Taking a look at how technology can transform classrooms and open up avenues to work for students with disabilities
Assistive technology (AT) is any technology or piece of equipment that is designed to improve or maintain the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities, impairments or specific learning difficulties. This includes any type of computer hardware or software, or a combination of both, that has been designed for people with disabilities, impairments or learning difficulties to improve or maintain aspects of their day-to-day lives.
AT promotes greater independence, allowing people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to do or struggled to accomplish. It can enable disabled children and young people to work and learn effectively and increase their productivity, as well as helping to reduce stress by empowering them and removing barriers to learning.
In an educational context, AT helps children and young people to live as full a life as possible by assisting them when performing tasks such as writing essays or reports, reading text books or websites, taking notes in lessons or lectures or doing homework. This is achieved by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of interacting with, the technology needed to accomplish such tasks.
Over time, social and technological developments have helped reduce any stigma and embarrassment people may feel when using AT in the classroom or lecture hall, which in turn has increased its use. Two important recent developments in AT have helped to make learning environments more inclusive.
The increased portability of devices with wireless connections such as mobile phones, tablets, and light laptops now allow school pupils and students with disabilities, impairments or learning difficulties far greater independence. Also, the AT now in-built into these devices has brought AT into the mainstream and we’ve seen AT companies developing really creative apps to cater to a diverse range of needs.
As interest in AT has grown, so has the desire from teachers, parents, and disability and inclusion professionals involved in education to get to know much more about exactly what AT products are available and how to get the best out of them.
Types of assistive technology
AT providers offer a very broad range of solutions that can help children and young people with disabilities, learning difficulties or impairments. Products such as those listed below now form the majority of products on offer in the market.
Accessibility software allows children and young people with a disability, visual impairment or learning difficulty to access digital content like documents and websites. Software from various providers is available with a range of features that allow users to customise digital content the way they need it to work for them, letting them do things like change font sizes and colours, read text aloud through text-to-speech functions, and customise the background colour.
This can help children and young people in a number of ways. For example, people with dyslexia can read more quickly and easily if they are given the functionality to allow them to change the size and colour of the text. Also, with the ability to customise the background colour of a document or website, people with dyslexia will be able to access content up to 25 per cent faster than without this feature.
There’s also a range of other assistive software that can help children and young people with specific learning difficulties like dyslexia. For instance, spelling correction software allows users to focus on what they’re writing rather than having their workflow and creative writing process disrupted by having to think, or worry, about spelling mistakes.
Interestingly, the growth of AT products such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech has influenced mainstream technology products by driving innovation in digital technology. Text-to-speech functionality originally came from AT but is now becoming an everyday feature for many, for example with people using text-to-speech to check their text messages on their mobile phone safely whilst driving. Speech-to-text began as a pure AT but it has since led to the massive growth of voice recognition technology. Examples of this can be found on most tablet computers and mobile phones, with users being able to speak to their device to instruct it to perform functions or searches.
Note-taking software providers offer speech-to-text products that record audio and create text from audio recordings. This software makes audio content easy to access, edit and use in documents for a variety of purposes, such as reports and essays. It also has the capability to combine audio, text, images and presentation slides and can be used to help children and students take notes or aid struggling writers.
Another popular type of AT is mind-mapping software that helps people present ideas visually to effectively organise and develop ideas, outline reports and streamline decision-making. It is becoming increasingly popular for creative planning but it also helps people who don’t have a linear thought process such as those with dyslexia.
Funding for AT in higher education
Higher education students living in England are eligible for the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) if they meet the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 and have a disability, including a long-term health condition, mental health condition, or a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia.
The DSA mainly funds three aspects of support for disabled students – assessment, AT software/equipment, and non-medical help. Hardware can be ergonomic aids through to electronic visual magnifiers. The AT software supplied covers literacy support, note-taking, speech-to-text, mind-mapping, through to screen magnifiers and screen readers. DSA also covers the training and on-going support necessary to help disabled people use their AT competently in everyday tasks.
The step from completing studying at school, sixth form college or university and moving into full-time employment can be challenging for young disabled people to make and current debate in this area also throws up some interesting questions.
For example, when a disabled person moves from university to work they need to reapply for benefits to support them with their AT. But they will need support all the way through their education and through their working lives – so should funding follow an individual as opposed to being orientated around the institutions they are attached to?
However, there are many positive steps that disabled students and graduates can take immediately to make the transition from education to employment a smooth one. As a starting point, some disabled students may feel they’ll be at a disadvantage in the job market; however, employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments as outlined in the Equality Act 2010.
Reasonable adjustments for disabled employees can include providing disabled people with AT, but this can be more of a challenge for small and medium sized organisations to afford. To that end, disabled people can apply for Access to Work grant funding to help them buy AT that allows them to either start work or stay in work. Also, when looking at their steps into employment disabled students can take advantage of the disability employment advisor at every Job Centre Plus throughout the UK.
Antony Ruck is Conference Director of the Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference (ATEC) series of events aimed at disability professionals involved in post-16 education and the workplace. He is also Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and MD of Archent Consultancy Ltd, which provides information, advice and guidance consultancy services: