Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Assistive Technology in Education: A Critical analysis of the “Highs” and the “Lows"

Assistive Technology in Education: An Critical analysis of the “Highs” and the “Lows”

Currently, educators in schools are instructing growing numbers of children with special needs in both self-contained and regular classroom settings (Hopkins, 2004). By trying to make the curriculum accessible to all students, teachers are incorporating a wide variety of tools in order to satisfy the wide range of needs that students require (Poel, 2007). As educators, our quest is to sidestep any barriers that may stand in the way of our students’ success and we are achieving this by implementing various assistive technologies in the classroom (Milone, 2000). It is the intention of this paper to shed some light on the misconceptions that surround assistive technology and introduce the reader to both the benefits and drawbacks of assistive technology so that they can make a more informed judgment on the topic.

Notably, the greatest misconception amongst educators is the idea that all assistive technology is incredibly “high--tech”. These days when the words assistive technology are employed, the image of a computer comes to the forefront. The reality however is that for centuries, teachers were incorporating “low” tech assistive technological alternatives into their programs to aide their students’ success (Lewis, 1998). Any technology, when employed in a manner that is instructive and aids a student with acquisition of information, becomes by definition an assistive technology. Examples of low tech assistive technologies are items such as eyeglasses, canes, highlighters, wheel chairs, calculators and pencil grips. Examples of more high technological assistive technologies include items such as speech to text software, calculators that talk, and voice activated computers (Learning Disabilities Association, Minneapolis, MN, 2006).

What exactly is Assistive Technology?

Assistive Technology (AT) represents any item, piece of equipment, product or system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, which is used to directly assist, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with learning disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] 20, Chapter 33, Section 1401 [25] USA). Since disabilities can impose barriers to full participation in school, at work, and in other important areas of life, it is only fair in an egalitarian society to provide Assistive Technologies that offer ways to surmount those barriers, and create a more level playing field so to speak (Lewis, 1998). Assistive Technology certainly does not claim to remedy every disability, it is simply another tool that is implemented to help a user with a learning disability accomplish a task with a degree of independence. If the appropriate technology is selected, it can notably aid individuals with disabilities to participate more so than they could without any aids. Assistive technologies therefore provide a vehicle to help individuals with disabilities move towards a more inclusive educational setting (Hopkins, 2004).

The Great Debate: Do We Really Need AT’s: An Examination of the Myths and Realities of Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is shrouded in a great deal of controversy amongst educators and the general public alike. After conducting a great deal of research, the learning disability society of Canada published a fact sheet to help elucidate the use of technology and to lessen the misunderstandings surrounding the issue.

MYTH #1: Many people believe that AT is a ‘cop out’, meaning that it is not so aptly named and cannot assist individuals with disabilities to work towards a greater independence (Learning Disability Association of Canada, 2003).

REALITY: Despite any debate to the contrary, any tool that may assist a student in receiving a fair and just education should never be viewed as a cop out. Many researchers have gone so far as to liken assistive technology to a cognitive prosthesis (Cavalier, Ferretti, & Okolo, 1994). The reality of this scenario of course is that just as an individual who requires a wheelchair, which incidentally is an assistive technology, individuals with learning disabilities also require technology to help them ameliorate the difficulties experienced in areas of reading, writing, mathematics and a plethora of other areas (Learning Disability Association of Canada, 2003). Consider the student with a visual impairment who has difficulty reading. If the student cannot read with vision, then educators must elicit another avenue to help the student learn to read. Teachers can provide work that has been translated into braille they can present the materials being taught in an auditory manner, depending on the student and their learning style (Burgstahler & Nourse, 2000). Programs like Kurzweil can be used to download text materials and convert them to speech for students and screen-reading software like Jaws produced by Henter-Joyce can act as a students guide when they are using computers. It works with the computer’s software to verbally communicate what is on the computer screen (Vaccarella, 2001).

MYTH#2 Another widely circulating myth is that assistive technologies are superfluous and a luxury at best (The Learning Disability Society of Canada, 2003).

REALITY: Would anyone question a student wearing a pair of glasses or getting around in a wheelchair as taking luxuries upon themselves? No, and this is because these technologies are necessitated in order for people with disabilities to circumvent their disabilities and participate more freely in every day life (Johansen, 1997). Certain Individuals require assistive technologies throughout their entire educational careers, they are not just resources that are used sporadically as a recreational aid. AT is imperative if individuals with disabilities are to work towards independence in order to help foster a sense of autonomy (Grimaldi & Goette, 1999). Exemplary of this are studies revealing that when various computing assistive technologies are employed by students, they encourage creativity and greater problem solving as the students energy is put into the creative aspect of their work rather than the physical energy they would have to exert the aid/aids (Lewis, 1998).

MYTH#3: As the confusion around assistive technology swirls, the ‘one size fits all’ mentality is also believed to be a solution. This refers to the idea that one AT will work for any and all impaired students (Learning Disability Association of Canada, 2003).

REALITY: AT’s must be subject to continuous change and what once aided a student previously may not aid them today. Suiting the assistive technology to the student is a very personal and individualized experience. Different tools work for different students, just as various teaching strategies are used to meet the needs of our varying student base. As such, assistive technologies can indeed aid students with a broad range of learning disabilities and these technologies can help people of all ages and needs. Taking the time to find the appropriate tools that work for an individual can provide great success and not providing these tools would serve against our greater educational goals of equality and fairness (Watts, O’Brian & Wojcik, 2004).

Current Criticisms and Areas Requiring Further Consideration

There are various factors that should be considered when discussing the topic of assistive technologies. Consider these criticisms of AT from the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. One finding, that is very problematic, is that students are not properly trained to use certain assistive technologies and are not afforded the appropriate amount of time to use them. Another finding is that some technologies are matched inappropriately to the students needs, often times resulting in the technology being too complicated for the student to employ. Combined with a lack of funding this means less training time is available for the student to become adequately familiar themselves with the AT. Educators have also been found to not have the know-how to appropriately adapt or repair the technologies they are utilizing. If the educator has not mastered the use and logic behind the AT’s application, how will the student? Parents too are not spared from this criticism. It is invaluable for them to also become aware of the technologies being used to aid their children, just as aware of the subject matter being taught day to day (Smith & Kelley, 2007). This parental concern also extends outside the school as parents can provide additional supports at home to enhance the AT’s familiarity and subsequent success rates for their child. On a more macro institutional level, criticism must be brought to the academic institutions that prohibit the AT’s from leaving the classroom. As such, homework continues to be a problem for a student who uses assistive technology (Specht, Howell & Young, 2007). Disabling this possibility is tantamount to disabling the average student without a disability from taking their books home. How can we not view these as existing on the same fairness continuum? On the whole, the most common concern raised is that Assistive Technologies have not been successfully integrated into the day to day activities of a disabled student, whether at home or in the classroom (Learning Disabilities of Canada, 2003). This concern involves addressing all of the above criticisms and will remain a potent consideration for our current and future educators to research and assuage.

Why should we have assistive technology in schools?

In our classroom, the implications for our students are quite profound. Learning is a highly complex and individualized process. There are many faculties that must be tapped into, a learner must be able to acquire, store and illustrate that knowledge. However, the reality is that learning strategies and study skills may not be the same for most students. Not every student communicates in the same manner and for some, communicating can become a very laborious and painful endeavour. It is imperative that as educators we are open to and aware of all of the technologies available to us to aid our students who do not fit an outdated cookie cut model of what the average student is.“To persons with disabilities, technology is a means of empowerment; denying them that option exacerbates their disability's effects.” (Lewis, 1998 p 25). Here is a passage written by a student with a visual impairment that has such profound implications for education and why educators should harness any technology, whether it be rudimentary or cutting edge technology, to assist their students:

I grew up with assistive technology. When people think of assistive technology, they think of complicated machines and hard-to-use computer programs. But that isn’t what assistive technology is. A white cane, for example, is an assistive technology. A magnifying glass is also an assistive technology. Assistive technology means something that helps a person do something that is otherwise hard to do. Glasses, for example, help near-sighted individuals see things far away, therefore they are an assistive technology. Through seven stages of education, I have been slowly introduced to new assistive technologies. Starting with Senior kindergarten, I was introduced to the white cane. By performing sweeping gestures with it, I can find if there is anything in front of me when the cane hits it. In grade one, I was made familiar with the Perkins Brailler. This cleverly crafted piece of technology allows blind or visually impaired people to write and read. Six keys on this machine, when pressed, punch a hole through a paper inserted into the Perkins, creating a small bump on the other side. Each key will materialize a bump on a different location. By combining these six bumps, different letters are made. This type of writing is called Braille. Three other buttons are also present on this machine: space, next line, and backspace. In grade two, I was introduced to the CCTV. This machine magnifies anything you put under it onto a large screen. You can also change some settings such as contrast and zoom percentage. This product is designed for only those with a visual impairment. Because I was more blind than sighted, this piece of equipment did not help me. In grade three, I was introduced to the computer. By using a screen reading program called Jaws, I could hear anything on the screen with the touch of a button. This program opened new doors and lit passageways for my future. I no longer needed to tediously type on a loud, slow Perkins. With this program, I could read documents, brows the internet, and even play games. In grade four, I was introduced to the Braille Note. This machine is almost like a computer, except it was smaller, and had limited functionality. It was like a laptop. Whenever I couldn’t go to my computer, or needed to do work in class, I would use this machine’s word processor, complete with it’s own spell checker and formatting options. After I was done typing, I could transfer my document on to the computer and print it out. This machine was a big help. Through different levels of education, I was introduced to different assistive technologies, each better than the previous. But the assistive technologies were not the only things that helped me become confident and a hard worker. It was the support of my parents, and my wonderful teachers. I think that if I was introduced to these technologies, and they helped me, every other student in the world who needs them should have the right to have them, no matter what age, sex, country or ethnicity. Here I conclude by saying that assistive technology, truly is assistive, no matter if it is a pair of glasses or a complicated computer.

-Hussain, Gifted Grade 6 student.

As a teacher who is currently teaching this wonderfully gifted student with a visual impairment, I can personally attest to the necessity of AT’s. I am constantly bewildered at how education can be seen as anything resembling adequate or fair without AT’s mandated existence and application. The fact alone that AT’s are not addressed in the preservice curriculum for educators is proof positive we have much work to do in addressing issues of equality and fairness. Without having educators understand the value and necessity of these tools, how can we provide students with the tools needed to fully realize their potential? Quite frankly, to have even one student prohibited from a fair and equal education is to fail all students and to that end serious changes must be made to the application of, and appreciation of, the ideological justifications behind Assistive Technologies.


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