Technology for Differently Abled Students

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Author: Debra Kidder
Education Thought Leader

“Abled does not mean enabled. Disabled does not mean less abled.” 
― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, updated in 1990, the definition of disabled is (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C),  being regarded as having such an impairment. 

Today educators use the preferred term ‘differently-abled’ rather than the term ‘disabled.’ People are not less abled, as the word disabled implies, but dissimilarly abled. 

That difference often requires teachers to integrate technology for students to achieve equality in our schools.  This can even the playing field for student understanding and increase student learning.

Sip and Puff Systems for the Mobility Challenged 

Sip and Puff Technology, also known as a puff switch solution, is any assistive device that uses air pressure to operate.   Students inhale and exhale to send signals to the device.  Students most likely to use sip and puff technology are mobility challenged.  These students need to maximize their face muscles to move, learn, and communicate.  

Students use a mouth tube, or ‘wand,’ attached by a pneumatic connector, to inhale and exhale to control their wheelchair, turn technology on and off, or use a computer.  Students who use these filtered mouthpieces have limited to no use of their hands.

Sip and Puff Systems today are developed with padded headsets and goosenecks.  They require no external power.  These look similar to headsets worn by many computer professionals. 

The inhales and exhales are converted into electrical impulses that control the computer.  The device is so sensitive that the strength of the air pressure can determine the user’s desired function.  Short puffs of air are sensed as mouse button clicking.

Users can also treat the wand as a joystick with their mouths, effectively moving the cursor around any screen.

Some examples of Sip and Puff Systems are: 

  1. Origin Instruments Second Generation Breeze has a user interface for mobile devices, or a desktop computer with a mouse, and joystick devices through a high-speed USB device.
  1. TechMatrix Sip/Puff Switch, which will fully integrate with both iOS and Windows operating systems.
  1. QuadLife offers a suite of devices and software programs to improve the lives of those who are mobility challenged.

Text-to-Speech Tools (TTS): What Are TTS Tools, and Who Do They Serve? 

Text-to-Speech tools will recognize print material digitally and read it aloud for students.  This assistive technology is helpful for students with visual impairments.  Additionally, students with dyslexia and other issues, and attention disorders will benefit from screen readers.  This is also known as ‘read aloud’ or ‘speech synthesis’ technology.

Before the common use of computers and the Internet in the classroom, the majority of information was passed from teacher to student through the use of textbooks and paper handouts.  These printed materials were a major barrier for students struggling with reading difficulties.

Computer-based Text-to-Speech tools are also available for tablets, and smartphones, and do more than read printed words aloud.  

Science has proven that engaged students are masterful students.  Text-to-Speech tools can engage learners by offering another mode of learning (auditory) for students who cannot rely solely on their vision. 

TTS tools can be sped up or slowed for students who need extra work on word comprehension or fluency; most also allow the voices to change and students can select the most engaging one for them.  Students will spend more time listening to the voices they enjoy, and giving them the choice is offering them an amount of control in their learning process and increasing student engagement.

Some Text-to-Speech tools will also allow users to highlight and hover over a specific word and read a definition aloud.  Some will give synonyms, antonyms, and use the word in another sentence to give further context.  These can be true teaching tools, not simply text readers.  

Examples of high-quality Text-to-Speech technologies are: 

  1. The Amazon Polly reads in eight languages, teaches deep breathing exercises proven to help with reading disabilities and stuttering, and will store audio streams for later playback.
  1. CaptiVoice focuses on reading comprehension, supports over twenty custom voices, and is available offline and as an app
  1. Balabolka can read aloud in over 30 languages and can adjust the speed and pitch of the natural sounding voice, as well as offering the ability to bookmark longer documents for easy referencing.

Math Tools for Students With Numerical Challenges

The most common math learning disability is called dyscalculia, which is a general lack of understanding in the field of math.  Students who suffer from this have trouble picturing or imagining numbers.  This inability leads to difficulty with numerical processes.  Students require technology to support them in processing number ideas. 

These tools assist students by providing visual representations of numbers and math procedures in the learning environment.

The best technological aids for students with dyscalculia are apps.  

A few examples of the best-reviewed of dyscalculia apps are:

  1. DysCalculator uses words in place of numbers symbols, reads them aloud, and helps you solve arithmetic problems. so that students can read number problems to solve them.

2. Make10Plus teaches younger elementary students to count by 10s.

3. Sushi Monster asks for a specific number of pieces of food, and students drag and drop the correct number into its mouth.

Conclusion

These learning tools will help with personalized learning and create a more level playing field in your classroom.  The strength of these technologies is their ability to customize.  Teachers can assess the success of each in the classroom setting and adjust as necessary.  All students should be able to participate in educational settings, not only in special education classrooms. 

Further reading

For further reading around resources for differently-abled students, visit: Americans With Disabilities Act’s page on Accessible Technology. environment


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