, Research Paper
Computers and Disabled People
According to the United Nations more than 500 million people suffer from some type of physical, mental, or sensory impairment. Despite many efforts disabled people continue to be denied equal opportunities and in some societies still remain isolated. The United Nations has prompted cities and towns throughout the world to provide such seemingly simple, basic, and obvious services as access ramps and sidewalk indentations for the convenience of the disabled people. This extends to the world of technology as well.
Responding to the times, technology has made considerable advances in helping individuals with learning disabilities become productive and independent participants in work, classroom, and leisure settings. Recent laws mandating civil rights for those with disabilities can be interpreted to imply that the implementation of technology is a significant opportunity for the provision of equal access.
The forces of “equal access,” “non-discrimination,” and “reasonable accommodations” have created an environment which encourages the use of technology designed to help those with learning disabilities function on a more equal basis with their non-disabled peers.
Assistive technology, sometimes referred to as adaptive or access technology, includes a whole realm of high and low technology devices designed to increase the independence of individuals with learning disabilities by enabling them to compensate for deficits, enhance self-confidence, and participate more fully in all settings – work, school, home, and leisure. While not exclusively so, these technologies tend to be electronically sophisticated and largely computer-based. Assistive technology can enhance the quality of life for a person with a learning disability by enabling the individual to circumvent specific deficits, while capitalizing on given strengths.
The Tech Act defines AT devices as any item, piece of equipment, or product system (whether acquired off the shelf, modified, or customized) that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT devices may be categorized as high technology and low technology (Behrmann, M.M., 1995).
Many low-tech devices can be purchased at a hardware store, selected from a catalog, or fabricated using tools and materials found in home workshops. Examples might be note-taking cassette recorders, pencil grips, NCR paper/copy machine, simple switches, head pointers, picture boards, taped instructions, or workbooks (Behrmann, M.M., 1995).
High-tech devices frequently incorporate some type of computer chip, such as a hand-held calculator or a “talking clock.” Examples might be optical character recognition (OCR) calculators, word processors with spelling and grammar checking, word prediction, voice recognition, speech synthesizers, augmentative communication devices, alternative keyboards, or instructional software (Behrmann, M.M., 1995).
Before the employer or teacher can determine the kinds of assistive technology that will best suit the needs of the employee/student with learning disabilities, the functional limitations that the individual displays need to be defined. First, what job duties or coursework obligations are the individuals expected to perform? In what specific areas is the individual having difficulties? What is it specifically that the individual cannot do or does not do according to the employer’s/instructor’s expectations? The answers to these questions will determine the kinds of assistive devices that can be put in place to enable the person with learning disabilities to perform the essential functions of the job or meet the requirements of a course.
Technology is bursting into the classroom at all levels, as a tool for teachers to develop, monitor, and provide instructions, and for students to access and engage in learning. The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act or P.L. 100-407) was designed to enhance the availability and quality of assistive technology (AT) devices and services to all individuals and their families throughout the United States (Warger, 1998).
The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) emphasizes the importance of technology and the need to share cutting-edge information about advances in the field. The law requires that assistive technology devices and services be considered for all children identified as having an exceptional education need. These amendments marked a significant shift in how educators view assistive technology; previously had been viewed almost exclusively within a rehabilitative or remediative context. Now, within the context of planning individualized education plans (IEP), technology is being considered as a viable tool for expanding access to the general education curriculum. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure that IEP teams consider the maximum benefits of technology use (Warger, 1998).
There are some areas of instruction where AT could assist students/adults with mild disabilities. These areas include organization, note taking, writing assistance, productivity, access to reference materials, cognitive assistance, and materials modification. In looking at organization, low-tech solutions include teaching students to organize their thoughts or work using flowcharting, task analysis, webbing or networking ideas, and outlining. These strategies can be accomplished using graphic organizers to visually assist students in developing and structuring ideas. A high-tech solution might be the outline function of word processing software, which lets students set out major ideas or topics and then add subcategories of information (Behrmann, 1995).
Concerning note taking, a simple approach is for the teacher to provide copies of structured outlines for students to use in filling in information. A high-tech approach might include optical character recognition, which is software that can transform typewritten material into computer-readable text using a scanner (Behrmann, 1995).
Another high-tech method is to use micro-cassette recorders. A voice synthesizer, allowing students with reading difficulty much the same as reviewing a tape recording to review the notes, can read notes much the same as reviewing a tape recording. Recorders are beneficial for students with auditory receptive strength, but they may be less useful for those needing visual input. Videotaping class sessions may be helpful for visual learners who pick up on images or body language, or for students who are unable to attend class for extended periods of time (Behrmann, 1995).
Laptop or notebook computers can provide high-tech note taking for many students with disabilities. An inexpensive alternative to a full-function portable computer is the portable keyboard. The limitations of these keyboards are in formatting information and a screen display limited to four lines of text (Behrmann, 1995).
Word processing may be the most important application of assistive technology for students with mild disabilities. Many of these students have been identified as needing assistance in the language arts, specifically in writing. Computers and word processing software enable students to put ideas on paper without the barriers imposed by paper and pencil. Writing barriers for students with mild disabilities include mechanics: spelling, grammar and punctuation errors; process: generating ideas, organizing, drafting, editing, and revising; and motivation: clarity and neatness of final copy, reading ability, and interest in writing (Behrmann, 1995).
Grammar/spellcheckers, dictionaries, and thesaurus programs assist in the mechanics of writing. Macros, a feature that allows keystrokes to be recorded in a file that can be used over and over, also assist in mechanics. Macros can be used for spelling difficult text, for repetitive strings of words, or for formatting paragraphs and pages. Macros also save time for students who have difficulty with either the cognitive or motor (keyboarding) requirements of writing. Word prediction is assistive software that functions similarly to macros. If a student has difficulty with word recall or spelling and cannot easily use the dictionary or thesaurus feature, then word prediction software offers several choices of words that can be selected (Lewis, R. & Ashton, T. 1998).
Teachers can use the editing capabilities of the word processor during the writing process, making electronic suggestions on the student’s disk. If the computer is on a network, students can read each other’s work and make comments for revision. Peer feedback is an effective way to assist students in generating and revising text. Computer editing also reduces or eliminates problems such as multiple erasures, torn papers, poor handwriting, and the need to constantly rewrite text that needs only minor modifications. The final copy is neat and legible (Behrmann, 1995).
As a teacher in training, a problem seen in the classroom is the students’ motivation to write. Motivation seems to be increased through the desktop publishing and multimedia capabilities of newer computers. There are a variety of fonts and styles available. This allows students to customize their writing and highlight important features. Graphic images, drawings, and even video and audio can be added to the project to provide interest or highlight ideas. Multimedia often gives the student the means and the motivation to generate new and more complex ideas (Behrmann, 1995).
Productivity is a problem in the classroom as well. Assistive productivity tools can be hardware-based, software-based, or both. Calculators, for example, can be the credit-card type or software based, which can be popped up and used during word processing. Spreadsheets, databases, and graphics software also offer productivity tools, enabling students to work on math or other subjects that may require calculating, categorizing, grouping, and predicting events.
Productivity tools also can be found in small, portable devices called personal digital assistants (PDAs). Newer PDAs can be used as note taking devices via a small keyboard or graphics-based pen input. Some PDAs can translate words printed with the pen input device to computer-readable text, which can then be edited with the word processor and transmitted to a full function computer (Behrmann, 1995).
Telecommunications and multimedia are providing new learning tools for the students. A computer and a modem can transport students beyond their physical environment to access electronic information. This is particularly appropriate for individuals who are easily distracted when going to new and busy environments such as the library. Telecommunications networks offer access to the information superhighway. Students can become cyber-friends with other students, which often motivates them to generate more text and thus gain more experience in writing. Students can also access electronic encyclopedias, library references, and online publications. I have found that when using the World Wide Web, the activities should be structured, because the information highway is complex and it is easy to get distracted or lost as opportunities are explored.
There are many products for people who need cognitive assistance. There is software, which is available for instructing students through tutorials, drill and practice, problem-solving, and simulations. Many of the assistive technologies, which I have described, can be combined with instructional programs to develop and improve cognitive and problem-solving skills.
Being in the field of special education I have used this type of software in my lessons. CD-based programs offer another tool for assisted reading. Similar to talking word processors, CD-based books include high-interest stories that use the power of multimedia to motivate students to read. These books read each page of the story, highlighting the words as they are read. Additional clicks of the mouse result in pronunciation of syllables and a definition of the word. When the student clicks on a picture, a label appears. A verbal pronunciation of the label is offered when the student clicks the mouse again. These books are available in both English and Spanish, so students can read in their native language while being exposed to a second language.
Since the passage of Public Law 94-142, children with disabilities have been assured access to education. Elementary and secondary schools are required to identify and serve students with disabilities; however, at the postsecondary level, according to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the responsibility for initiating provision of services and accommodations falls to the individual student.
Although assistive technology is recognize