Special education: Technology can allow inclusion, advances

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Assistive technology can offer new opportunities to the approximately 13% of American public school students with special needs, such as speech-language issues and autism. From virtual learning to tools such as adaptive reading assistants and text-to-speech apps, technology often can help special-education students participate in general education classrooms instead of being separated.

Students and educators use various tech tools to reduce anxiety, ease communication, enhance connections with peers, improve academic performance and allow more independence.

When virtual learning took root during the pandemic, families of special-education students found that having video-chat meetings with teachers about students’ Individualized Education Plans was much easier in terms of work schedules and interruptions. Research analyst Lanya McKittrick told EdSurge that video chats, texting and other technology have helped parents of special-education students feel more empowered and connected.

At the same time as news about a shortage of special-education teachers is prominent, educators dedicated to students with special needs are getting more recognition. This month, special-education teacher, blogger and podcaster Kyle Anderson of the Clark County School District in Nevada was named one of EdTech’s 30 K–12 IT Influencers to Follow in 2022.

Schools get creative to assist special-ed students

Creativity is nothing new in special education, and several schools are exemplars.

Students in San Andreas High School’s Growing Hope program in San Bernardino, Calif., use smartphones, tablets, video editing software and sensors to monitor and manage a high-tech greenhouse. “These skills are transferable,” educator Barbara Pastuschek says. “When students are learning to maintain high-end, expensive equipment, that’s transferable to other industries like technology, nutrition, healthcare and hospitality. It’s not just limited to being a farmer or working with hydroponic systems.”

Nearby Joshua Circle Elementary School has been using a special communication tool with one student who can’t talk and uses a wheelchair. This new technology allows the 12-year-old to speak with his eyes.

Touchscreens introduced in a Georgia school district help students with disabilities respond easier and faster, giving them more time with occupational therapists and speech pathologists and improving outcomes.

A New Hampshire school has been using virtual reality headsets to help students who have trouble regulating emotions, physiology and senses, as well as students with limited mobility. Instructors have found that pre-teaching students about what the VR experience will be like improves success.

Putting more aids in reach of more students

While many think all special-education students struggle with learning, others know that challenging STEM subjects are not out of reach for all students who have disabilities or are neurodiverse. Students at the University of Louisville have been creating and 3D-printing tools to help those with visual impairments more easily study STEM. Assistant engineering professor Vance Jaeger notes that when students change small aspects of a tool’s design, they “really make them accessible for people with disabilities.”

When the pandemic made in-person learning difficult, many teachers worked to adapt online learning for students of all abilities and learning styles, embracing project-based learning and Universal Design for Learning and Modern Classroom Project standards.

Texthelp CEO Martin McKay says Universal Design for Learning and a host of tools are useful to students who need special education and about 5 million others who are English-language learners. In a recent interview, McKay mentioned word prediction devices for students with dyslexia, talking dictionaries, screen masking, speech input tools and much more.

Special ed technology continues to grow

Startup companies are creating new technology all the time. For example, Amplio blends natural language processing, artificial intelligence and evidence-based methodologies to provide educators with structured protocols and learning paths that let instructors better help students who have speech-language impairments.

Humanlike, nonjudgmental social robots can help improve educational and social skills in children who have autism, Down syndrome, hearing impairments and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They’re primarily for home use now, but researchers hope to find ways to use them in schools.

Technology continues to make vital differences for many students with special needs. But the teachers behind the tech and the students using it are the real successes. In a recent teacher-of-the-year recommendation letter, former student Trevor Venomon-Holt looked back at the help K-12 special-education teacher Allison Wootton offered. “I’m a better person, college student, and independent blind man because of you,” he said.


Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.


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