Taking into account that the principle of justice should be paid primary attention to in any aspect of social life, the topic of opportunities that exist for people with disabilities remains extremely important. All people who have physical and intellectual disabilities or similar problems should be given an equal right to education. Understanding that there is a wide range of problems that people with disabilities face because they need special resources to learn new information, specialists from different countries design and implement practices helping those with disabilities to enhance their academic performance and unleash their potential more effectively. Assistive technology can be regarded as one of the most important topics in the field of special education; it can be used even with preschoolers (Burgstahler, 2003). In itself, the term refers to numerous inventions that are capable of improving the access of people with different types of disabilities to knowledge and intellectual development. With the help of assistive technology, all students can reach their potential and focus on course materials presented by their teachers instead of struggling with learning due to the specific needs that they have. Speaking about assistive technology and the approaches to its use in special education, it is extremely important to analyze this question in connection with specific laws, regulations, and theoretical understandings of methods helping to solve problems of students with special needs.
Inclusion and segregation belong to the number of the most important concepts that are related to the use of assistive technology at schools. In the first half of the twentieth century, students with special needs could not study together with their peers who did not have disabilities because it was almost impossible to mitigate the difference between students. The use of assistive technology in special education was not so popular, and the number of assistive technology devices helping children with special needs to learn new information was not great. In the 1970s, students with disabilities had to study in special classes for children who were mentally retarded, and they had a limited opportunity to communicate with normally developing peers. At the end of the 1960s, numerous researchers started discussing an idea concerning the creation of classes where children with disabilities could be together with their peers who did not have such problems (Osgood, 2005).
In 1975, one of the first laws protecting the right of children with disabilities to study together with their peers was adopted. At this point, it was necessary to enable special students to learn new information effectively and ensure that they did not feel that they were less talented than their peers. The effective use of assistive technology devices during lessons was the best way helping to achieve the goal. The introduction of mixed-ability classes has become a way to ensure the inclusion of students with special needs. The principle of inclusion rejects the necessity of special classes and researchers who support its focus on numerous benefits that children with special needs receive when communicating with other children. Nowadays, inclusive schooling and the extensive use of assistive technology devices are supported by numerous researchers, students, and teachers all over the world (Fitch, 2003). Students who are taught in inclusive classrooms demonstrate increased self-assurance, and the use of assistive technology devices plays an important role in the inclusion process.
Factors Influencing the Understanding of AT at Schools
The use of assistive technology in special education presents one of the most important tasks that exist in the field as special devices and software help people of different ages to become more independent during the process of learning and focus on information that their instructors present. The functional capabilities of people who have learning problems or disabilities experience a significant increase due to the use of special devices and technologies that minimize the influence of physical or intellectual problems of students on the learning process and academic performance of the latter. Assistive technology involves the use of a range of tools making it easier for students who have various disabilities to effectively communicate with their peers, take part in group discussions, and fulfill individual tasks (Alnahdi, 2014).
To put it in other words, the use of assistive technology is aimed at helping students with disabilities in different grades to become more independent and perceive course materials as other students do. The choice of special tools responsible for improving the quality of education that students with special needs receive heavily depends upon their medical conditions and the types of disabilities that can hurt their academic progress. Among the assistive technology devices that are the most commonly used in special education, there are voice synthesis applications that help those individuals who are unable to talk to take part in discussions. Also, there is a range of devices that students with visual impairments can use to get acquainted with topics discussed by their instructors. They include tape recorders, course books in an audio file format, special keypads, screen lenses, and other devices.
The primary factor promoting the use of AT at schools is presented by a large number of acts reducing the ability gap. Considering that the use of assistive technology and the effectiveness of devices and computer programs are strictly interconnected with the current state of technology and the ability of governments to provide all students with disabilities with enough resources facilitating their learning process, it is clear that the legal history of the question did not start a long time ago. Nowadays, many specialists in the field of special education are interested in the emergence of laws protecting students with disabilities. Reflecting on the legal history of the question, many researchers claim that that the special education needs of children and adolescents have been neglected until the twentieth century (Yell, Rogers, D., & Rogers, E., 1998).
In the middle of the twentieth century, due to the concerted efforts of common people whose children had special education needs and their representatives who were willing to change the system completely, it became possible to force the government of the United States to design new measures helping children with disabilities to become more successful at school. Before the twentieth century, the needs and problems of children and adolescents who had serious health issues or learning disabilities were not taken into consideration by education authorities in the United States. Despite that, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement that involved a struggle for equality in different aspects of social life, the government of the United States had no alternative but to make efforts helping to facilitate access of children with disabilities to special needs education of a high quality (Yell et al., 1998).
Among the most important laws that have an impact on the accessibility of special education and the use of assistive technology, it is possible to single out the EAHCA that can also be referred to as Public Law 94-142 and the Rehabilitation Act (Yell et al., 1998). The implementation of the discussed act is believed to have laid the foundation for assisted education for children with disabilities in the United States. The given act was adopted more than forty years ago, and it was aimed at fulfilling a series of important goals making it easier for children with special needs to learn and socialize. As for the goals of the act, it was implemented to fight injustice related to special education decisions, design the requirements that special education services must meet, and improve access to services for children with special needs. The EAHCA “provided federal funding to states to assist them in educating students with disabilities” (Yell et al., 1998, p. 225).
The states were required to prepare plans containing detailed descriptions of education practices and opportunities that would be available for students with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act that was adopted in the first half of the 1970s presents other legislation that can be used to improve access to special education and achieve better outcomes for children with disabilities. The act focuses on the opportunities that exist for people with disabilities and services that they need to be provided with. About the use of assistive technology in special education, it is pivotal to pay focused attention to Section 504 of the given law. The latter protects the right of people who have disabilities to take part in any activities that involve education. According to the ideas expressed in the section, the right of any individual who has disabilities or learning difficulties to get an education should be guaranteed by governments, and the use of assistive technology belongs to the range of important questions.
The legislation emphasizes the fact that children who have special needs should be provided with special conditions or resources if they have problems preventing them from achieving success at school. Focusing on improving the quality of life of people with specific needs, the legislation prohibits any discrimination against children and adults who have disabilities. The section is extremely important for people with specific needs and their families as it helps to prevent discrimination and ensure that the interests of those with disabilities cannot be neglected when it comes to education or employment. Due to this section, people working in an organization for individuals with disabilities were able to urge the Government of New Mexico to fulfill the special education needs of students in the 1970s (Yell et al., 1998).
The case of Rowley presents one of the brightest examples helping to understand whether current laws can protect students with disabilities whose needs are neglected (Tulman, Feinstein, & Kule-Korgood, 2015). According to the case, the parents of a female student with a severe hearing impairment decided to seek legal redress for the unwillingness of the school management to provide special devices helping the girl to study. The most important question related to this case was the way to interpret the EAHCA, the act that urged all educational institutions to provide children who had special needs with appropriate education of high quality. The girl’s parents regarded the school’s inability to provide their daughter with assistive devices for individuals with hearing impairments as a discriminatory practice. Nevertheless, despite their arguments, the court decided the case in favor of the Board of Education. As it follows from the decision, the girl’s parents cannot urge the school management to buy special equipment because no law requires schools to supply students with assistive devices. As it follows from the discussed case, the misinterpretation of laws ensuring equal opportunities for people who have disabilities can cause serious problems. Parents’ inflated expectations concerning the resources that their children should be provided with can sometimes be detrimental to the further success of their sons and daughters.
The IDEIA is the act that was signed by President Bush thirteen years ago; the discussed act presents a more recent version of IDEA (formerly known as EAHCA) that contains important changes focusing on the needs of children with disabilities and learning difficulties (Yell, Shriner, & Katsiyannis, 2006). The discussed act was aimed at improving certain points covered in the IDEA; among the most important changes that it is supposed to encourage, there is the decision “to emphasize the substantive requirements of the special education process” and the necessity to “align IDEIA with No Child Left Behind provisions such as adequate yearly progress” (Yell et al., 2006, p.4). As for the definition of the latter, it presents the particular amount of academic growth that students have to demonstrate. AYP is regarded as the measure helping to analyze the performance of educational institutions and the effectiveness of teachers’ work (Stockall & Dennis, 2015).
The first change concerning the substantive requirements of educational services for children with special needs influences accessibility and decision-making related to the use of assistive technology. Considering the existing requirements, specialists who assess the quality of educational services that children with special needs receive are expected to base their analysis on the degree to which the unique educational needs of students are met (Warger, 2007). Among the measures that can be taken to meet these needs, there is the effective use of assistive technology, setting measurable goals, and providing regular reports concerning the academic performance of students with special needs. Among the most important practical changes that were encouraged by the reauthorization of the law, there was the creation of the National Instructional Material Access Center that adopted a new digital format (Karger & Lazar, 2014). The creation of the new format initiated by the law was regarded as the measure helping to reduce problems of children with special needs (basically, those children with visual impairments) who lack special textbooks and other resources that can enhance their understanding of course topics. The center stores special files that can be used for K-12 learning materials. The use of such files involves numerous advantages for students who have vision problems as it helps to create more appropriate versions of textbooks with large fonts. Also, it is possible to convert them into audio files or braille books to use these materials during the lessons with optically challenged children and adolescents (Wong & Cohen, 2016).
The legislation that has the most obvious impact on accessibility and decision-making for students with disabilities in the area of assistive technology was adopted together with the reformulation of the IDEA. The Assistive Technology Act adopted in 2004 presents the most recent version of the act. The ATA is focused on providing local educational authorities in the United States with an opportunity to use government financing to ensure that people with disabilities from different age groups have access to assistive devices and programs helping them to fulfill everyday tasks (Tshiswaka, Clay, Chiu, Alston, & Lewis, 2016). The changes that have been implemented since the adoption of the previous version of the act have a significant influence on the field of special education. Thus, according to the most recent version of the act, the primary task of education authorities in the United States is not limited to contributing to the creation of systems helping individuals with various impairments to use assistive devices (Bausch, Mittler, Hasselbring, & Cross, 2005). Instead, the discussed version of the act emphasizes that the states must play a pivotal role in the development of assistive technology programs and keep track of the key needs of citizens whose opportunities are limited due to their physical condition.
Two years ago, it was decided to replace NCLB with the ESSA law that provides the states with the opportunity to implement their standards and education programs (Darrow, 2016). The law is believed to be “a step in the right direction for all students, including those with disabilities” (Darrow, 2016, p.42). Despite the efforts of the federal authorities and researchers to promote understanding of AT at schools, numerous AT service providers in the United States report “the lack of a recognized standard for the provision of services” that can hurt student outcomes (Arthanat, Elsaesser, & Bauer, 2017). Therefore, the lack of standards can also impact the understanding of AT.
AT Implementation Practices and Their Impact on Learners
Due to the efforts of numerous researchers focusing on methods helping to implement assistive technology to help students, there is a range of evidence-based practices that special education teams can rely on to expand learning opportunities of children who have specific problems. In general, implementation plans that special education professionals utilize include a few important steps that cannot be omitted. Thus, to create an effective plan based on the needs of children who have difficulties, it is possible to create special AT implementation teams. The members of such teams are supposed to solve a great number of problems interconnected with the use of assistive technology devices. For instance, it is pivotal to create a defined framework for task distribution and define the type of assistive technology devices to be used. Also, close attention must be paid to the ability of children with disabilities, their parents, and their teachers to use chosen assistive technology devices appropriately.
There is no doubt that the implementation of assistive technology at schools is related to numerous tasks and involves a range of risks. Therefore, to implement assistive technology effectively, it is extremely important to use a framework that unites key components taking part in the process and, therefore, utilizes a holistic approach to the use of assistive technology in special education. The use of the SETT framework belongs to the number of practices that have a positive impact on people with specific problems limiting their opportunities, their family members, and specialists in the field of assistive technology. The name of the framework presents an abbreviation that reflects the key components that the approach is focused on: “student, environment, task, and tools” (Zabala, Bowser, & Korsten, 2004, p.1). To use the framework during the planning stage, specialists who are responsible for the implementation of assistive technology are required to answer a range of questions related to the role of each component shaping the basis of the approach. Importantly, the SETT framework can be applied to make specific assistive technology decisions based on the situation of a particular student; therefore, the approach helps to create individualized plans.
First, it is pivotal to define the specific needs of a student, paying special attention to factors that can motivate him or her and strengths. As for the classroom environment, the framework requires special education professionals to assess various environments in terms of special resources that a student has access to and specific problems that an improved AT strategy would help to solve. The third component that must be analyzed is presented by tasks that a student has to fulfill. Having analyzed the environment, it is pivotal to define the tasks related to it that a student cannot complete without the use of assistive technology devices. Finally, it is necessary to decide on the specific tools helping a student to feel better and improve his or her academic performance. When it comes to the tools that can be used to fulfill students’ needs, the SETT framework defines the latter as devices, “support and training needed by the student and others, accommodations and modifications of the environments”, and task adjustment (Zabala et al., 2004, p.1).
The short-term and long-term impact on children with disabilities of utilizing the framework can be regarded as positive because the effectiveness of this approach to AT implementation is approved by numerous researchers. The primary advantage of the approach that can produce positive outcomes for students with limited opportunities is related to the fact that the framework aims at analyzing every single aspect of the AT implementation process. Specialists utilizing it are required to base the analysis of one component on what they already know about other elements. The concerted efforts of special education professionals paired with the comprehensive analysis of key factors influencing the implementation process help learners to use assistive technology devices in a manner that addresses their key problems. Also, the framework pays careful attention to teaching practices for parents and school teachers who need to know how to use AT devices as well. Therefore, it will be easy for them to help learners with disabilities if they have technical problems.
The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative was designed in the middle of the 1990s to enable school districts to use assistive technology devices in an appropriate manner (Jones & Hinesmon-Matthews, 2014). Specialists who implement the initiative to improve the quality of special education use a few important practices that help them to support school districts. For instance, the implementation of the initiative involves the establishment of a “technical assistance network of individuals across the state” (“Historical overview of WATI,” n.d., para. 2). To fulfill the goals set by those specialists who developed the initiative, it was necessary to establish more than ten agencies where AT specialists provide direct help to the management of schools to ensure that the latter have access to necessary tools and strategies.
Providing training that special education teachers can undergo, specialists implementing the discussed initiative improve outcomes that exist for students with disabilities. The short-term impact of the implementation of this initiative is presented by the expanded knowledge of special education teachers related to the effective use of assistive technology devices. Over the longer term, the initiative is expected to strengthen the collaboration of AT service providers and provide more learners with modern equipment. WATI has a positive impact on learners as an increased focus on teacher training makes students with disabilities use assistive technology devices properly. Apart from enabling students with special needs to use assistive devices, teachers who demonstrate expanded knowledge of implementation practices can use it to deal with interpersonal conflicts and students’ psychological problems that stem from their physical condition.
The introduction of special quality indicators helping to assess AT implementation programs is also considered to be a practice enhancing the quality of special education. (“Quality indicators for assistive technology implementation,” 2012). According to the QIAT Community, seven key indicators can be used to check whether an implementation plan can produce positive results. About the indicators, a successful team is expected to create a written plan together, integrate AT devices into everyday classroom activities, and share the responsibility for the results of the implementation. At the same time, factors that help to conclude the success of AT programs include the ability of implementation teams to provide a substantial number of strategies that students can use. Also, these teams should provide education and support to students, teachers who are going to use AT devices during their lessons, and students’ families.
According to these indicators, the implementation process and the improvement of strategy must be based on the results of observation and changes related to academic performance. Finally, a good strategy clearly defines practices helping to maintain equipment productivity. The use of these indicators by specialists planning and implementing AT strategies is expected to have a positive impact on learners both in short and long-time perspectives. The indicators encourage specialists responsible for the implementation of AT strategies to design effective plans helping to consider students’ opinions on the effectiveness of proposed devices. Providing students with an opportunity to choose from a few strategies, specialists who use the discussed indicators in their work help children with special needs to take an active part in the process and better understand their needs. From a long-term perspective, the use of these indicators can help to elaborate standards that will be used by all AT service providers. In this case, there will be numerous advantages for learners with special needs as the emphasis will be placed on responsibility, the quality of service, and the perceptions of students and their families.
In the field of special education, assistive technology devices helping to meet the needs of students with disabilities are divided into a few groups based on costs and accessibility (“Assistive technology continuum of low to high tech tools,” n.d.). The so-called low-tech tools include devices and materials that are quite simple and are sold at reasonable prices. As for the most common examples of such devices, they include pens of different shapes, rug locks, paper with raised lines, various tools for children with visual impairments helping to enlarge text, transparent films for children who have difficulties in color perception, and other devices. About the high-tech tools for children with disabilities, they include more expensive devices such as keyboards for children with impaired vision and computer programs allowing students to develop reading, writing, and drawing skills in an easy way. Due to the use of this classification helping to categorize assistive technology devices, specialists responsible for the implementation of AT strategies at their schools can analyze students’ needs and estimate financial expenses. The catalog provided by ATC in Boston clearly explains the way to use each AT device presented, and it helps members of IEP teams to choose devices based on the needs of students and available financial resources. The impact of high and low-tech AT devices on children with special educational needs is positive as the combination of such devices can help to facilitate the learning process and improve the academic performance of children with different degrees of disability.
As is clear from the sources used, there is a large number of factors influencing the incorporation of AT at schools. The latter include special regulations protecting the rights of students with disabilities and eliminating the so-called ability gap. Also, there are various resources including theoretical materials and training for special education teachers and the range of low and high-tech assistive tools enabling children with disabilities to learn new information despite specific problems. Also, among influential factors, there is the presence of evidence-based practices, frameworks that teach the members of IEP teams to develop effective implementation strategies, and the systems of quality indicators that can be used during the planning stage for self-assessment. The impact of these factors on the process of AT implementation at schools cannot be overstated. The key aspect that makes them similar is that all these initiatives, tools, and laws are based on the superiority of students’ needs. Therefore, the consequences of their implementation for the state of assistive technology at schools are positive.
Specialists who need to incorporate AT into individual education plans can face numerous obstacles that can be detrimental to the outcomes for students. Among the most common problems that can reduce the effectiveness of AT implementation strategy and, therefore, have a negative impact o student outcomes, there is the lack of clarity in terms and practices included in individual plans for students with special needs (“Writing assistive technology into the IEP,” 2013). In terms of recommendations that members of IEP teams can use to incorporate AT into IEPs, such specialists should base assessment and the process of strategic planning on the unique educational needs of students. The lack of attention to this aspect can cause significant obstacles to the implementation of AT in IEPs. To eliminate the impact of this factor, special education professionals developing such plans need to analyze student profiles thoroughly. In particular, the attention must be paid to details specifying the medical condition of a student because there are no unique AT devices that would be helpful to all students. Also, the degree of a disability must be taken into account during the planning process (Edyburn, 2006). A common mistake that special education professionals make is the absence of clear measurable goals helping to keep track of students’ academic progress and improve AT strategies if necessary. To avoid making this mistake, the members of IEP teams are recommended to use the information on students’ performance, grades, and the degree to which they participate in classroom activities to identify skill gaps helping to set measurable goals.
In the end, there is a wide range of laws, assumptions, and practices that have an impact on the implementation of assistive technology at schools. Among them, there are various acts such as IDEA and ATA that protect inclusion in education and ensure equal opportunities and rights for children with disabilities and regular students. Also, some special practices and frameworks are expected to facilitate the implementation of assistive technology in education and improve the quality of special education programs for children with various disabilities. Examples of such frameworks include WATI that was initiated in Wisconsin to explain the principles of AT implementation to special education professionals at schools. Also, there is a set of quality indicators encouraging the members of IEP teams to focus on the analysis of students’ situations and develop follow-up strategies before the implementation of AT into children’s plans. Another factor that helps to facilitate the implementation of AT at schools is the existence of numerous AT providers who are ready to help IEPs and fit special needs students with necessary assistive devices. A large number of devices that are available nowadays (including both low-tech and high-tech ones) also present a factor that facilitates AT implementation. Despite all these factors, special education professionals can face problems when incorporating AT into individualized education plans. To avoid them, such specialists can use the discussed frameworks, set clear goals that can be measured, and analyze the medical condition of their students.
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