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Assistive Technologies: True Digital Inclusion For All

Bowling Green, Ky (October 6, 2020) - Upon hearing the word “inclusion” related to education, most think of shared classroom and learning experiences for kids with special needs. However, true inclusion also involves the equitable opportunity to participate and communicate within the learning environment. In many cases, students with diverse needs rely on digital and technological supports to make this a reality.

Assistive technology (AT) is defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” Special education professionals are constantly assessing the ways that a “low” or “high” tech device can aid their students in any skill, including speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking and many others. 

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Since verbal communication is the primary method of expression for humans, communication systems have long been the focus of speech language pathologists (SLPs) and teachers as the first step for supporting overall student progress. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) includes “all the ways we share our ideas and feelings without talking”. These range from more basic systems, such as a pen and paper, or pointing to pictures on a board, all the way to higher-technology devices like speech-generating devices operated by touch or eye-gaze. 

In this digitally dense world, the amount of resources already available is vast, and more are being developed daily. Some examples of language-based AAC systems include the Accent, a portable, touchscreen device equipped with picture-supported words that are used in a sequence-based language system, and the Tobii, another portable device that uses eye-tracking technology to provide communication opportunities for people with more physical restrictions. There are also iPad-based communication apps such as the LAMP Words for Life language app that provides similar motor-planning based vocabulary sequencing to develop and use language skills.

In addition, there are classroom supports like the TAP-it, which is an adjustable touch accessible learning platform that differentiates between unintentional and intentional touch. With a military grade screen that is mounted to a stand on wheels, it allows students with severe physical disabilities to access a touchscreen and participate in whole-class instruction. 

Tools like switches and switch adapters also help SLPs, as well as occupational therapists (OTs) create inclusive opportunities for both learning and play. A switch, which can look like a small or large button, is primarily used by individuals with motor impairments to access and control devices such as computers, wheelchairs, speech-generating devices and more. The adapter is an input-output connector that allows for the independent activation or operation of various devices using a switch. Most are familiar with the “cheek-switch” that Stephen Hawking used. This same kind of adaptation can be applied to toys or speech devices that require fine-motor actions, like a button inside a doll’s hand that, when depressed, sings or activates movement. 

While digital learning continues to increase in most classrooms and the demand for devices is consistently on the rise, it has always been an essential part of the special education landscape. In schools across the country, there are teachers, SLPs, and OTs using technology to reduce barriers to student learning. This type of digital inclusion frees children with disabilities from the restrictions of conventional interacting and communicating. When using AT and AAC devices, there are fewer limits to access and greater enhancement to learning, working and daily living.

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About the Author: Emily Jordan is the Connected Nation Vice President of Connect K-12. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the organization’s Connect K-12 initiative. She manages external relationships with key stakeholders at the state and federal levels of government, including governors’ offices, education agency heads, and like-minded advocacy and membership organizations. Emily helps state education leaders and K-12 public school districts improve school connectivity and make progress toward the FCC’s 1 Mbps per student bandwidth goal.