and workbooks have given way to electronic devices such as smart boards, CD-ROMs, and multimedia educational materials, as well as computers with Internet access and its array of resources. Students regularly access online encyclopedias, video demonstrations, and search features. The use of digital tools like the Internet means more information is available and is easier to get than ever before. Schools have been under increasing pressure from higher education and businesses to prepare technology-literate students who are ready for the work force.

Students who are visually impaired or blind are fortunate that technology has increased options for access to materials and the general curriculum. AT allows students to receive materials available electronically and then access that information using braille, enlarged print, or auditory-access. Teachers can use electronic braille embossers and translation software to create braille documents quickly. Video magnification technology allows students to read their textbooks and view the board at the front of the room with the same device. No longer do students have to wait passively for classroom materials to come to them—students can use AT to actively and independently participate in a wider range of classroom activities.

However, research showed that the vast majority of students with visual impairments in elementary and middle schools were not using AT. In fact only 12% to 18% of these students reportedly used AT. While the picture improves for secondary students, research also indicated that only 57% of high school students with visual impairments received AT services from any source; fewer than half (48.9%) received those services in their schools.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of AT instruction. One is the documented shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs). Without enough qualified teachers to provide assessment and instruction, our students won't learn how to use the AT they need to be successful. It's also critical that the TVIs who work with students who are visually impaired be familiar with the often fast-changing field of technology. This includes keeping updated on new and updated technology as well as technology-specific instructional methods.

How Do TVIs Approach Instruction?

TVIs begin by assessing students' technology skills as well as their current and future AT needs. TVIs also consider what a student's peers are learning in the area of technology, such as word processing and keyboarding. However, because students who are blind or visually impaired need more time to learn AT skills, they should be introduced to these skills well before they will need them for school. For example, the general curriculum might introduce keyboarding in upper elementary school grades or later. Since students who are blind and visually impaired typically need direct instruction in how to use screen-reading or screen-magnification software to access computers, they need to start learning skills such as keyboarding well before their peers in order to be proficient in these areas. Otherwise, students who wait to learn keyboarding with their peers might fall behind when they have to take additional time to learn how to use accessibility software.

There are curricula that can be used to teach specific AT skills, such as using screen-reading or screen-magnification software. However, students should start learning these skills through meaningful, motivating activities. For example, the TVI might begin teaching a student how to use the Internet by having the student look for websites on topics in which the student is interested: things like wildlife or space exploration. To teach a student how to use a refreshable braille display, the TVI might have the student read a funny poem or short story. If a student is learning how to use a video magnifier for the first time, the TVI might have the student view objects like toys, rocks, leaves, or flowers on the device to make the activity more interesting.

Instruction should start with these simple activities, and once the student reaches a level of proficiency, he or she can be expected to use the technology in the classroom for schoolwork. In order to meet a student’s needs over time, the TVI will constantly reassess the student’s technology use and provide instruction in more advanced features and devices. The goal is that by the time they graduate from high school, these students will be proficient users of whatever technology is necessary for them to access and produce information.

How Can We Support Instruction in Assistive Technology in Schools?

The law includes strong provisions requiring school systems to assess students for AT devices and provide them if deemed educationally necessary. Despite the acknowledged importance of technology in schools, there are a number of obstacles to providing AT devices and instruction in their use to children in public schools.

TVIs need to advocate for conducting careful assessments of students' AT needs and providing direct instruction in the use of those technologies. TVIs need sufficient time to work directly with students in order to provide the kind of intense and thorough instruction they need to become truly adept at a broad range of devices.

TVIs must keep abreast of the ever changing technologies available for children and students with visual impairments in order to be able to competently teach the use of AT. One way to achieve this goal is by including AT courses in the curriculum delivered to pre-service teachers in their university programs before these new TVIs enter the field. Secondly, we must ensure that there is adequate professional development for TVIs currently teaching in the field so they can keep up with the latest devices and instructional methods. Because technology changes so rapidly, TVIs need to have regular updates on both the devices available and strategies for how to teach their use.

Administrators must understand the importance of providing a full range of low- and high-tech solutions for students. While some of the electronic devices are expensive, they often meet multiple needs and can save money over time by increasing access to materials and decreasing the time it takes to provide materials in other accessible formats.

It's important to remember that use of AT by students who are visually impaired or blind has broader implications beyond the classroom. If we expect students to learn skills that will help them find employment and compete in a global market, students with visual disabilities need the same technical skills plus the AT skills that enable them to access information and work efficiently. In fact, several studies suggest that use of technology is related to competitive employment for adults who are blind, whereas lack of technology skills can be a barrier to employment.

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