School can be tough for any child, but for students with special needs in the classroom, the challenges are amplified. Separation from family, interacting with teachers, making friends, being asked to learn new information every day — these school-day struggles can be massive for students with special needs. The right application of EdTech breaks down barriers in truly astounding ways and helps make a massive difference in their success.
Students with special needs face a wide range of learning challenges; these include learning disabilities (LDs), developmental disabilities, other related disorders, and physical disabilities. (For our purposes, learning disabilities are neurological conditions that interfere with or alter how a child learns.)
Students with learning disabilities can have trouble in many areas including reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, and recalling and/or organizing information. Autism spectrum disorders are the most common developmental disability in the classroom. Related disorders include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, executive functioning, and memory challenges.
Physical disabilities encompass a wide range of challenges. Any of these can be a partial or total impairment and may have been present at birth or acquired. These include impairments in hearing, vision, and mobility.
EdTech and the Challenges of Special Needs Learning
Teaching is a demanding profession. Teaching special needs multiplies the job’s challenges in many ways. Barriers to educating students with special needs include:
- Negative opinions and stereotypes
- Lack of physical access
- Focus on student weaknesses rather than strengths
- Wide variety of students needs
- Lack of focus on unique needs
- Classroom management challenges
- Poor working conditions for special ed teachers
- Lack of parent and community support
- Lack of resources/budget constraints
Students themselves often face a crisis of confidence in addition to the challenges of their unique needs. This can lead to low motivation and poor learning outcomes. Special ed teachers rely on assistive learning devices to address the needs of student challenges. Referred to as assistive technology (AT), these devices are often decidedly low tech.
Defined by the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, AT is “any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” This includes just about anything a resourceful special ed teacher has in his or her toolbox: from highlighters to colored overlays, tools help with reading challenges, and tools to assist with writing such as pencil grips, adapted paper, and spelling aids.
The term “EdTech” encompasses a narrower scope of assistive technology tools, which by no means suggests there’s a narrow range of assistive EdTech tools out there! Increasingly, EdTech means technology that finds its way into the classroom (think iPads, interactive whiteboards, and lots and lots of apps). These everyday tech tools help special needs students fit in with their peers. They have the potential to improve accessibility, to enhance communication, and to help students develop strong learning and life skills.
So, Exactly How Does EdTech Help Students with Special Needs?
Well-deployed EdTech helps special-needs educators and their students overcome many obstacles. Between common devices accessibility features and purpose-built software and hardware, education is now more inclusive than ever.
1. EdTech Helps Students Because It’s an Equalizer
Public policy governing special education supports the inclusion of special needs students in general education classrooms. Introduced in 1975 and now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), this law is like the “Bill of Rights” for students with special needs. It guarantees access to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability.
By all indications, these laws are working. Between 1976 and 2010 there was a 90% increase in the time special ed students spent in general ed classrooms. Today, more than 62% of children with special needs are in gen ed classrooms for 80% or more of their school day. That’s a good thing. Studies show inclusion creates well-rounded individuals and strong learning environments for everyone (everyone includes special needs students and their typically-enabled peers alike).
Without the appropriate supports, however, special needs children in gen ed classrooms can end up frustrated and lacking motivation. Not to mention they can fall behind academically. Educational technology can decrease frustration and increase success in just about every learning area. It can be a vital part of enabling special ed students to interact with peers, engage with teachers, develop confidence, and build academic understanding. The best EdTech gives special needs students a level academic playing field. The key, of course, is matching the right tech to the right students.
2. EdTech Makes Assistive Tools More Available
Among the many great things about assistive technology (AT) today is how easy it can be for schools, teachers, and parents to get their hands on. For one thing, traditional AT has merged with consumer technologies. For another, lots of the best EdTech for special needs children has become common in today’s classrooms.
Many schools offer 1:1 computing. In 2017, half of all teachers said that their students each had a computing device. Today, the percentage of students with an iPad, laptop or Chromebook is clearly higher. Additionally, over 70% of U.S. classrooms were expected to have an interactive display by 2019.
These common tech teaching devices offer access to a treasure trove of assistive learning tools, many of which come included with the device and ready to use out-of-the-box. The iPad, for example, is pre-loaded with amazing features for special needs students. Plus, they work with anything a student does on their iPad. These include:
- Speak Screen, which reads content aloud to those who can’t see it, or who learn better with audio. Students can select from voice and dialect options.
- Speak Selection, which lets users highlight a section to be read to them. Ideal for students with low vision or who get tired reading small type.
- VoiceOver, a gesture-based feature for the blind reads onscreen content and helps users navigate through their iPad.
- Guided Access, locks an iPad to a specific app – great for keeping kids focused and on task.
- Safari Reader View is another distraction-taming feature. It filters websites to remove videos, photos, and ads so that students can read web content without added visual clutter.
Many other accessibility tools are app-based for easy download onto a Chromebook, Android-based interactive display, iPad or other computing devices.
3. EdTech Breaks Down Physical Barriers
For students with mobility challenges, aspects of the physical world that many of us take for granted can be daunting. Students who use wheelchairs, walkers, braces, or other mobility aids face many access challenges. Throughout their day, these students encounter barriers like stairs, narrow walkways, and heavy doors.
In the classroom, students with mobility challenges may find it difficult or impossible to use an important EdTech equalizer – the interactive display. It may be difficult to reach due to height or their reach may be blocked. Interactive displays are the hub of today’s K-12 classrooms. Those equipped with easy access to a browser, apps, and audio and video record functions, like interactive flat panels, offer many ways to adapt lessons for students with special needs.
Wall-mounted displays can present challenges for some special needs students. While less glamorous than the displays they support, trolley carts and lifts are important EdTech tools for special education. An ADA-compliant lift like a Motorized Trolley Cart with 90° Tilt offers many ways to meet student access needs. Top-of-the-line accessibility features to look for include:
- Smooth motorized movement controlled by tapping the touchscreen
- The ability to raise and lower to a wide range of heights with a single tap
- Tilt ability to fine-tune positioning for more students
- Horizontal positioning for tabletop use maximizes access
- A smooth, reliable touchscreen and robust handwriting recognition for those with fine motor skill impairments
- ADA certification for accessible design, protruding objects, reach ranges and operable parts
ViewSonic® offers a range of ADA-certified mobile carts and lifts to meet a range of budgets and accessibility needs. Edtech solutions can help enable access for students unable to directly touch the screen. Tools like a wireless rollerball or joystick can be essential. Wireless switches let students execute mouse clicks from a distance. Wireless keyboards enable remote text entry. Most offer features to address vision impairment challenges.
4. EdTech Delivers New Ways to Communicate
Sharing thoughts, discussing opinions and creating meaning together are keys to today’s constructivist learning. Many disabilities make communication difficult. For these students, advances in EdTech can make debating, discussing and creating with their peers possible.
Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC) strategies use pictures, photos, drawings, and symbols like sign language, to help students communicate. They’re helpful for students with developmental disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, and other speech-limiting disorders. These technologies have evolved from picture boards to specialized voice output devices. Today, there are many apps that enable students with special needs to more quickly communicate their thoughts.
The ability to turn text into sound is another modern EdTech superpower. Text-to-speech (TTS) tools help children who have difficulties reading standard print. Not long ago, these students had to rely on cumbersome solutions like listening to a book on CD or using specialized software; the synthesized voices were unnatural and grating and students often missed out on regular classroom activities.
Today, app-based tools let these students join their peers side-by-side in the classroom. Devices like iPads come with built-in tools like Speak Screen, Speak Selection, and VoiceOver (see details above.) Touchscreens with robust handwriting recognition help students with fine motor skill challenges more legibly share their ideas on the classroom display. Other great EdTech communication tools for special ed students include:
- Co-writer apps like Co:Writer® use predictive analytics and speech recognition to aid writing
- Smartpens with the ability to record class audio and digitize student notes
- Braille-enabled computing accessories
- Hearing aid compatible headsets
5. Apps, Apps, and More Apps
Like most other areas of our lives, when it comes to special education needs, there’s usually an app for it. The appification of assisted learning technology is a massive step forward in the effort to achieve inclusion for students with special needs. From the Co:Writer® app for writing assistance to Learn with Rufus, an app that helps students understand social cues, today’s special ed teachers have more ways than ever to empower their students
For a list of suggested apps, check out Common Sense Media’s comprehensive list of vetted options to get you started.
EdTech Breaks Down Learning Barriers
EdTech is proven to help students with special needs. Whether a student’s challenge is related to learning, mobility, or sensory processing, the right application of EdTech breaks down barriers in truly astounding ways.