Of the 1.5 million people in the UK living with a learning disability, there are 286,000 children with learning disabilities. Furthermore, of the two million people suffering with sight loss, there are 25,000 children living with a form of visual impairment. To get the most out of their education, many children with a disability benefit from assistive teaching methods – some students often require adaptive or assistive technology to support their education.
Assistive technology is a way for disabled students to break down their disability barriers and continue to get the most out of their education. When students with a learning disability have the opportunity to use their strengths to overcome their challenges, it often results in a successful education. Assistive technology is just one approach that allows students to work around their disabilities.
How does AT support students?
There are several types of assistive technology available to help enhance a child’s education – with many able to address a child’s learning difficulties and make the education experience better for the student, and teacher. AT has tools which can be used to assist those with disabilities that struggle with listening, reading, writing, math and organisation. Whether the student is visually impaired, dyslexic or have any other disabilities that cause skill deficits, AT can be implemented into the education processes to help. In fact, research has proven that AT can improve certain skill deficits, such as reading and spelling.
The use of assistive technology in schools does not give disabled students an unfair advantage but instead gives them the opportunity, in some cases, to learn alongside their fellow students by giving them the independence to learn in an environment that allows them to use their strengths to overcome their challenges. This is the case whether they are learning in a public school, a special needs institution or a blind school. Adaptive devices help to increase participation, achievement and independence of the student, by improving their access to the same general curriculum as other pupils without a disability via an assistive tool that breaks down the barriers of their disability.
What educational tools are available?
Some assistive technology tools allow disabled students to learn in an environment with their peers by offering support and assistance. Around 20% of young people with a visual impairment have additional special education needs or disabilities, with a further 30% having complex needs within the education system. Assistive technology offers support. Generally, the term assistive technology is applied to technology that is used to support children with learning difficulties – most commonly, tools are used to assist listening skills, math, organisation and memory, reading and writing through the use of electronic devices, computer hardware and digital tools that are available on the internet.
Some assistive tools give students living with visual impairment access to the same educational resources as their peers but in a larger format – which applies to both print and digital resources. AT is an opportunity for students to be supported during their reading and writing tasks. Examples of the technology include audio books and publications, abbreviation expanders and portable word processors. For many visually impaired students, digital technology is a way for them to learn in mainstream schools – this is because text can be enlarged, and other senses can be used to aid the learning process, such as touch and sound. Portable word processors allow students to use a portable keyboard to assist with their written work where handwriting is troublesome. Around 60% of visually impaired students are educated in mainstream schools, and AT supports their learning needs, and allows students to learn at their own rate, alongside other students. A qualified teacher of the visually impaired is likely to support the pupil further.
Alternative keyboards are also available to assist students and help them reach their full potential. Some keyboards come with alternative overlays that altar the standard appearance of the keyboard to encourage production. Not only for students with visual impairment who might need braille, or larger keys, these customisable keyboard overlays can add graphics and colours to help students who struggle to type.
And it doesn’t stop there – from electronic math worksheets and talking calculators to talking spell checkers, electronic dictionaries and braille technology, AT makes schools comfortable environments for students with a disability to learn in. Electronic math worksheets are particularly useful for students who struggle to align maths problems on paper – the digital tool allows numbers and mathematical problems to be read aloud via a speech synthesiser, and students can solve problems on the computer screen.
For many students with a learning disability, digital resources assist their educational experience. Talking calculators and talking spell checkers have built-in speech synthesisers to make using the equipment easier. The talking spell checker helps users who have difficulty spelling to select words and correct them as the device reads selected words aloud to the user so that they can hear the words. Similarly with the calculator, each number pressed by the user is read out load to vocalise the answer to the mathematical problem.
For many children, AT helps build their self-reliance and independence by supporting students throughout their education, breaking down the barriers and helping them to independently improve their skill set. AT is an opportunity for students with learning difficulties to learn in a mainstream educational environment, where suited.
Every student has unique needs
When working with children that require additional support and assistance, it is important to note that each student’s learning disability is different – even if they suffer from the same disability – meaning each student has unique learning needs. Assistive technology allows the student to take control of their learning journey, and gain some independence in their education – but finding which assistive technology is right for the student can be difficult, as one that works brilliants for one student, may hinder the progress of another student.
To find the right tool to support their education, establish which tools best address the child’s specific needs and challenges – which tool will help overcome the barriers? The AT tool must be used to the student’s strengths, be easy to use, reliable and preferably portable.
A child’s level of ability also comes into play – an assistive technology tool is only useful if your student has the ability to use it. If they have difficulties learning how to use the tool, or show no willing with the tool, again it could hinder the progress of the student. Just because one student can use a tool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that another student can use it too.
Disabilities are different for each person, and whilst two pupils might both have a visual impairment, their requirements could differ significantly. However, AT offers an opportunity for both pupils to reach their full potential in the same environment, breaking down the barriers that prevent them from progressing and helping students improve their personal skill deficits.