In the United States, all children with disabilities have the right to a “free, appropriate public education.” It’s a law: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which promises to give educators and parents the tools they need to “improve educational results for children with disabilities.”
These tools include grant funding, activity support, research, and training—plus “technology development and media services,” to use the letter of the law. In other words, educators must provide assistive technology tools in the classroom.
But the closer you look at assistive technology, the less distinct the category appears. (The same is true about the construct of disability itself; today’s experts discuss what we once called “learning disabilities,” like ADHD and dyslexia, as “learning and thinking differences,” reflecting the wide spectrum of individual learning experience—and the arbitrariness of labels, however practical.)
All technology could be called assistive; a keyboard assists communication, and so does a pen, and so does a screen reader that turns writing into sound. And assistive technology benefits for students with disabilities may, in fact, apply to learners unlabeled with a particular diagnosis. Any technology may remove barriers for people with disabilities, and self-described “assistive” technology may ease access for all.
So what’s an educator to do when looking for truly helpful assistive technology?
Keep reading for some ideas. In this article, we’ll provide a few assistive technology examples. We’ll explore digital assistive technology for communication in the classroom—including the remote learning environment. And we’ll provide a step-by-step guide to choosing the tools that open the path to education for the unique individuals who make up your class.
Looking for a way to improve focus in remote learning environments? Find out how ReadSpeaker focus tools help remove barriers in digital education.
Examples of Assistive Technology for Communication in the Classroom
The field of assistive technology is always expanding to meet the changing needs of students. (Just look at the sudden lurch to online education that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, and the digital communication tools that made it possible.)
Teachers may get some of these tools from disability services or special education offices. Others may come out of the IT budget. But they’re all designed to meet the needs of individual learners, whether they’ve registered a disability or not. The goal of all assistive technology is to remove barriers to learning—and in a class with 30 students, you’ll find at least that many barriers.
Some common examples of assistive technology in the classroom (physical or virtual) include, in no particular order:
1. Screen readers
This software converts user interface controls and on-screen text into speech, allowing learners to interact with computers through sound rather than images. That’s essential for people with blindness and visual impairments. It’s also helpful for people with cognitive and learning differences, motor disabilities, or a simple preference for auditory engagement. In fact, a 2021 survey asked if respondents used screen readers due to a disability; 7.7% said no.
Screen readers are available, some free and some at a significant cost, for all leading operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, and Android. Examples include JAWS ($90/year for students) and NVDA (free), both for Windows; and VoiceOver for Mac and iOS (pre-installed on Apple products).
2. Web readers
Web readers are similar to screen readers in that they convert on-screen text into audible speech using a technology called text to speech (TTS). But web readers focus on content itself, not the user interface controls.
A solution like ReadSpeaker’s webReader bundles this TTS service (with over 200 lifelike voices, in more than 50 languages!) into a broader array of focus and accessibility tools, some of which we’ll explore below. All these services are available on web pages or integrated into learning management systems (LMS) and proctoring applications.
3. Eye-tracking technologies
Eye trackers allow users to control computers with eye movements alone, moving the cursor with the gaze, and registering clicks with a switch or a lingering glance. This technology opens up computer usage—with all its educational and communication benefits, both in remote learning and in the live classroom—to people who don’t use traditional interface tools like a keyboard and mouse. This technology can also register the student’s focus on the screen, helping instructors frame educational conversations.
4. Recording devices
This could be as simple as a cell phone video camera or audio recorder, allowing students to record lectures for necessary review. But they can also be specialized. For instance, a smart pen is an electronic stylus with a tablet device. Learners use the pen to take notes on the tablet; later, they run the pen over the words and the device reads the text back to them out loud.
Livescribe offers a few styles of smart pens. And for standard audio or video recording, look no further than your nearest smartphone.
5. Page masks and reading rulers
In the physical world, these may be as simple as a piece of paper with a rectangle cut out, so the student can focus on one paragraph (or line of text) at a time, without distraction. Digital versions are available, too; one’s available through many of ReadSpeaker’s products, such as TextAid.
A similar focus tool to the page mask, reading rulers may be, in fact, a ruler—or they could be a notecard or even another sheet of paper. Students use them to keep their focus on one line or sentence at a time.
6. Text-only modes
This is strictly an online tool. It reformats pages to remove images and left-justify all written content. That eliminates distractions, helping students focus on the material. Text-only mode is available with a click through several ReadSpeaker TTS products.
7. Audio files
Learners with blindness, visual impairments, and a predilection for auditory learning need to listen to content, not read it. While screen readers and web readers (see sidebar) perform this task in real-time, mp3s or other static audio files can help where these TTS tools are not available.
Educators can make mp3 downloads of written content available, recording files themselves. More simply, they can use ReadSpeaker solutions for instant mp3 downloads of all written content, thanks to TTS technology.
Second-language learners and students working on literacy must build vocabulary. A quick-access online dictionary, loaded into a page or document’s user interface, makes that simple. Some learners may benefit from illustrated dictionaries, too, allowing them to draw connections between images and the words that describe them.
ReadSpeaker’s webReader embeds a comprehensive online dictionary in its user interface, making this tool available without opening new tabs—or heading to the bookshelf.
9. Braille devices
It’s a myth that readers with blindness overwhelmingly use Braille. In 2009, for instance, there were 1.3 million people who were legally blind in the U.S.; fewer than 10% of them read Braille. But for learners who do use the touch-based writing system, refreshable Braille displays have tremendous value, both for reading content and for using computers more generally. Find a list of providers, assembled by the American Foundation for the Blind, here.
The broadest category of assistive technology for education is also the most low-tech. Manipulatives are any physical objects that can help with learning, from counting blocks to an abacus to tin images for touch-based graphing.
As this list demonstrates, assistive technology does not have to be electronic. Technology for education may include any designed material or tool, digital or physical, that helps students learn. But since the COVID-19 pandemic forced students en masse into online classrooms, that learning has faced unprecedented challenges—challenges that digital technology can address.
Remote Learning and Assistive Technology for Education
The whole notion of the classroom has been turned on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. For millions of students in the U.S. alone, “class” turned into a screen, while the “room” moved into the home. The assistive technology used in the classroom isn’t always available in online environments.
That’s created new barriers to learning for students, both with and without registered disabilities. Screen fatigue is a real phenomenon. In a traditional classroom, there’s always a lot going on. You might get up to write on the chalkboard. You might pick up objects, build models, or learn about biology by planting flowers. At home, staring at a screen, the variety dries up—leading to difficulty concentrating on the lesson.
That’s where online focus tools come into play. Digital tools can help maintain attention, introduce variety, and enable multi-modal education—which frameworks like Universal Design for Learning require, since students all learn differently.
Interested in applying Universal Design for Learning principles in your online classroom? Download our free white paper, Designing for Difference, to learn how.
Here are a few ways ReadSpeaker’s digital focus tools remove learning barriers in digital spaces:
- Text-to-speech gives students a way to listen to online writing, not just read it. With many voices available, they can switch to a new sound, reducing boredom. And the system can highlight text as it’s read aloud, assisting language learners and preserving focus.
- Text enlargement makes writing legible for students with visual impairments. It also enhances focus for learners with attention disorders, as well as anyone who’s just sick of staring at a screen for hours at a time.
- Plain-text mode removes distractions so students can focus on the important material on the screen.
- Instant translation accounts for the multiplicity of languages represented by a diverse student population.
- Downloadable mp3s give learners ongoing access to lesson materials.
- Digital page masks keep readers focused on one line at a time—or one paragraph, since the size of the mask is adjustable.
All of these tools, and more, are available through a single simple interface—and they integrate seamlessly with all major learning management systems (LMS), essential for remote classrooms everywhere. But whether it’s webReader or a Braille keyboard, how should educators pick the best solution available?
How to Choose Assistive Technology for Education
Not all products will fit exactly into your classroom. Here’s a process that can help make those tough choices around which technology vendor will provide the most benefits for your students.
1. Talk to your peers about their experience with the technology.
Reach out to institutions like yours—with the same grades, same population size, and similar funding—and get a list of what they use. Then investigate them to create your own list of competing vendors.
2. See which products are on your institution’s approved technology list.
Most educational institutions—at the school or district level—don’t allow teachers to buy just anything. They’ll provide a list of approved products, possibly through technology or special education departments.
If a product you’d like to investigate isn’t on the list, ask about the process for getting it added. If the bureaucratic hurdles are worth it, you might bring a new technology to your entire institution.
3. Ask companies for an in-house demo.
You don’t really know how a technology will perform until you see it in the wild. Ask your companies for a trial of their products so you can test them with your students, at your school. (Ideally, these pilots will be free.) A good pilot program will include upfront training and post-trial review, which helps to analyze results based on the specifics of your implementation.
When you’re testing assistive technology, be sure to collect student input. As students try out the technology, ask them (at least) three questions:
- What do you like about this technology?
- What do you dislike?
- What would you like to see in a tool like this? That is, what features are missing?
Try the assistive technology both in and out of your classroom. At the post-secondary level, set up demo kiosks at libraries, cafeterias, or student unions. For K-12 education, take the tech on a tour of multiple classes. The key is to get a broad variety of student opinions—even if you’re just looking for a learning tool for your own classroom. If it works, you may want to take it institution-wide. A broad sample of student opinion translates into greater benefits upon adoption.
4. See if your top candidates offer free training.
Whether it’s an online accessibility overlay or a physical Braille keyboard, assistive technology often has a learning curve. Choose vendors who will help you get the most out of the product—which means a robust training program. Ask if a team from the provider will train a select group of school staff, who can then share the training with everyone else who may need it, from fellow-teachers to students.
5. Implement the assistive technology—and continue evaluating its usefulness in the classroom.
Every class has different needs, and what worked for one group of students might not apply to the next. Even as you use assistive technology in the classroom, keep an eye on how students are using it (even better, ask about their experiences!). Ongoing evaluation can keep your classroom up to date—and your students learning as well as possible.
The truth is, assistive technology is a moving target. Technology advances. Students change.
The best we can do here is get you started on the research; stocking a classroom with technology is a task that never ends. ReadSpeaker is always here to help, with constantly evolving TTS solutions and focus tools to meet the changing needs of each generation of learners.
Contact us anytime to learn more about assistive technology in education, and to find out how ReadSpeaker can help.