In 2019, over 7 million students with disabilities navigated learning obstacles while attending school. That’s 14% of total student enrollment. In a typical classroom setting, teachers aid these students by designing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that are structured with assistive technological support. Teachers follow the same steps in an online setting, but the available instruction methods and assistive technologies are vastly different. This post outlines the 10 most beneficial assistive technologies you can use in your online classroom, as well as their unique benefits.
What Is Assistive Technology in Special Education?
Assistive technology is any device, software or product that improves a person’s ability to perform a task. In a special education setting, students use assistive technology to achieve the learning goals defined in their IEP. These aids can be as simple as a calculator or as high-tech as speech recognition software.
Generally, assistive technology falls into three categories:
- Low-tech: Technologies that don’t involve complex electronics or specialized software are considered low-tech. Some examples include graphic organizers and a pencil grip.
- Mid-tech: Mid-tech assistive technologies enhance another technology’s performance. Examples include screen magnifiers, adapted switches and talking calculators.
- High-tech: Assistive technologies are considered high-tech when they’re stand-alone technologies that enhance performance. Common examples include keyboard and mouse alternatives, word prediction programs and text-to-speech software.
In the classroom, teachers supply their students with assistive technologies knowing they can monitor usage and guide group instruction. In an online classroom, teachers lose the ability to administer physical assistive technologies. However, there are still many effective solutions that students can use from home — either individually or with the help of a caregiver.
How Can Assistive Technology Be Used to Help Students?
Assistive technologies help students navigate learning obstacles. For some students, this may mean reducing stimuli by going to a quiet and dimly lit room. Other students may require more support, like aligning math equations or having braille text. Assistive technology can be used for at-home education to help students do the following:
- Hear and listen to instructions
- Understand math concepts
- Improve writing abilities
- Stay engaged
- Write their thoughts and solutions completely and legibly
- Read assigned text
- Communicate with other students and faculty online
You can supply some assistive technologies as online resources that students can easily access. If you supply online resources, consider adding every resource to one webpage on your teaching module. That way, students don’t have to navigate through a handful of webpages.
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Additionally, you can supply in-home assistive technologies, such as an alternative keyboard or braille printer. Your school may or may not be able to cover these costs. If not, make a suggestion to the students’ parents, but be prepared if the student simply can’t access high-tech assistive technologies.
The Benefits of Assistive Technology for Online Education
Assistive technology makes it easier for students to learn. Being able to take control of their education is huge for students with disabilities. For some, this feeling of control can even be life-changing. The use of various assistive technology devices in an online classroom facilitates the following benefits:
1. Instills a Sense of Independence
Students with disabilities overcome many challenges in their daily routine. At school, these challenges can make them feel dependent on others. Although there’s nothing wrong with receiving assistance, some students may feel different from their peers who don’t require the same teacher-student dependence.
Assistive technology restores students’ independence. It allows students to take charge of their own learning, manipulating technologies by themselves to achieve tasks independently.
2. Allows Students to Realize Their Potential
When students take charge of their learning, their newfound independence unlocks potential they didn’t know was possible. Stigmas and a lack of technology may have built boundaries that made it difficult, or impossible, for students to work around. With assistive technology, students don’t have to face the same obstacles. Students with disabilities have the potential to perform larger and more complex tasks, preparing them for a future of continued success.
3. Restores Confidence in Students With Disabilities
A sense of independence and unlocked potential helps students with disabilities feel more confident in themselves and their abilities. Without assistive technology, students may become frustrated when they can’t complete a task. With assistive technology, every task completed restores students’ self-esteem and willingness to complete more tasks.
4. Brings Students With Differing Abilities Together
Differing abilities can lead to social separation. At school, students learn foundational concepts they’ll use throughout their life, including social skills. It’s important for students of all abilities to interact with each other because:
- Able-bodied students empathize with people different than them, breaking down the social stigma associated with differing abilities.
- Students with disabilities feel included, strengthening their self-worth.
In an online setting, give everyone the same access to assistive technology. Giving only a handful of students access to assistive technology can make them feel excluded from the group. Offering everyone the same learning opportunities echoes the benefits outlined above.
10 Best Assistive Technology Tools for Teachers and Students
Online education is stressful for many teachers. Although special education is most often taught in-person, assistive technologies allow instruction to take place online. Meet with each student and, after designing their IEP, make a game plan. Prepare synchronous and asynchronous lesson plans. Reflecting on each IEP, think about the students’ learning obstacles and determine a list of assistive technologies that could help your student succeed.
Consider adding these 10 assistive technologies to your online instruction as needed:
High-Tech Assistive Technology
High-tech assistive technology students can use for online learning includes:
1. Speech Recognition Software
Speech recognition software, also known as speech-to-text, decodes the human voice to perform a defined behavior. An example you may be familiar with is the speech recognition software in modern smartphones. A single phrase activates the software, where you then use your voice to tell the software what to do. If you want to make a call, you can tell the software to call your friend, and the speech recognition software will start the call for you.
Students with disabilities, like those with a movement disorder, benefit from speech-to-text software because they don’t have to directly manipulate a keyboard or mouse. Also, students with stronger verbal than written skills can complete assignments like essays or short-response questions more easily.
2. Speech Synthesizer
Speech synthesizer, also known as text-to-speech, does the opposite — it reads text aloud to the students. A common example of text-to-speech software is an audiobook. The software picks up syllables, speech patterns, dates, abbreviations and more to piece together complete and coherent sentences.
Students can use speech-to-text and text-to-speech software together. That way, students can talk to their speech software, and their speech software can talk back. This two-way relationship benefits students who are visually impaired or who have a hard time deciphering sentence and word structures.
3. Electronic Math Worksheets
Students with dyscalculia have a hard time understanding math concepts. Numbers are difficult to differentiate, and aligning math formulas proves challenging. Electronic math worksheets are software programs that help students align formulas, work through problems and organize their thoughts in a single space.
Electronic math worksheets work in tandem with text-to-speech software, reading math problems aloud. Some software has built-in talking calculators, so students don’t have to transfer attention back-and-forth between worksheets and calculators. This makes it easy for students with visual impairments to complete their work, as well as students with attention deficits.
4. Word Prediction Program
When students type with a physical or on-screen keyboard, word prediction programs help them translate their thoughts into complete sentences. As a student completes assignments, word prediction programs detect their speech patterns. As they type more, the program suggests words the students can click or tap.
Word prediction programs are valuable tools for students with general writing issues. Some students have a hard time typing on their keyboard, and word prediction programs can save them a lot of time. Others have a hard time slowing their mind down to complete coherent sentences. Whatever the case, every student can benefit from this type of software.
5. Alternative Keyboards and Mice
Some students have difficulties using traditional keyboards and mice. The fine and gross motor movements can be difficult for students with limited mobility, and students with visual impairments may find it hard to read keyboard fonts.
There are a number of alternative keyboards and mice available. Most are compatible with modern computers and laptops. Some alternative keyboards and mice attributes include:
- Larger fonts
- Color-coded key groupings
- Angled keyboard shapes
- Orbital mice
Provide parents with resources on where they can find an alternative keyboard or mouse that suits their student’s individual needs. Or, consider talking to your school administrator about supplying these keyboards and mice to students.
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Mid-Tech Assistive Technology
Mid-tech assistive technology students can use for online learning includes:
6. Braille Support
Some students with visual impairments require Braille support to follow along with lessons. There are a handful of Braille support tools for online learning. Two of the most influential support tools are:
- Refreshable Braille display: Most commonly, a Braille display device is a keyboard attachment that displays text from a computer screen. It takes information from the screen — wherever the cursor is — and raises or retracts the Braille characters to reflect the information displayed.
- Braille printer: A Braille printer is like a normal printer, but instead of printing text in ink, it prints text in Braille. This assistive technology is especially useful when distributing textbook pages or worksheets.
Many traditional schools have Braille printers available. It’s harder to distribute Braille text in an online setting if the student doesn’t have a Braille printer in their home. Braille support requires solid parent-teacher communication because not everyone can afford Braille displays or printers.
7. Proofreading Programs
Some students with disabilities find it hard to type and form complete sentences. Proofreading programs are similar to word prediction software, except they don’t think ahead. Instead, proofreading programs read what students have already written and make suggestions based on grammar principles.
A lot of proofreading programs are free and students can install proofreading programs on their web browser. As they type, the program will correct mistakes, provide quick translation, define words when prompted and act as a personal trainer.
8. Talking Calculator
A talking calculator is like an average calculator, except it has a built-in speech synthesizer that vocalizes numbers, operations, symbols and solutions. Talking calculators are particularly helpful for students who are visually impaired. When working through solutions, the calculator confirms they clicked the right number and will vocalize the calculated solution.
Talking calculators may also be beneficial for students with other disabilities. The added element of verbal confirmation can help students stay focused and engaged. Students can find online talking calculators. Or, they may prefer purchasing a physical talking calculator.
Low-Tech Assistive Technology
Low-tech assistive technology students can use for online learning includes:
Timers are suitable assistive technology tools. Using a timer in your online instruction is beneficial for:
- Transitioning from task to task: Switching tasks can feel overwhelming for students, especially those with an autism spectrum disorder. Having a timer helps students mentally prepare for the switch and maintain their motivation.
- Staying on task: When students see the timer ticking down, they may feel more motivated to complete their tasks before the timer finishes.
- Promoting independence: Timing a task tells students what they need to do and how much time they have to do it. This sense of control promotes independence for students.
You can use a digital timer, keep a timer in-view on your webcam or encourage students to buy their own timers to keep on their desks.
10. Graphic Organizers and Outlining Programs
Students have a busy schedule. Graphic organizers and outlining programs are important for students with learning disabilities because they keep their schedule manageable. A busy schedule can feel very overwhelming for students, lessening their attention span and willingness to learn.
Visual organizers and schedules are a good way to compartmentalize daily tasks for your students with learning disabilities. They can help students manage their tasks on their own without overwhelming or stressing them out. Additionally, schedules that use color coordination and pictures to organize tasks can help students better remember and understand what they need to do.
On your teacher module, outline your program the best you can. Keep a public calendar that lists synchronous due dates. Also, send notifications to students to remind them to add other important dates and times, like one-on-one instruction. Keep the same line of communication with the students’ parents, too.
Browse Learning Aids for Online Teaching at Enabling Devices
Teaching special education online is new for many teachers. Enabling Devices offers assistive technologies that help students learn from the comfort of their homes when paired with the right instruction. For 40 years, we’ve designed assistive tools that satisfy today’s growing needs. If you’re a teacher or administrator looking for ways to strengthen your online teaching, browse our assistive technologies today. For immediate service, give us a call at 914-747-3070.