Coupled with the application of universal design principles, new and different types of assistive technologies - many specifically designed for students with learning disabilities - are also becoming commonplace. These tools allow students greater independence in learning by customizing applications to maximize learning strengths and to minimize or circumvent specific learning weaknesses.
However, with the abundance of specialized hardware and software products on the market, how do students with learning disabilities determine what technology solutions are the most appropriate ones for them? At least a few general specifications can guide the selection of the “best fit” assistive technology tools for a student’s educational needs. As a first rule of thumb it is important to fit the assistive technology to the student and not vice versa; product selections are not a “one size fits all.” Other considerations pertaining to both the student and the particular instructional environment in which he or she requires assistance include the following:
- Kind of learning disability a student has (e.g., dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia) along with its severity (mild, moderate, or severe);
- Type of learning strengths, abilities, and skills;
- Preferred learning style(s) or mode(s);
- Specific impact of the learning disability on academic and other areas of functioning (e.g., reading, written language, math, study skills, memory, organization, social skiffs);
- Academic plan and major including course work requirements;
- Educational context (e.g., large lecture, seminar, laboratory, group project, online or web-based class, etc.);
- Student’s “Technology Quotient” (TQ); that is, his or her facility and comfort with using technology.
With the above considerations in mind, the authors present examples of a number of different technology accommodations that can benefit students with learning disabilities and illustrate how these are customized to suit the student’s preferences and circumstances. The best accommodation, despite its lure and attractiveness, isn’t always the highest-tech one with all the bells and whistles. Rather, the most effective solutions are those that consider the student’s unique combination of abilities, preferences, and the nature of their academic coursework.
Assistive technology as a bridge between needs and abilities
AT can help bridge this gap by taking advantage of the student’s existing strengths and abilities. For a student who has problems processing written text visually, a text-to-speech screenreader is a bridge between the written text and his or her ability to process information aurally. For a student who has difficulty organizing his or her thoughts sequentially in text while composing a paper, graphic outlining software can serve as a bridge to visual processing skills. Any number of popular technology aids are available to students with learning disabilities, the selection of which is based on the adaptations required by a student’s unique educational circumstances.
|Function-What Needs to Be Done
|Educational Context-How It Is to Be Used
|Examples of Appropriate Assistive Technology Tools
|Speech recognition - convert speech to computer-based text
|Straight dictation: type what the student speaks
|Type (and graph) correctly-formatted math equations
|Display real-time transcript of instructor’s lecture
|Screenreading - convert computer-based text to synthesized speech
|Read aloud large volumes of straight text
|Navigate and search the Internet
|Provide real-time aural feedback of written text as student types
|Customized visual presentation of text as well as read aloud
|Provide text in alternative format
|Obtain e-text versions of books and journal articles
|Convert coursereaders and text not available electronically to e-text
|Read text aloud in human, not synthetized, speech
|Read text aloud in human speech, and alow text navigation
|Organize and keep track of phone numbers, schedule, reminders, etc.
|Organize and record information
Quick entry and retrieval
Simple to learn
|Organize and record information
Portable access to computer functions and resources
|Organize and record information using voice input and output (as opposed to writing or typing)
|Assistance with notetaking
|Type notes for later retrieval by computer
|Handwrite notes for later retrieval by computer
|Collect scanned text for later retrieval by computer
|Portable reference tools
|Scan in word; hear it pronounced, defined
|Type in word; hear it pronounced, defined
|Assit with organizing ideas and composing written text
|Easily rearrange text-based ideas, change text colors, highlight words, etc.
|Same as above, plus visual/graphic representation of idea, and ability to flip between text and graphic versions
Overview of assistive technology tools for students with learning disabilities
Table 1 summarizes frequently-used technology tools for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The purpose of the table and the discussion that follows is to draw distinctions based on how each tool is used, and to offer examples of commercially-available products that illustrate these distinctions.
Looking at Table 1 it is easy to notice the key differences between AT tools in terms of not only what they do, but also how they are used. It is not enough to say, “I need text to be read aloud”. One must also know the educational context of the task (reading straight text, surfing the Internet, or providing spoken feedback as the student writes) as well as the learning preferences of the student (e.g., recorded speech vs. synthesized speech, aural and visual feedback or aural only).
The discussion below describes how these AT tools might assist a student with LD and what distinguishes them from each other. In the final section, case studies illustrate how these distinctions impact selection of the most appropriate tool.
Apart from the feature differences of the various products, other factors affect the choice of SR as an appropriate tool. For example, punctuation and spacing must be spoken. To have the computer type “It was a dark and stormy night,” said Snoopy, one would say “Quote, it was a dark and stormy night, comma, quote, said Snoopy, period, new line”. This need to verbally punctuate and format can disrupt the mental composition process. Also, accuracy can be compromised by a thick accent, speech impediment, or simply an unwillingness to learn to enunciate clearly.
Standard applications like Naturally Speaking (PC only), ViaVoice (PC and Mac), and iListen (Mac only) are best at typing sentence-based text. MathTalk, used with NaturallySpeaking and Scientific Notebook (software for writing math equations), can allow a student to produce correctly formatted math equations using only their voice.
A unique application of speech recognition technology that is still in the applied research stage is software that digitizes the spoken lecture and displays it as text on an overhead screen for the entire class. Students can see and hear the lecture as it is delivered, greatly benefitting students with LD by providing them with both auditory and visual learning input. Students can also obtain comprehensive, edited software-generated lecture notes in a variety of formats for study purposes. IBM, working with a consortium of universities, is currently developing this software application that is used in conjunction with ViaVoice. (see http://www.liberatedlearning.com for more information).
- Read aloud large quantities of material;
- Navigate the computer or the Internet by voicing what is on the screen;
- Provide aural feedback of what they are writing as they write; and,
- Provide for both visual and aural presentation of the material.
Text-to-speech applications like ReadPlease (for PCs) and SimpleText (which comes with every Macintosh) are free, albeit barebones screenreaders: copy the text from a document or other source, paste it into the screenreader application, and it reads the text in one of several preselected synthesized voices.
CAST’s eReader and IBM’s Home Page Reader are specially designed to read directly from Web pages (they actually replace browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator). However, they have limitations: screenreaders can only read what is available on the Web page as text, and much of what appears to be text on a Web page is often graphic images (for example: headers, links, PDF documents). Unless the Web page designer has followed accessibility guidelines, much of this information may be unreadable by the screenreader, or even invisible.
Some students can benefit from hearing their sentences spoken back to them as they type. Co:Writer 4000, which works alongside any application, provides that readback capability along with assistance like word prediction. WordSmith adds readback, word prediction, and other functions to Microsoft Word.
Students who learn best with both auditory and visual stimuli may benefit from screenreaders like Kurzweil 3000 and WYNN (What You Need Now) that allow the student to customize the entire reading experience. In addition to varying the sound, inflection, and reading rate of the voice, students can change the font, font size, word spacing, line spacing, margins, and background color of the text. The software can also aid visual tracking by highlighting individual words, phrases, lines, sentences, or paragraphs as they are read. Both programs include study aids such as an online speaking dictionary, highlighting or bookmarking text for later retrieval, and the ability to insert either written or recorded spoken notes. The latest version of WYNN (3.0) also includes a speaking Internet browser.
Aside from the feature differences between screenreaders, two other factors must be considered: voice quality and reading speed. Depending on the internal speech synthesizer used by the screenreader, the resulting voice will sound anywhere from nearly human to very robotic and monotone. This may or may not affect the student’s comprehension. Normal conversational speech ranges between 150 and 200 words per minute, though most people can understand speech at much greater rates. With a high quality speech synthesizer and depending on their auditory processing skills, students using screenreaders can absorb material at far greater rates, sometimes up to 800 words per minute.
Acquisition or production of alternative format material
Regardless of what screenreader a student uses, one must first have an electronic version of the text to be read. This digitized text or e-text, as it is called, can often be obtained from online resources such as Bookshare.org and various online e-text repositories.
If the required text is unavailable as e-text (example: a coursereader assembled by an instructor), one must create e- text from printed material using a scanner and OCR (optical character recognition) software. The amount of editing required to make the resulting e-text document useable vanes greatly, depending on the print quality of the original material and the student’s ability to tolerate misrecognized text.
For students who prefer or require recorded human voice over computer-synthesized speech, prerecorded tapes or CDs are available from organizations such as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) or public and college libraries. RFB&D’s fledgling AudioPlus program produces books on CDs rather than cassettes. CDs have the advantage of being navigable: a student can go directly to a page or chapter without rewinding or fast-forwarding.
If a recorded version of the book is not available, an alternative is to have the book read by a volunteer or paid reader. For certain material (e.g., math or science text), it is best to use a reader with background and content knowledge of the subject.
Students with short term memory problems and organizational difficulties can benefit from portable electronic organizers. Such device can help them to maintain schedules, sound alarms as reminders, keep track of important information like phone numbers, and note various to-do’s as they arise. The key questions relevant to students with LD are:
- How facile are they with technology?
- How large a visual area do they need to work effectively?
- Do they prefer tangible paper representation of such information rather than working with it on a screen?
Those with a low “technology quotient” will perform best with simple devices like a Sharp Wizard: type the information into the appropriate application (e.g., calendar, address book) and recall it when necessary. More powerful handheld devices using the Palm OS (operating system) come preloaded with four intuitive applications: schedule, address book, to-do list, and memos. While far more capable than devices like the Wizard, they can be used in a very basic mode as the high-tech equivalent of a notepad or paper calendar.
Students with a higher TQ may benefit from handheld computers using the Windows CE or PocketPC OS. If Palm OS devices can be seen as high-tech notepads, then Windows CE/PocketPC devices can be viewed as scaled down computers. While these two types of handheld devices may look similar and advertise many of the same capabilities, the latter have a steeper learning curve and may be overwhelming to certain students.
All of the aforementioned devices have small screens which some students may find cramping. Laptops with contact manager software may be more suitable for them. Of course, there is always the option of a well-thought-out notebook organizing system such as those found in office supply stores. For students who work best with a writing utensil and tangible paper, this decidedly nontechnical solution is superior because it is the one that best accommodates their learning style.
For keeping notes and reminders, a high end digital voice recorder may be preferred over an electronic organizer because it permits quick access and does not rely on typing or writing for data entry. The Parrot Voice Mate, designed for blind individuals, could also prove useful. Its notepad, phone book, appointment book, and other features are all accessed by speaking and listening.
Some students may prefer to take handwritten notes but still struggle with reading those notes. For them, handwriting recognition (HR) software converts legible handwritten text (even cursive) into computer text. HR software like CalliGrapher is available for many handheld computers. Students with a laptop and graphics tablet can use CalliGrapher or other HR programs on the market.
If the difficulty is both writing and typing, a handheld scanner like the QuickLink II may be appropriate. Students can capture information from books or other printed material by dragging the QuickLink over selected text. This text can later be downloaded to a computer for reference or editing.
Electronic reference devices
If typing the word correctly poses a problem (such as for a student with dyslexia), the student can use a handheld Reading Pen II to scan the word directly from a printed page, then hear it pronounced and defined.
Software for organizing ideas
For students who are more visually or spatially oriented, the software Inspiration allows them to perform these same outlining functions in a graphic environment. A student can freely brainstorm ideas in diagram view, then rearrange and categorize them in outline view. The ability to flip back and forth between these two views provides the student with a clearer grasp of what he or she is trying to say, and how to say it.
Eric is a junior majoring in Management Science and Engineering. His verbal language skills including vocabulary, oral expression, general fund of knowledge, and conceptual ability are highly developed and at a superior level. By contrast, Eric’s skills in processing nonverbal and visual information quickly and accurately are significant areas of difficulty. Scanning and sequencing even simple visual information is much slower than would be expected from his very superior intelligence. He tends to reverse and invert symbols, skip words, lose his place and/or miss entire lines of print when reading. His reading is labored and at a rate of only 164 words per minute, it is no wonder that Eric finds it extremely difficult to keep up with the heavy load of reading assignments in his courses. Writing fluency is also markedly slower and Eric’s writing contains many mechanical errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax. Although Eric enjoys math and is strong conceptually, his math computation is often inaccurate due to problems with symbol constancy.
Considering Eric’s strong verbal abilities any number of assistive technologies might be appropriate to help make visual tasks less complex and time consuming.
Since Eric is taking coursework in a technical field, the first step is to identify how assignments are presented in his courses. For the most part, Eric’s professors combine journal articles together into a “course reader.” Certainly a voice output text-to-speech system is a useful tool for Eric because it capitalizes on his verbal learning strengths. However, since the bulk of the articles are generally not available electronically, the disability office must first change the text into an alternate format using an optical character recognition system which scans and converts a document into e-text. Using a screenreader on his computer, Eric can then listen and look at the text simultaneously. Since Eric’s visual tracking skills are so deficient, he also uses Kurzweil 3000 to alter the visual presentation of the material so that it can be customized to his liking. Modifications he finds helpful include: selecting a font that is simple and clearly distinguishes the letters; enlarging the text to 18 point font; triple spacing the document to increase the white space between lines of text which enhances readability; color coding commonly confused symbols or words; and highlighting critical summary statements from the various articles that are subsequently “cut and pasted” to a separate document. This new document then becomes a study sheet for the entire course, containing as it does important ideas and facts from a compilation of all the readings. As a further benefit, with all the material scanned to disk, Eric now has a “virtual library” that he can take with him wherever he goes.
As noted previously, most of the assigned journal articles are technical in nature. Along with straight text these articles frequently contain material such as graphics and mathematical equations that cannot be scanned. To handle this limitation, when the article is originally scanned by the disability office, blank space is left where the formulas or other graphics would normally appear. Using MathTalk and Scientific Notebook combined with other special software, Eric can then go back over the article and dictate the mathematical equations into the document line by line. Eric can check for any dictation errors by listening as the problems are read back by the program. MathTalk and Scientific Notebook can also be used for exams since dictated results for a problem can be converted into a printed copy with standard math notation.
Susan, a first year law student, has a learning profile quite similar to Eric’s. Intellectually gifted, her strengths are all in the verbal realm (short and long term auditory memory and abstract verbal thinking). Academic work, particularly reading speed and writing fluency, are hampered by specific weaknesses in visual memory, spatial orientation, and the integration of visual to auditory or auditory to written information.
The biggest challenge Susan faces in law school is keeping pace with the heavy reading demands. For law books on disk she uses a laptop and screenreader to listen to the text spoken aloud. Unlike Eric, who also uses a screenreader, Susan does not make use of software applications to enlarge text, change font size or alter the visual presentation in any way. She is able to listen, comprehend, and retain material read at a speed of over 600 words per minute; at this rate trying to simultaneously view displayed text would overload her “circuits” with too much input. At first glance, then, it would seem that books on tape might be just as useful for Susan since she doesn’t view the text. So why does Susan favor electronic format to taped books? The primary reasons are that e-text versions allow for easier navigation throughout a document to locate a particular section of text and screenreaders, compared to tape-recorders, can be adjusted to read at faster rates.
For written work and exams, Susan uses a speech recognition system with add-on software designed especially for the legal profession. Again, because her verbal language exceeds her written language abilities, SR makes the writing process far more efficient.
Ted describes himself as a “visual” and “hands on” learner. He has yet to declare a major but gravitates towards courses that include laboratory or field work such as chemistry, product design, computer science, photography, and geology. His learning preference is to rely on class discussions coupled with visual aids (e.g., charts, graphs, and pictures). For study purposes Ted has installed large white boards in his dorm room on which he outlines problems and creates his own visual maps and diagrams of concepts. He also uses the graphic outlining program Inspiration for this purpose.
Ted’s learning disabilities are in the area of auditory processing (short term memory, auditory discrimination, analysis synthesis). He describes reading as “drudgery” and tediously slow because he subvocalizes and has difficulty pronouncing multisyllable words. Ted’s auditory processing deficits significantly impact his reading comprehension. He needs extra time to simply “think” about each sentence in order to derive meaning.
With superior nonverbal and visual processing skills, it might seem that a computer screenreader would be highly beneficial. Although Ted used this technology briefly he abandoned it because he had great difficulty listening to the text read by the synthetic computerized voice. The monotone and “robotic” sound of the voice actually accentuated his difficulties with auditory processing. Hearing text read by a human voice is essential for Ted. The tone, inflection, and varying degrees of loudness and pitch, all characteristic of the human voice, provide a much richer listening context. Ted clearly prefers to use books on tape and follows along with his textbook to benefit from the added visual input.
Assistive technology tools for students with LD are in abundance and run the gamut from commonplace low tech solutions to state-of-the-art high tech ones. The key to strategically matching the appropriate technology to an individual student resides in considering a number of things: 1) the learner’s type and severity of LD; 2) his or her strengths and weaknesses, and preferred learning style; 3) the academic area(s) impacted by the LD; 4) the student’s academic major; 5) the educational context or learning environment; and 6) the student’s “technology quotient,” or ease and comfort with using technology. Equipped with appropriate tools and the skills to use them, students with even severe learning disabilities can achieve their potential and be successful in college and beyond.
Authors’ Note: The Disability Resource Center is very grateful to Mr. & Mrs. Charles Schwab for their generous gift to enhance assistive technology services for Stanford students with learning differences.
Dr. Joan Bisagno is the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Disability Resource Center at Stanford University. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, masters degree in learning disabilities, and elementary, secondary, special education, and supervisory/administrative teaching credentials. Dr. Bisagno has more than 20 years experience working in the fields of education and mental health in clinic, hospital, and school settings; has taught college courses in psychoeducational assessment and is particularly interested in the application of assistive technologies for students with LD and psychiatric disabilities.
Rachael M. Haven„ known as Shelley to friends ends and colleagues, is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and Technology Coordinator for the University’s Disability Resource Center Ms. Haven has a degree in mechanical engineering and is a licensed professional engineer with more than 15 years experience in assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering encompassing a wide range of activities: conducting assessments, custom-designing and fabricating technology accommodations, writing and publishing training materials. Prior to her current position, she provided AT training and technical assistance to approximately 100 school districts as a private consultant and as part of a state-funded program.