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 assistive technology 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.
Assistive technology does not only refer to complex high-tech electronic systems. Many useful solutions are decidedly low-tech. Assistive technology 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 McDonald’s; screen magnification software can help that same student read the computer monitor more easily. There is no “one size fits all” solution; the assistive technology 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 workforce.
Students who are visually impaired or blind are fortunate that technology has increased options for access to materials and the general curriculum. Assistive technology 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 assistive technology to actively and independently participate in a wider range of classroom activities.
However, research shows that the vast majority of students with visual impairments in elementary and middle schools were not using assistive technology. In fact, only 12 to 18 percent of these students reportedly used assistive technology. While the picture improves for secondary students, research also indicated that only 57 percent of high school students with visual impairments received assistive technology services from any source; fewer than half (48.9 percent) received those services in their schools.
There are a number of reasons for this lack of 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 technology they need to be successful. It’s also critical that the teacher of students with visual impairments who work with students be familiar with the often fast-changing field of technology. This includes keeping updated on new technology as well as technology-specific instructional methods.
How Do TVIs Approach Instruction?
Teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) begin by assessing students’ technology skills as well as their current and future assistive technology needs. They 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 assistive technology 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. Because 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 assistive technology skills, such as using screen-reading or screen-magnification software. However, students should start learning these skills through meaningful, motivating activities. For example, the teacher of students with visual impairments 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 teacher 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 teacher 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 teacher of students with visual impairments 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 assistive technology devices and provide them if deemed educationally necessary. Despite the acknowledged importance of technology in schools, there are a number of obstacles to providing assistive technology devices and instruction in their use to children in public schools.
Teachers of students with visual impairments need to advocate for conducting careful assessments of students’ technology needs and providing direct instruction in the use of those technologies. Teachers 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.
Teachers of students with visual impairments 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 assistive technology. One way to achieve this goal is by including assistive technology courses in the curriculum delivered to pre-service teachers in their university programs before these new teachers enter the field. Secondly, we must ensure that there is adequate professional development for teachers of students with visual impairments currently teaching in the field so that they can keep up with the latest devices and instructional methods. Because technology changes so rapidly, these teachers 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 assistive technology 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 assistive technology 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.