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Special Education

The following are questions and answers from Dr. Tracy Gray on this topic.

How can I get accessible instructional materials for my son if the school will not provide them?

This is certainly a frustrating and confusing situation for a parent to be in; I hope some of these resources will be helpful for you. First, you may find it helpful to review some of the available information on NIMAS, the provisions of IDEA with regard to accessible materials, and the requirements of the IEP. IDEA provides a legal mandate for accessible materials for qualifying students, through high school. It is a good idea for parents to become familiar with this information to ensure that their children receive the materials necessary for success in school.

If your son's IEP does not currently list accessible instructional materials as a recommended support, you may want to consider addressing that issue with his IEP team. CAST's resource Accessible Instructional Materials and the IEP may be helpful. As your son moves into high school, you should discuss his needs with the new IEP team and ensure that supplementary aids and services, such as accessible texts, are included if your son is eligible.

Finally, I'd like to reassure you that there are many options for resolving disputes and disagreements with your son's school district, many of them spelled out in special education law. LD Online, Wrightslaw, and NICHCY have some excellent resources available on this topic. You may also want to check out the expert advice from Matt Cohen, Esq. on this site for more information about special education law.

How can I track down appropriate software for my daughter with multiple disabilities?

Finding the right software program, or programs, can be challenging, especially for students who have multiple disabilities or are struggling academically in a number of different areas. Some of the process of finding something that works well for your daughter might be trial and error, as you find the tools that work best for her; but a few resources can help get you started.

LD OnLine is a great source of information for parents. Checking out some of the many articles on teaching strategies for students may give you a better idea of what types of support your daughter would benefit most from. There are several resources that might help you figure out what technologies might work best for a student with an auditory processing disorder.

Though audio books may not be the best solution for your daughter, she may still benefit from hearing text read aloud, using a text-to-speech program and following along with text on the computer. Many reading programs that do this can highlight each word or each sentence as it is spoken, giving your daughter two ways to get the information. The highlighting can also help her focus on the information being read to her. Try looking for reading and writing programs that have text-to-speech, dynamic highlighting and allow your daughter to control the speed of the reading. She might also benefit from software programs that focus on early reading skills. Our article on Learning to Read with Multimedia Materials has some good suggestions.

Is peer support an acceptable substitute for assistive technology in the classroom?

As you may be aware, IDEA 2004 requires that IEP teams consider assistive technology when determining what accommodations, services, and aids your child may need to be successful. Check out Considering Your Child's Need for Assistive Technology and Knowing Your Child's Rights for more information on this process. You may also want to review the relevant sections of IDEA related to assistive technology and the parent resources on IDEA 2004 from Great Schools. Both resources can provide you with some solid information that you can bring with you to meetings with school staff.

You don't say in your email whether the school has considered whether assistive technology could benefit your son; if they haven't, you do have the right to request an assistive technology evaluation. Because IDEA includes both AT devices and services, the school would provide your son with training and support for any assistive technology deemed necessary. As part of this process, the school would: evaluate your son; investigate purchasing or leasing AT; and provide training for your son, your family, and other caregivers as necessary, as well as for any school staff that work with your son.

While peer support from the other kids in your son's class may be beneficial, their help does not replace needed assistive technology devices and training. It is important to discuss these concerns with your son's IEP team, as you have the right to disagree with their decisions regarding your son's AT use. If you think that your son is not getting appropriate AT services, or you think that additional devices and services might be warranted, you should arrange a meeting with his IEP team to address your concerns.

For more information about special education law, check out the expert advice from Matt Cohen, Esq. on this site.

What treatment is needed for a child with dysgraphia?

This is a sticky question and one that causes a fair bit of disagreement in special education. Many teachers wonder the same thing — they want students to develop legible handwriting to ease their way in the world outside of school, but they also want students to be able to write and express themselves without being hindered by their physical difficulties with writing. And many parents and teachers worry that a student's hard-to-read handwriting will affect their ability to perform basic functions like writing down information on job applications, or filling out forms at the doctor's office. After all, while many things can be done with a computer, much of the world is still dominated by pen and paper tasks.

There isn't an easy answer to any of these questions. As with any technology tool used to assist students with disabilities, there is a concern that an 'assistive" tool may be used as a crutch. If a student always uses a calculator for math tasks, will they ever understand the underlying math? In the case of a dysgraphic student, it might be helpful to look at the tasks your daughter is being asked to do and what the goal is. If the goal is simply for your daughter to be able to write basic information as clearly as she can (her name and address for example), then handwriting instruction may be beneficial. However, if the goal is for your daughter to be able to use writing to express her ideas, demonstrate knowledge, or tell a story, then her difficulties with handwriting are making the writing process unnecessarily difficult. Perhaps a balanced approach will work best for your daughter. Try to find simple ways to eliminate the need for some handwriting tasks. Portable keyboards/laptops like the AlphaSmart can also be a good solution.

Such products are small and light and easy to take from class to class. Other options might include speech-to-text software to allow your daughter to more easily commit her thoughts and ideas to 'paper". Check out the Tech Matrix to search for different speech-to-text programs and possibly word prediction programs, depending on your daughter's needs.

You may want to check out this article on writing with technology by Richard Wanderman about his experiences with dyslexia and dysgraphia and how computers have affected his writing.

Where can I calculate readability levels online?

Most methods of determining the reading level of a piece of text use a formula or algorithm — something that people would have done by hand. With the availability of faster computers and processing speeds, there are now many software programs that can calculate readability for you. For shorter pieces of text, you can use one of the many online readability programs available listed below. Most of them allow you to paste text into a window, or link directly to an URL (for determining readability of websites).

Before getting started, it would be a good idea to read about the different readability metrics and how reading level is determined. Once you have an idea of what might work best, you can check out some of these online tools for calculating readability.

For example:

  • Edit Central: includes suggestions for improving readability
  • Readability.info: readability for MS Word files and web pages
  • SMOG Readability Calculator: Can calculate up to 2000 words; includes detailed explanation of the SMOG formula
  • JuicyStudio: Test website readability; also provides information about different scales, what scores mean, etc.

Where can I find multilingual text-to-speech solutions?

Most text-to-speech programs feature multiple language options, however they may not always feature Asian languages. For these programs, you can generally purchase add-ons for other languages. For the Mac, you can try programs such as VisioVoice and GhostReader, or TextAloud for the PC, all of which feature a wide variety of languages (including Czech, Polish, Turkish, etc.). Asian languages can be more difficult to find, but they are available.

You might also consider using a program like Kurzweil 3000 if you need a more feature-rich program that would combine a speech synthesizer with the ability to create documents and tables, creating talking reminders, read websites, and work with a variety of file formats. Kurzweil 3000 is also available in a variety of languages.

Depending on your population of students, it may make sense to purchase a text-to-speech program that is compatible with add-ons, and purchase additional voices in other languages as needed from a third party.

What online resources are available for a student in a rural area without access to special education services?

Finding help for your child can be difficult if you live in remote or rural areas without access to specialists. However, with the number of resources available online, people who live in such areas can now access a wide variety of tools, specialized information, and helpful hints for working with their struggling child. For example, to begin with, you might check out ReadWriteThink, a website that provides "resources in reading and language arts instruction through free, Internet-based content." Here you can find a wealth of information on the best ways to teach reading and writing, as well as helpful tools and resources. One of these online tools, a comic strip creator, may appeal to your son as a fan of comic books and superheroes. If he enjoys the simple creation of a comic strip, you may also want to introduce him to Kerpoof, which allows children to create their own stories, animations, videos, and comics. Using these tools, your son can create stories of his own, perhaps with some help from you for some of the writing. It is possible that the high interest of creating his own comic strip may encourage him to try writing more. Such activities take advantage of your son's interests and help him engage in telling and writing stories; studies have shown that storytelling is the first step in learning to read and write, so encouraging your son to use technology tools and artwork to tell stories may help him build up his reading and writing skills.

It is also important that your son get plenty of practice in the basics of reading. A fun way to do this is through the use of online games that teach reading skills. PBS Kids has a number of activities that your son may find engaging. Check out the Raising Readers project for free games and suggested resources for parents. Check out the many beautiful children's books online at the International Children's Digital Library. Finally, you might consider purchasing audio books so your son can hear books read aloud while following along with the text. Audio books can also expose him to 'reading' books above his current reading level.

Check out this article for more suggestions about using technology to teach reading: Learning to Read with Multimedia Materials

How can I use software tools to teach my young adult son appropriate conversation skills?

Often kids with Asperger's or other autism spectrum disorders are extremely motivated by technology tools, and tend to learn very well from videos, software, and other visual representations of social situations. Because your son has already worked on social skills training, he is likely familiar with social stories, social modeling, and appropriate behavior for different situations. However, when in new, exciting or unfamiliar situations, he may forget what he's learned and have difficulty regulating his behavior or modulating his voice.

In novel situations, he may benefit from something more 'portable' to cue him about voice modulation and appropriate conversational behavior. Many young people have begun using everyday devices such as mobile phones and iPods to serve as portable reminders of the social skills they've learned in class. Kids can load social scripts, reminders, short video clips, cues about conversation skills, turn taking and social interactions right onto these devices to help them remember previous lessons. Technology tools such as these have the added benefit of being highly motivating for many teens, making them more likely to use them.

You may also want to consider multimedia tools or software at home to help reinforce the social skills lessons your son has learned in class. It could be that additional repetition and practice of the social stories and lessons he already 'knows' may help him generalize appropriate behavior when in new situations. Since you are particularly concerned with conversation cues and voice modulation, you might look into Model Me Kids, as they have videos on both topics. You should also talk to your son's teachers and see whether you can get copies of the videos and activities he uses in class, so you can continue to reinforce the lessons at home, and when out together in public places.

How can I help my 14-year-old daughter who struggles with reading?

One difficulty with older struggling readers is that they can often become hesitant and anxious about reading, avoiding situations where they might read because reading is so challenging. A key strategy for older struggling readers is to find situations that make reading more enjoyable.

Though there's no replacement for instruction in basic reading skills, frequent opportunities for independent reading can be helpful for struggling readers. A good way to do that is to provide your daughter with high-interest (and lower level) reading material. There are a number of books available that are at a lower reading level, but are written with a style and topic selection that are more interesting for teen readers. You could also introduce her to book review Web sites by and for teens, to help her find books that she might find interesting and motivating.

Your daughter may also benefit from the use of reading software, or accessible books. Look into the many resources on this site and others (Bookshare) for more information about the types of accessible books available for young adults with print disabilities.

Another fun option that has been shown to be effective with kids with LD and struggling readers is watching subtitled or captioned television shows and movies. Find your daughter's favorite shows and movies, and put the captions on. Because your daughter will be watching something she enjoys, the reading of the captions will be less stressful and may encourage her to read. The captions can also help your daughter recognize words she hears when she seems them written.

Because all TVs made after 1993 have captioning built-in, this is an easy and free option that may help make reading a bit more pleasurable for your daughter. Your daughter can also watch captioned programming online, Web sites such as Hulu offer free viewing of most television shows, many of them with closed captioning.

Should I go back to school as an adult if I suspect I have a learning disability?

Many college students, both of traditional and non-traditional age, have learning disabilities and learning difficulties. You can absolutely still pursue your chosen career! The first thing you should do is discuss your concerns directly with your university's Disability Services. They can help you find resources at your school, explore avenues for being tested for a learning disability and recommend accommodations and strategies that might help you with your coursework.

With a documented disability, you are entitled to accommodations and support, so it may be worthwhile to get tested and identify your areas of strengths and weaknesses. Working with Disabilities Services, you can identify strategies and resources to help you succeed. Check out the wide variety of resources on LD Online for more information about LD, testing, and learning strategies that may help you.

How can I find information about creating readings for blind or dyslexic students?

Providing accessible text to students with disabilities has received a lot of attention in recent years as both technology tools and publisher standards have modernized. The increasing availability of digitized texts from a variety of sources make it easier than ever before to find most materials available in multiple formats. For harder to find texts, software and hardware options are available to help you convert texts into formats more readily accessible by individuals with print disabilities.

If you are trying to find electronic text and audio books, there are several free options available for students with documented print disabilities: Bookshare and Learning Ally are both popular options for finding texts for students, and may be a good place to start if looking for academic texts and grade-level literature. Project Gutenberg is another option for free eBooks, and Librivox has free audio books available for download. Both websites offer books in the public domain, so they may not always have everything you are looking for.

If you can't find the texts or the materials you need, or if you prefer to create your own alternate formats for student readings, a number of software programs and scanning options are available; see this customized Tech Matrix for digital text. For students who are blind, you may be interested in purchasing a Braille printer or refreshable Braille displays; check out the customized Tech Matrix on Braille for suggestions.

How can our school make our arts programs (music, art class, etc.) more inclusive for all students?

The arts, whether as part of a separate program or integrated into your content area lessons, can offer a variety of benefits for diverse learners. Research has shown both academic and social benefits for students with disabilities and students who are at risk; integrating the arts and technology into your teaching can help differentiate instruction and provide more individualized learning for students with diverse learning needs.

You may want to check out two organizations that focus on students with disabilities and the arts: VSA Arts offers a curriculum for early-grades arts instruction called Start with the Arts, as well as other educational resources that may be helpful. Art Partners offers sample lesson plans and units on their website.

Technology tools can also play an important role in making your arts programs more accessible. Many art museums feature virtual field trips, allowing your students to view important exhibits from around the world. Software programs that allow students to draw and paint, animate, manipulate images, and create music are becoming more readily available and can provide a way for students with a variety of learning needs to interact with content and express knowledge.

What assistive technology tools could we use with a middle school student so he doesn’t feel singled out and different from his peers?

Using assistive technology tools can be a challenge for students as they enter middle and high school. Many kids that age are incredibly aware of how they look, and what their peers are doing, and want nothing more than to blend in with the other kids. Using a device or "different" technology tool than the rest of the class can certainly make a student feel that they stick out.

One solution is to make all technology "assistive" technology in your school. Creating a creative technology environment in your school can help students remove the separation between "regular" technology and "special" or "assistive" technology. Learn more about various technologies that support the writing process in the article, Using Assitive Technology to Support Writing.

This is one benefit to using technology to differentiate instruction in your school. If all students are using a computer to write an essay, then it isn't all that noticeable that some students are using word prediction software, others are using text-to-speech software, and others are using voice-recognition software. Technology is just something that everyone is using. For example, every student in your class could be using a literacy software package (see several compared in the TechMatrix).

Strong writers could be using the built-in word processor and spell checker, struggling writers could be using text-to-speech to edit or word prediction to help them compose, other students may use the graphic organizers or the audio notes. Each student is using the same program, but different students make use of different features according to their needs. See more ideas for differentiating instruction through technology at the free online course offered by CITEd.

Would a portable book reader be appropriate for a child with visual processing issues?

Amazon's Kindle is a wireless reading device that does allow the user to adjust font size, so it might be appropriate for your son. The Kindle offers variable font size, with the largest font appearing to be about the size of a typical large print book. Currently there are 200,000 books available, but most of them are targeted to adult readers.

The Kindle is also rather expensive, so you may want to do a little research first. If your son needs something larger than a typical large print book, the Kindle's largest font may not be what he needs. Another good place to do some research and ask questions is the Kindle discussion board on Amazon's website. Here you can ask other users about their experiences, talk to other parents who may use the Kindle with their child, or even arrange to see a Kindle in your city so you can try it before you buy. Find other reading hardware and software options in the article, Reading Software: Finding the Right Program.

If your child has a diagnosed print disability, he is eligible to receive texts in alternate formats through his special education program. Discuss this option with the school. Learn more in these articles for parents: Accessible Textbooks: A Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities and Making the Written Word Easier for Readers with Print Disabilities.

What options are available for audio versions of textbooks?

Scanning and converting a text to audio can be time consuming and expensive, depending on the software you use. If you only need one textbook (and all of his other textbooks are available in audio format), it may not be worth it to purchase software for yourself. Start with Learning Ally or Bookshare.org; they often have textbooks available when you may not be able to find them elsewhere. If your son has a documented disability, he can access any books from Learning Ally or Bookshare.org.

If you cannot find his textbook through a source such as Learning Ally or Bookshare.org, or you think you'll need to scan and convert texts on a more regular basis, you may want to consider purchasing a scanner and accompanying text-to-speech software. What you end up purchasing will depend on your needs and how much you want to spend. Solutions for having text read aloud range from the incredibly simple — scanning in text and using built-in voices to read — to the more complex — scanning in text and using human sounding narration and converting to an mp3.

For example, Adobe Acrobat Reader and Microsoft Word both have very simple text-to-speech capabilities. If your son just needs to have the text read aloud to him while sitting at the computer, and doesn't mind synthesized speech, this could be a very basic solution. However, if you'd prefer something with more natural-sounding narration, you might need something with more features. Find a variety of solutions for scanning and text-to-speech in this customized search on the TechMatrix.

How can I use the SMART Board in my math classroom more interactively to meet the needs of all my students?

One of the great features of interactive whiteboards (such as the SMART Board) is that you can use them to allow students to manipulate objects on screen, add text and diagrams to math problems, and save work. These features can have several benefits for your students, particularly those who are struggling. Because you can save the lessons and activities you present on the interactive whiteboard, you can upload your lessons to a classroom website for student review at a later date. This can be helpful for students with disabilities who may benefit from repetition. It also allows any student to revisit the lesson from home to refresh their memory about how to solve a problem.

The interactivity of the whiteboard is also a benefit for kids with LD, as well as students with a variety of learning styles. Because students can come up to the board to add diagrams, highlighting, arrows, text and move objects on screen, it addresses the needs of students who are more tactile and kinesthetic learners. Providing a colorful visual representation of math problems can also be helpful for visual learners.

You might consider using interactive applications for math that will enable students to participate more during lessons. Virtual manipulatives and applets are a good choice. Check out some of these resources for ideas:

You might also check out some teacher-created websites on the use of interactive whiteboards, they can be a great way to share lesson plans and ideas.

What strategies are there to help kids with LD in gym class, sports, etc.?

Students with learning disabilities and ADHD can often struggle with motor control, movement, rhythm and directionality (i.e., telling right from left), which can make certain physical activities in gym class or team sports challenging. Motor challenges can also affect academic performance as they can hinder writing and other activities. Additionally, recent research has led some researchers to conclude that there is a link between poor sense of rhythm and dyslexia.

Given the links between learning disorders and motor coordination, it is an excellent idea to think about how to address these issues within gym class or as part of a team sport. It might be a good idea to check out information about adaptive PE (or speak to an adaptive PE teacher if your school or district has one) for some ideas on activities.

Another option is one that has been discussed by parents and caregivers on our forums — using video games as rhythm, sensory integration and directionality training. A number of individuals with ADHD and learning disabilities have some success using Interactive Metronome (IM, a computer-based training program used by therapists to help improve coordination, timing and attention.

Some parents and therapists have found that children who do well with IM also seem to do well with video games like Dance Dance Revolution and the interactive sports games on the Wii Fit. While the use of these types of games with kids with LD and ADHD is fairly new, anecdotally it seems to be helpful for some students. As many schools are starting to purchase the Wii Fit for use with their students, it might be an idea to try.

Video games are often inherently motivating for young people, and may encourage them to try different activities. Each of these games tells players how to move using a combination of visual and auditory cues in addition to watching movement on screen. These cues may help students who struggle with movement and directionality.

Note from LD OnLine: Visit Dr. Silver’s Accommodations and Modifications section to see a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist’s response to the same question.

What technology tools can I use in my work writing to make sure I haven’t made errors?

This is a common issue for adults (and kids!) with dyslexia. It can be particularly challenging when you have a word spelled correctly, but your usage is wrong. Swapping “their," "they're," and "there" is a great example. A traditional spellchecker won't identify the mistake, so you may not discover it.

Fortunately, two new contextual spellcheckers are available that might help you with your business writing: Ginger and Ghotit. Both programs work in a similar way, by identifying both incorrectly spelled words and those that might be incorrect based on the context of the sentence (i.e. saying "they're dog" instead of "their dog"). Give each tool a try and see if one of them works for you! Find other software tools that could help with your writing in the TechMatrix.

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