Understanding Student Health: Assistive and Adaptive Techologies in the Classroom

Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) became a U.S. statute in 1975, only about 1 in 5 children with a disability were educated in a public school. Many state laws denied public school attendance to children with disabilities, including vision and hearing impairments.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), amended most recently in 2004, directs how states and public agencies provide special education and related services to children with disabilities, from preschool through age 18 or 21. The Act defines a list of 13 disabilities that can no longer disallow a child from receiving educational services.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008 more than 95 percent of all students with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 21 were educated in mainstream public school classrooms. Thanks to enhancements to current classroom technology, called assistive or adaptive technology devices (also known as AT’s), children with disabilities can access classroom computer software and be educated aside their non-disabled peers.

For instance, “alternative” keyboards allow children with reduced hand function to use a computer. Some of these keyboards are larger or smaller than traditional ones. They may have larger or smaller keys, non-traditional key configurations, and even customized or pre-packaged overlays that are placed on top of the keyboard keys. Other keyboards are made for use with one hand. The computer mouse also is available in various configurations for ease of use with limited hand function. Users with impaired vision may employ software that enlarges images on the screen, while other programs, which utilize a computer-generated voice to read text on a screen, enable blind students to work with computers. Children with speech disabilities may use a device that, with a computer-generated voice, “speaks” the text entered on the keyboard. And the list goes on. As with all devices that are plugged into a computer, including assistive devices, it is important to be sure the products, computer system, and programs are compatible.

The following devices are for users with visual or speech disabilities:

  • Touch-screens - Rather than using a mouse or keyboard keys, a computer can be used by simply touching the screen. Touch-screens can be built into a computer monitor or a device can be added to it for touch-screen operation.

  • Screen enlargers or screen magnifiers - For visually-impaired students, these devices enlarge a portion of the screen to increase readability.

  • Screen readers – using a computerized voice, this device “speaks” what is on the screen, from text, to graphics, to control buttons.

  • Braille Embosser – Translation programs convert text scanned-in or generated through word processing software into Braille, which then can be printed by this device.

  • Refreshable Braille displays – Braille characters are formed by rounded metal or plastic pins that are raised mechanically for the user to “read,” and then he or she refreshes the display to read the another line.

  • Reading tools and learning disabilities programs – Including those that read text aloud, these help make text-based materials more accessible for students who have difficulty seeing or manipulating print material.

  • Talking processors – These use speech synthesizers to give auditory feedback of text that is entered.

  • Large-print word processors – This device allows the user to see everything on the screen in larger-size print, without the need for a larger computer screen.

What are hearing assistive technology systems (HATS)?

Hearing assistive technology systems (HATS) are used with or without cochlear implants or hearing aids. They can be helpful in such common communication situations as listening to an address over a loud speaker or to a lecture presentation in an amphitheater.

With assistive listening devices, audio is sent wirelessly over FM waves; a receiver captures the sound, and volume can be adjusted.

The farther away from the presenter or lecturer, the more difficult it may be to hear the message. Often, a speaker may compete with background noise, such as ventilation systems, extraneous conversations, activities in neighboring rooms, and even traffic or construction outside. A child with average hearing, who suffers from frequent ear infections or who has an auditory processing disorder, is at a severe disadvantage when seated in a classroom with poor acoustics and excessive background noise.

Sound can reflect off of hard wall and floor surfaces, like those found in many classrooms, and create distortion. These devices can help maintain hearing ability in these kinds of conditions.

  • Infrared system - Infrared light waves transmit sound to a receiver; volume in the receiver can usually be adjusted.

  • Induction loop systems – these work with hearing aids. An induction wire is connected to a microphone; the presenter’s voice generates a current that creates an electromagnetic field in the room that a hearing aid, switched to the telecoil/telephone setting, can then pick up. Signal volume is adjusted through the hearing aid.

Other types of devices interpret the user’s voice and transcribe the spoken text onto a word processing page. Some of those devices require some amount of training for the product to put the student at his or her best advantage.

  • TTY/TDD conversion modems – These devices connect computers and phones; users enter a typed message that is sent to the TTY/TDD device and can then be read by the recipient.

  • Light signaler alerts – Computer sounds are monitored and the user is alerted visually. Users unable to hear computer notifications or are away from the screen, a light will flash to alert the user of, for example, a new e-mail message.

For students with limited finger or hand movement, or complete loss of mobility of the hands or arms, use of a computer is still possible with devices for those specific needs.

  • On-screen keyboards – This is like having a keyboard on the computer screen. With any one of a number of cursor-controlling instruments (trackball-type mouse, touch screen, joystick, or electronic pointer), the user chooses the keyboard keys. Often there is a scanning option which will highlights keys that the user can then select.

  • Keyboard filters – These instruments utilize word prediction programs and add-on spell checkers to reduce the number of keystrokes. This can also help prevent hitting keys inadvertently.

  • Electronic pointing devices –These devices can use infrared beams, eye movements, and brain waves to control the position and movement of a cursor on the computer screen without the use of hands.

  • Sip-and-puff systems - Inhaling and exhaling activate these systems.

  • Wands and sticks – These are worn on the head, held in the mouth, or strapped to the chin and used to press keyboard keys.

  • Joysticks – These are devices manipulated by the hand, chin, or the feet and control the position and movement of a cursor on a screen.

  • Trackballs – This is a variation of the standard mouse. A similarly-sized base has a protruding ball that can be rolled with the thumb, fingers, or the palm of the hand to change the position of a cursor.

  • Speech or voice recognition software – These allow the user to give commands and enter data with their voice instead of by manipulating a mouse or keyboard. These types of computer programs use a microphone attachment and thus, text documents including letters and e-mail messages, and a host of other commands, can be relayed.

  • Page Turners – With these devices, the child presses a switch to mechanically turn pages in a book, which allows him or her to focus on reading and absorbing the material.

Students with speech impairments or disabilities have a way to initiate or respond to conversation with portable communication devices.

  • Text-to-Speech (TTS)  – receives characters, digits, and punctuation marks that travel to it from the computer screen. The system then transforms that information into computerized speech.

It is vitally important that AT assessments take place where the AT will be used. Understanding the child’s abilities and learning barriers, then examining the curriculum and daily tasks, will help parents and teachers find the AT solutions that will work best for the child.

With assistive devices in the classroom, children with hearing, speech, and a host of other disabilities are realizing academic achievements that were once beyond their physical capability.

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