At its core, the American educational system is about democratization of knowledge for all students, regardless of their circumstances. In 2011, 22 percent of non-institutionalized adults with disabilities had less than a high school education. If this statistic was applied to the general population, my suspicion is that there would be an outcry to reform K-12 education to have better graduation results. But for students with disabilities, there is no shock or outrage and that is something that has to change. The key to improving the educational experience for students with disabilities is better accommodations in schools and continued improvements in assistive technology.
Assistive technology in K-12 classrooms, by definition, is designed to "improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability." While the word "technology" automatically conjures up images of cutting-edge electronics, some assistive technology is possible with just simple accommodations. Whether high-tech or simple in design, assistive technology has the ability to transform the learning experiences for the children who benefit.
With so much talk about mobile devices at K-12 desks and teaching technology for the majority of students, it can be easy to overlook the strides also being made for students with disabilities when it comes to assistive technology. Here's a look at strides being made in some common assistive technology areas:
Alternative input devices: These tools are designed to allow students with disabilities to use computers and related technology easily. Some alternative input devices include touch screens, modified keyboards and joysticks that direct a cursor through use of body parts like chins, hands or feet. Some up-and-coming technology in this area is sip-and-puff systems, developed by companies like Microsoft, to perform computer functions through the simple process of inhaling and exhaling. On-screen keyboards are another area of input technology that is providing K-12 learners with disabilities better use of computers and mobile devices for learning.
Text-to-speech options: This technology is making mainstream waves through its use in popular cell phones like the Android-platform Razr M. While it is a convenience tool for people without disabilities, text-to-speech provides a learning advantage for students who have mobility or dexterity problems, or those who are blind. It allows students to speak their thoughts without typing and even navigate the Internet. Text-to-speech options can also "talk back" to students and let them know about potential mistakes or errors in their work.
Sensory enhancers: Depending on the disability, children may need to learn differently than their peers. Instead of ABCs and numbers first, a child with language hindrances may benefit from bright pictures or colors to learn new concepts. Sensory enhancers may include voice analyzers, augmentative communication tools or speech synthesizers. With the rapid growth of technology in the classroom, these basic tools of assistive technology are seeing great strides.
Screen readers: This technology is slightly different from text-to-speech because it simply informs students of what is on a screen. A student who is blind or struggling to see what is on the screen can benefit from the audio interface screen readers provide. Students who struggle to do what so many other Americans accomplish so easily - glean information from a computer screen in a matter of seconds - can learn more easily through technology meant to inform them.
Assistive technology is important for providing a sound education for K-12 students with disabilities but benefits the greater good of the country too. Nearly one-fourth of a specific student population is not being properly served and with so many technological advances, that's a number I believe can drop. Assistive technology in simple and complex platforms has the ability to lift the entire educational experience and provide a better life foundation for K-12 students with disabilities.