One of the most rewarding parts of my job is teaching people with learning disabilities how to use assistive technology (also known as adaptive technology or even A/T). Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, assistive technology is any item, device, or product that can help someone with a disability do something that they otherwise would not be able to do. Assistive technology can be something as simple and common place as a cane and eye glasses to something more complex such as assistive software and speech generating devices such as that used by Stephen Hawking.
- Text-to-Voice software (such as Kurzweil 3000 and Premier Literacy)
- Voice-to-Text software (such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking)
- Mind Mapping software (such as Smart Ideas or Inspiration)
- Word Prediction (such as WordQ or Co:Writer)
- Talking Word Processor (such as Write:OutLoud and is included in many of the other programs mentioned above)
The most important thing to know is that it is critical to find the right software program for each specific person. Since every person with a learning disability has different strengths and weaknesses, there is no one-size-fits-all assistive technology software solution for people with learning disabilities. I have been very fortunate to help many people with learning disabilities in finding their “right fit.”
I have trained children, youth, and adults with learning disabilities how to use assistive technology. What I most often see is parents dragging their kids into the LDAWE office to see me regarding assistive technology. Typically, the child is in the 10-14 year old age bracket. They often come in with a huge chip on their shoulder, slouch down in their chair, and give me an evil glare. To be honest, I don’t blame them. By the time they’re seeing me, their parents have probably brought them to several programs, got them a tutor for extra help, brought them to counselling, or maybe even tried some experimental solutions to “cure” the problem. I can tell that they think this is going to just be another place where their parents bring them to try to “fix” them.
The first thing I ask the person is, “What do you struggle the most with? Reading? Writing? Spelling?…” Based on their answer, I decide which assistive technology software program to show them first. If at all possible, I want them to see that this program can make a huge difference in their life right away. I can always tell when I’ve found the right fit. Especially for the kids that walk in with the huge chip on their shoulder. The first thing that happens, is they sit up straight in their chair. Then they actually start leaning towards the computer, clicking buttons, and asking me what else it can do. Finally, they will look at their parents, smile, point at the computer, and say “did you see that?” It’s a great feeling to be able to watch that moment happen.
I had the opportunity to work with Alison, who was in grade 4 at the time. Her Mom actually brought her to me a couple times at the beginning of the school day, because she felt this was more important than anything her daughter was trying (unsuccessfully) to learn at school. Alison told me that she had problems with reading and writing, but that by far her biggest concern was reading. I showed her how to use Kurzweil 3000. I explained that she’d be able to scan her books, worksheets, quizzes, and tests into Kurzweil and it would read all of the text aloud for her. I then began showing her how to use all of Kurzweil’s features. After a while, Alison looked at me and said, “I can do this!” I replied that yes, I know she can… she told me, “No, you don’t understand… I can go to highschool now.” That’s when it hit me. At the young age of 9 or 10 years old Alison had figured out that she was so far behind and with no viable way of catching up, that she would never be able to complete high school. I took a deep breathe (trust me, I needed one) and told Alison that she was right, with the help of the technology, she’d be able to successfully go to high school and even beyound that if she wanted to.
But Alison wasn’t done with her insights yet. She began to ask me questions, “Can I scan in chapter books?” I told her yes. “Even long books?” I told her that they might take her a while to scan, but yes… she could scan any book that she wanted. She started bouncing up and down in her chair and looked at her Mom and said, “Now I can read Twilight on my own without you having to read it to me. I can be just like my friends!”
And there they were… goose bumps running up and down my arms. What a great reminder from such a young student regarding what assistive technology is really all about… It helps put people with disabilities on an even playing field with everyone else.