For Students With Disabilities, Ed Tech Can Empower. But It Often Doesn't
Assistive technology—tools designed for disabled users—can give all students the opportunity to develop their strengths and share their skills, said Luis Perez, the incoming president of the Inclusive Learning Network for the International Society for Technology in Education, during a Tuesday keynote session at the group's annual conference being held here.
Perez is also a technical assistance specialist at the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at the Center for Applied Special Technology, a research organization that advocates for inclusive learning environments. As an adult, he developed an eye disease that damaged his retinas, but assistive technology allowed him to pursue his passions and change the conversation around his disability, he said during his address.
The first time he heard the synthesized voice that supports the iOS text-to-speech capability, it was a "magical moment," he said.
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"What was more important than the quality of the voice was the message the technology communicated to me," Perez said. "It was a message of hope."
After his diagnosis, Perez took up photography—a pursuit he acknowledged might seem odd for someone losing his vision. He described how the facial recognition software on his iPhone helps him compose images when he might not be able to see all the faces in the frame.
His work isn't "an artistic act," Perez said. "It's a political act."
When he goes out to take photos with his camera and his white cane, he said, he hopes to changes the way people think about what blind people can and can't do.
As an immigrant, a person of color, and a person with disabilities, "it is more important than ever that I be visible," said Perez. "We're not going away."
Schools, too, can help to change the assumptions that surround those who are differently abled, he said, by giving students an opportunity to celebrate diverse strengths.
Vendors Still Have Room To Improve on Accessibility
Several sessions during the ISTE conference focused on facilitating inclusive technology instruction. Staff members from the New York City Department of Education's District 75, which serves 25,000 students across the city with moderate to severe disabilities, presented their work building a makerspace with accessibility as its guiding design priority.
Students who use the makerspace may be on the autism spectrum, intellectually disabled, learning disabled, speech and language impaired, emotionally disabled, or have multiple disabilities.
"We tried to look for tools that were easier to use," Elizabeth Tierney, the district's technology coach, told Education Week at an ISTE poster presentation.
Students work with easy-to-manipulate tools such as Makey Makey, for creating circuits out of everyday materials, and littleBits, which are modular programmable electronics that snap together magnetically.
"You can't put them together incorrectly because of the magnet," said Tierney, of littleBits. "It's very easy for kids to make a simple circuit."
Not all of the tools in the District 75 makerspace are for coding and computer science. The space is also stocked with modified hole punchers that students push down on, rather than squeeze. For students who can't hold a pencil or crayon, there are stickers that can be used to decorate.
"Where other kids are drawing or cutting—well some of our students can't do that," said Tierney. "So what can we use instead?"
In general, ed-tech companies are becoming more attuned to accessibility needs—but there's still a lot of room for improvement, Tierney said.
Many apps could be improved by adding "switch accessibility," Tierney said, which would allow users with limited mobility to interact via physical switches, instead of the device's touch screen.
Text-to-speech capability should also be a top priority for vendors, she said.
"That would hit the biggest population, because there's probably more people who have learning disability and reading disability," Tierney said. "So that's a big one."