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5 Communication Tools for Special Education Teachers

How do you know what assistive technology is right for your students? Start with these five communication tools for special education teachers.

July 25, 2023 by Amy Foxwell
5 Communication Tools for Special Education Teachers

In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “ensures special education and related services” for children with disabilities. It does this by mandating (and sometimes funding) accommodations for eligible students.

The language of the law is wonderfully inclusive, with an expansive legal definition of disability that covers everything from developmental disabilities to motor disabilities to limited hearing or vision. Essentially, any “health impairment” that leads to a need for “special education and related services” qualifies a student for personalized accommodations under IDEA.

Many of these disabilities interfere with reading, writing, speaking, and language comprehension—but all in different ways. That creates a challenge for special education teachers: With so many individual needs, what kind of assistive technology (AT) should you keep on hand to address communication challenges?

We asked occupational therapists and a student with disabilities about the AT that best supports communication in the classroom. Based on their responses, we identified five of the top tools for special education teachers.

5 Key Communication Tools for Special Education Teachers

While this is a general list, AT always serves a specific individual. Educators should plan to personalize these tools for the student, said Rachel Brimblecombe, an occupational therapist and founder/director of health provider Better Rehab.

“People who use the same tool will sometimes have very different set-ups,” Brimblecombe said. “The end-goal, regardless of the set-up, is to promote the specific individual’s independence and participation in class.”

With that in mind, here are a few types of AT that belong in every special education classroom.

1. Aided Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Tools

“For me, a really interesting tool is the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, particularly aided AAC,” said Elaine Lee, national clinical lead for occupational therapy at Better Rehab.

While AAC describes any and all non-speech communication—including signs and gestures— aided AAC refers specifically to assistive technology. That could be as simple as a pair of pictures representing two choices; the student points to an image to state a preference.

Specialized software and speech-generating devices provide much more advanced AAC capabilities, however. Your aided AAC software may play pre-recorded words or phrases when the student presses a button, for instance. Or a device may use text-to-speech (TTS) technology to give voice to anything the student writes.

“These AAC tools help people communicate with external assistance such as an iPad or speech-generating device,” Lee said.

“We have a few participants who use aided AAC software, and the growth in their independence since we set it up for them is staggering.”

Of course, AAC isn’t the only way to use TTS in the special education classroom. You’ll see synthetic speech technology come up again before this article’s finished.

2. Gripping Aids

Assistive technology should fulfill a specific functional need, and many of these needs don’t require advanced digital technology.

“Some AT devices are expensive, but there are also very cost-effective tools available,” Lee said. “One example is an ergonomic pencil grip. We had a participant who was struggling to write legibly and with pace, and the grip helped them out immensely.”

“Small things like this can be purchased at a local office supply store and greatly improve a student’s learning experience.”

Ergonomic pencil grips are just one type of gripping aid. If your students have disabilities that limit the use of their hands, you might also provide adaptive typing tools, universal cuffs, or even simple foam tubes. The key is to help students keep a firm hold on writing tools—whether that’s a pen or a keyboard—so they can focus on what they’re writing.

3. Speech-to-Text Software

According to Brimblecombe, speech-to-text software is a “really useful and often-underrated tool” that converts spoken language into writing.

“This is useful for people who have trouble with writing, for example if they have cerebral palsy, hand deformity, amputation, or a broken hand or arm,” Brimblecombe said.

“It’s helpful for people who have trouble listening to the teacher and writing at the same time, and people with dyslexia. It’s also a really handy function for people who get tired when typing, and it’s great for writing assignments.”

Plenty of speech-to-text apps are available, but many devices also feature the capability in their operating systems, Brimblecombe said.

“You can easily set up the student’s phone, computer, or iPad to convert what’s being said into text,” she said.

4. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) Scanners

Many online tools make digital text accessible, from font sizing to color contrast to integrated TTS systems. The options are much more limited for print sources. An OCR scanner bridges that gap, converting ink-on-paper writing to digital formats that students can adjust for their unique needs and preferences—or listen to through TTS.

“This tool is invaluable for students with visual impairments, as it allows them to access printed materials through electronic means,” said Elmar Mammadov, a medical doctor and founder of CS Careerline, an online platform for students in tech. “OCR scanners also benefit individuals who struggle with reading due to conditions like dyslexia or visual processing difficulties.”

As a student with a disability himself, Mammadov has personal experience with AT in the education setting.

“Having been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a condition that affects cognitive functions such as attention and memory, I understand firsthand the challenges that can arise while studying,” Mammadov said.

While Mammadov’s assistive learning tools of choice aren’t OCR scanners or AAC devices, he does benefit from the technology that powers these tools: TTS.

5. Text-to-Speech Tools

Text to speech software converts written language into audible speech using synthetic voices—which, at the most cutting-edge level, can sound remarkably warm and lifelike. Being able to listen rather than read is helpful for students with dyslexia, vision impairments, blindness, developmental disabilities, ADHD, or a simple preference for auditory or bimodal (audio/visual) learning.

Text to speech has also been a key accommodation for Mammadov, the computer science student said.

“I have found text-to-speech software to be immensely helpful during times when I struggle to maintain focus on text displayed on a screen,” he said.

“Text to speech enables me to listen to content while conserving energy and absorbing factual information effectively. This assistive technology has been the key to maintaining my academic progress and enabling me to overcome cognitive barriers.”

We’ve mentioned two applications of TTS technology: OCR scanners and aided AAC tools. In an era of distance learning, however, special education teachers may also need to provide TTS tools natively in a digital environment—especially a learning management system (LMS).

ReadSpeaker TTS Tools for Students in Special Education

Assistive technology from ReadSpeaker brings TTS to any LMS, web browser, or digital device. With TTS tools fully integrated into digital learning environments, students don’t have to open multiple apps or new browsers, further breaking down barriers to access.

ReadSpeaker’s TTS tools for education place the student in control. Users choose from multiple lifelike voices in more than 35 languages, and adjust playback speed for greater comprehension.

Students can also choose the features they need. ReadSpeaker TextAid offers a suite of literacy tools in addition to TTS. These include:

  • Simultaneous text and read-back, ideal for bimodal learners
  • Document and OCR reading, in all major file formats (PDF, PowerPoint, Word, ePUB, etc.)
  • Auto-completion and word prediction with machine learning
  • Downloadable voice files for offline listening
  • Talking dictionary and calculator tools
  • Adjustable text size, font, and color
  • Focus tools like a screen mask and reading ruler
  • Text read-back while typing
  • And more
Tools for special education teachers: ReadSpeaker TextAid

Every student deserves the accommodations they need to stay at peer level in all subjects. For many, TTS is the technology that makes all the difference. It belongs in any collection of tools for special education teachers—and with ReadSpeaker, it’s easy to bring to your students.

Ready to bring the benefits of TTS to your special education program? Contact ReadSpeaker to start the conversation.

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