Much has been made in recent years of the integration of technology into classrooms. Portable devices, educational apps, interactive whiteboards and even augmented reality are all becoming common – if not essential – tools for students of all ages. Accessible technology opens up avenues for teaching and learning that are only just now being explored.
But for a significant subset of students, much of this mainstream technology has long been inaccessible. Physically challenged students – who in 2012-13 made up 13% of public school students in the United States – may often struggle with technology their peers take for granted. This adds another hurdle to a classroom environment that can already seem daunting and hostile.
Cue the rise of assistive technology, a growing field of innovation designed specifically to accommodate the physically challenged. Assistive technology is a catch-all term that can include developments as simple as close-captioning or as complex as the thought-controlled wheelchair used by Stephen Hawking.
For students with disabilities, assistive technology can turn classrooms from exclusive to inclusive environments. Students who are visually impaired or experience difficulty reading can now make use of text-to-speech functions via e-reader at their desks, and still contribute to class discussions in real-time. Or those with cerebral palsy can operate computers with their cheek.
Two important recent developments in assistive technology have allowed students with disabilities to become further involved in the classroom. The first – the increased portability of devices due to their shrinking size and wireless capabilities – gives students with disabilities far greater autonomy and independence. Where once students were bound to the few spaces with unwieldy assistive technology, now devices can be easily carried or mounted to wheelchairs.
Hand-in-hand with portability is the growing accessibility of mobile technology. Handheld devices such as tablets and mobile phones are ubiquitous, and now come with built-in assistive technology: speech recognition software and Braille displays, for example. Not only does this make it easier for special needs students to join general education classes, but it also means assistive technology is now mainstream amongst all students, allowing students with disabilities to integrate more fully with their cohort.
For those students who for behavioural or logistical reasons can’t physically join the school classroom, assistive technology allows participative education in an environment free of obstacles or distractions. Immersive technology means that students can learn in virtual environments – there are Oculus Rift programs, for example, that allow children on the autistic spectrum to learn about the solar system by virtually travelling through space.
While these technologies are clearly beneficial to students with disabilities, and their uptake is increasing, it’s important to remember that that technological progress doesn’t just occur in a lab. Parents, carers and teachers must be educated and prepared to bring assistive technology into their learning environments. A 2016 study found that rates of assistive technology access for secondary students is still very low, with only 7% of students reporting use of the resource at school.
In order to fully utilise assistive technology, and share its educational benefits with the millions of students with disabilities across America, educators must be proactive. Though once assistive technology was clunky, bulky and often expensive, these limitations no longer exist – now changing the course of a student’s education can be as simple as installing an app.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.