Expert Advice

Ask the Tech Expert

September 2021: This Month's Questions
Dr. Tracy Gray

Each month, Dr. Tracy Gray answers selected questions from teachers, students, and other users regarding effective use of educational technology.

Below are the newest questions answered by Dr. Gray.

Do you have a question about technology and learning disabilities? Submit it now!

What are some technology resources that can help adult learners with print disabilities?

Those with print disabilities primarily struggle with reading and writing in a world where much of our information is created and available on electronic devices and the Internet. Audiobooks, text-to-speech software, and contextual spellcheckers are indispensable tools to have on hand. Fortunately, these types of tools have improved and multiplied in recent years. Here are a few of the best options:

  • Bookshare: Free to all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities, it includes a repository of over 300,000 audiobooks—including textbooks, teacher-recommended reading, and periodicals—which can be used online, along with free AT  tools. The texts can also be presented visually, with highlighting, larger font, accompanying audio, and physical or digital braille.
  • NaturalReader: This online and/or downloadable software can take any text input—Word files, PDFs, webpages, emails, etc.—and create and audio transcription with multiple voices. The downloadable software can be paired with other applications to read any text encountered. The program can also create audio files of text for portability and later listening, as well as transcribe paper text imported via a scanner.
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking: Dragon is the leading software for speech recognition and dictation. It is available as computer software and as an app. It can be used to write documents, emails, search the web, and even control your computer or smartphone.
Ghotit and Ginger Software: Each of these tools can help those with print disabilities write better, utilizing a context and phonetic spell checker, proofreader, and other tools to ensure that the common errors those with print disabilities might make are caught and resolved.

(Contributor: Caroline Martin, Research Assistant, American Institutes for Research)

How can I evaluate the accessibility of an instructional resource?

One of the simplest ways to evaluate the accessibility of instructional resources begins with a checklist. While the tools used to assess the accessibility features of a resource will vary depending on its format (e.g., hardcopy, digital, audio, etc.), a checklist serves as a guide to help avoid overlooking key elements that should be present. The Achieve OER Rubric VIII: Assurance of Accessibility Standards offers a list of features that meet accessibility standards which can be used to evaluate instructional resources.

Some software programs and websites are capable of scanning a resource to determine what key accessibility features are missing. The Microsoft Office Accessibility Checker alerts users of possible accessibility issues in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. The Web Accessibility Initiative has compiled a list of software programs and online platforms that can be used to check for accessibility depending on the format of the resource. These accessibility checker tools coupled with an accessibility checklist can help you to evaluate the accessibility of an instructional resource.

(Contributor: Caroline Martin, Research Assistant, American Institutes for Research)

What is the difference between AT and Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the conceptual framework that is used to design technology devices, software, and learning materials to give all students equal opportunities to learn. UDL promotes creating technology tools that are flexible and can be personalized to meet the needs of each student. UDL has made a huge contribution to the development of educational and assistive technology (AT). In the past, AT devices were designed for a specific disability and assigned to a particular student as a dedicated device. Now, more developers of software and educational technology are using the concept of UDL to incorporate the accessibility features to help students with disabilities. For example, developers now add features that allow a student with low vision to access apps. If you would like more information on Universal Design for Learning, check out the National Center for Universal Design for Learning and CAST.

(Contributor: Caroline Martin, Research Assistant, American Institutes for Research)

Does technology have to be "dedicated AT" in order to be considered or funded?

By definition from the Tech Act in 1988, the term assistive technology (AT) can be “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities”. Based on this definition, technology does not have to be “dedicated AT” to receive considered as a valuable device or funded. Often mainstream, consumer educational technology is better or better suited for the individual students needs. For example, iPads are in now a common piece of technology in the classroom and are becoming an increasingly powerful tool for students with disabilities. iPads allow for teachers to differentiate and personalize instruction through selecting apps that meet the individual student’s needs.

(Contributor: Caroline Martin, Research Assistant, American Institutes for Research)

How do I pay for assistive technology?

First and foremost, it is important to identify the assistive technology (AT) needs of your student. These needs should be identified during the IEP process. Following this process,  you can now focus on how to pay for the technology needed to support your student.  The good news is that we now live in a world of increasing access to free or low cost technologies. In addition, AT has become much more affordable and easy to access. There are a number of funding resources available to purchase AT. The primary resource that funds AT is your local school system. The school system will pay for any technology or other special education learning materials that are specified in the student’s IEP. Government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and private health insurance companies will also pay for AT, if the technology is prescribed by a doctor. Private health insurance companies will also pay for AT when prescribed by a doctor as a necessary medical device.

In addition, there are a number of public and private funding sources that can help pay for AT devices. One great resource is the State Assistive technology Finalize Loan Programs by the RESNA Catalyst Project. This project provides aid and resources for statewide AT programs that provide low or no cost interest loans.  The Pass It On Center is a national network of centers that provide access to the reuse, recycle, and exchange of AT devices.  For more ideas on funding sources, consult the Assistive Technology Industry Association Funding Resources Guide.

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