By Lee Dover
Across the UK, there are around 1.5 million people who are living with a learning disability. There are also approximately two million individuals living with a visual impairment throughout the nation. Analyse these statistics further and you’ll discover that an estimated 286,000 children have a learning disability and around 25,000 live with sight loss. The last two figures are important as they mean that students who are learning with a disability are often in need of assistive or adaptive technology in order to support their education.
These forms of technology are useful as they can enhance the learning experience for youngsters who may otherwise struggle to get the most out of their education due to their disability. When students with a learning disability have the opportunity to use their strengths to overcome their challenges, it often results in a successful education. Assistive technology is just one approach that allows students to work around their disabilities.
Understanding what assistive technology is
Assistive technology (or AT for short) is designed to help improve a child’s education and comes in various forms, including devices which not only address an individual’s learning difficulties but also enhances the overall education experience for both the student and the teacher. AT has tools which can be used to assist those with disabilities that struggle with listening, reading, writing, math and organisation. Whether the student is visually impaired, dyslexic or any other disabilities that cause skill deficits, AT can be implemented into the education processes to help. In fact, research has proved that AT can improve certain skill deficits, such as reading and spelling.
What is important to bear in mind is that assistive technology does not give disabled students an unfair advantage when they are used in schools. Instead, it gives them the opportunity, in some cases, to learn alongside their fellow students by giving them the independence to learn in an environment that allows them to use their strengths to overcome their challenges, whether they are learning in a public school, a special needs institution or a blind school. Adaptive devices help to increase participation, achievement and independence of the student, by improving their access to the same general curriculum as other pupils without a disability via an assistive tool that breaks down the barriers of their disability.
The types of assistive technology available
Selected types of assistive technology serve to support different learning disabilities with the key goal to allow students to learn effectively and alongside their peers. Around 20% of young people with a visual impairment, have additional special education needs or disabilities, with a further 30% having complex needs within the education system. Assistive technology offers support. Generally, the term assistive technology is applied to technology that is used to support children with learning difficulties – most commonly, electronic devices, computer hardware and digital tools that are available on the internet.
If a student has a visual impairment, AT can also be used to grant students with access to assets for their education in a larger format — this being the case for print and digital formats alike. For many visually impaired students, digital technology is a way for them to learn in mainstream schools – this is because text can be enlarged, and other senses can be used to aid the learning process, such as touch and sound. Around 60% of visually impaired students are educated in mainstream schools, and AT supports their learning needs, and allows students to learn at their own rate. A qualified teacher of the visually impaired is likely to support to pupil further.
Alternative keyboards have overlays which customise the appearance of the keyboard. Not only for students with visual impairment who might need braille, or larger keys, these customisable keyboard overlays can add graphics and colours to help students who struggle to type. And it doesn’t stop there – from electronic math work sheets and talking calculators to talking spell checkers, electronic dictionaries and braille technology, AT makes school a comfortable environment for students with a disability to learn in.
How to find the most useful assistive technology for your students
The learning needs of a child who lives with a visual impairment or a learning disability will be unique from one youngster to the next. Assistive technology allows the student to take control of their learning journey, and gain some independence in their education – but finding which assistive technology is right for the student can be difficult, as one student’s need may be very different to another. To find the right tool to support their education, establish which tools best address the child’s specific needs and challenges – which tool will help overcome the barriers? The AT tool must be used to the student’s strengths, be easy to use, reliable and preferably portable.
It is important as well to ensure that the student in question is both willing and capable of making use of the assistive technology tool. Therefore, be aware that while one student can use a tool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that another student can use it too.
Disabilities are different for each person, and whilst two pupils might both have a visual impairment, their requirements could differ significantly.