How many of us enjoy using technology such as Virtual Digital Assistants like Alexa, GPS, and iPads? Did you know that these tools, along with a multitude of other options can benefit individuals with special needs? This week on the Owl Post let us explore how technology can level the playing field for students with special needs, and how educators at The Owl House incorporate technology creatively to facilitate learning.
What is Assistive Technology?
Technology for special needs students is often called assistive technology. Assistive Technology (AT) is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” The range of potential assistive technology devices is large and includes both high-tech devices like computers, electronic equipment, or software, and low-tech, manually operated devices. Individuals who qualify for special education services have Individualized Education Programs (IEP). An IEP includes measurable goals for the student. Technology can be built into an IEP. Alternative solutions from the world of technology are accommodating physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments in many ways.
Assistive Technology at The Owl House
Virtual Reality (VR) - Virtual reality can benefit students with an array of disabilities, including sensory impairment, autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, behavioural disorders and cognitive difficulties - particularly in special needs classrooms, where the technology has the potential to make a real difference.
For children and adolescents with autism, new places and unfamiliar situations can be incredibly overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Virtual reality gives individuals with different needs the opportunity to practice everyday “real world” skills in a safe environment – one of the biggest benefits to training students in this way is that students can learn from realistic scenarios without the risk of practicing an unfamiliar skill in an uncontrolled real-life situation. Be there, without going anywhere – our students are able to take virtual field trips, visiting places in their communities they would not normally have the opportunity to experience, walk through the streets of another country, vestibular rehabilitation and other sensory integration is addressed using roller-coasters, adventure sports, visual patterns and music.
Rather than sitting in front of a screen or printed resource, VR immerses students in spectacular 360º environments that enhance and complement their real-world exploration and play. Of Course monitoring and moderation of use is essential.
Apps to teach AAC - AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication and it relates to all the tools and strategies that we use with people who have little or no speech.
Communication Apps also known as AAC apps can be high tech options such as speech generating devices, low-tech options, such as symbol boards and communication books, as well as no-tech options such as Key Word Signing. AAC apps are compatible with most electronic devices like mobile phones, tablets, etc.
Let me talk - A free AAC talker app for Android which supports communication in all areas of life and therefore providing a voice to everyone. LetMeTalk enables you to line up images in a meaningful way to read this row of images as a sentence. To line up images is known as AAC. You don’t need an internet or mobile connection to use this app.
What’s Next - What's Next is a communication tool for caregivers looking after a person with limited or no verbal communication skills. It can be used to explain to the person what will happen next (aka First-Then or a Visual Schedule), or ask the person what they want to do next (a simple choice or prompt). This is particularly useful in the case of some medical conditions like autism, developmental delays, etc. The app focuses on presenting either a schedule or a choice solely using images, with no distracting elements on screen (no tabs, navigation, ads, rewards, etc.). A recorded sound or prompt can be added to each image if desired, and text labels are shown so that the caregivers can use consistent words for the same image.
Liftware - Simple tasks such as brushing our teeth, taking a shower, and eating are part of our everyday routine. But uncontrolled motor movements that may be related to different conditions can make these activities frustrating and stressful experiences. Liftware is a technology that has been developed to make various activities of daily living second nature again. Liftware Level uses electronic motion-stabilizing technology to keep your utensil level, regardless of how your hand or arm twists, bends, or moves.
Interactive Digital Media and Games -
Syska - For individuals with a developmental disorder, including autism, the way the brain processes sensory experiences can be a major source of distress and discomfort. If you have a child with sensory processing dysfunction, light sensitivity is a common challenge that they may experience. Children’s moods are strongly affected by lighting: for some it provides a calming, soothing effect and for others it acts as a stimulant. Certain light levels and colors can be beneficial and the ability to control visual stimuli within the space is important. It’s often advised to use adjustable lighting in order to create a calming effect. The Syska App allows us to control the lighting in our sensory room to suit the needs of every individual we work with.
Sorting and discrimination is an essential basic skill that has multiple applications. At The Owl House we address this skill while simultaneously learning computer skills.
Education.com has a plethora of sorting games at different levels that enhance discrimination skills while at the same time allowing for practice and honing of computer skills like mouse control and basic typing.
Design - For students who show an affinity for computers and design. We have on occasion used Tinkercad, a free, easy-to-use app for 3D design, electronics, and coding. The interactive and creative elements of this program also address other skills like making choices, planning and organisation etc.
Accessibility Tools and Extensions for Chrome - Tools on the Computer for individuals with visual impairments
Google Chrome - Dark Mode - Link
It’s much easier for low-vision users to read light text on a dark background. Some of the basic design tactics for helping low-vision users are the use of colour and contrast that is the primary feature of Dark Mode.
Mercury reader - Link
The Mercury Reader extension for Chrome removes ads and distractions, leaving only text and images for a clean and consistent reading view on every site.
Speech to Text - Human speech recognition and synthesizing technology is extremely helpful for students with disorders that don’t allow to process visual information correctly. Computers can use speech synthesis to read text and screen contents giving visually impaired and blind users access. Adding speech support to standard software can give additional help to someone with visual difficulties.
Function over Disability - When looking at specific learning tools necessary to ensure learning success, special educators are often encouraged to focus on the functional learning outcome, rather than technology for a specific disability.
Technology is a tool for empowerment—it creates a collaborative and innovative space for all students. It helps educators to tailor their teaching methods to accommodate individual needs, and adapt to the possibilities of a student with minimum effort by choosing from dozens of learning tactics available, enabling higher flexibility and differentiation in educational methodologies.