The Future is Now! Assistive Technology and Today’s Classroom

Do you recall watching Back to the Future, STAR Wars, or any of the futuristic movies as a kid and thinking, “Those gadgets are so cool!” When our clients walk into our Assistive Technology (AT) Lab at The STAR Center Inc., in Jackson, Tennessee, we hear those same words! AT allows students with disabilities to be more engaged in the classroom and promotes success in educational goals. Researchers agree that children with disabilities would benefit from assistive technology, but there are barriers (edutopia.com, assistivetechnologyhub.com). What could stand in the way of encouraging access to equal education?

  1. Lack of knowledge about existence
  2. Fear of being “different”
  3. Classroom compliance
  4. Misconceptions about funding

Those are just a few things that could hinder a student’s access to assistive technology. Let’s tackle one of these barriers: Knowledge about existence. Here are a few tools that could be utilized in the classroom or employed at home:

  • Smart pens
    • The top question we get when talking about these devices is “Where was this when I was in school?” Items like the Livescribe Echo 2 are great for someone who struggles to take notes in a classroom. When used in conjunction with the companion dot notebook paper, they can capture everything that is said and written in a lecture setting. From definitions to diagrams, smart pens help support information recall and build stronger study habits.
  • Closed Captioning/Live Transcription
    • Closed-captioning can be used in many different environments. It can be as simple as clicking the CC button on a YouTube video or activating this setting on a classroom television. However, in the current educational environment that supports virtual settings for the classroom, as well as future workplaces, a new technology has stepped forward – live transcription. These automatically generated captions allow for visual supports in live conversation on platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
  • Assistive listening devices
    • These individual devices, such as the Bellman Domino system, capture teachers’ voices more clearly with microphones that connect to an earpiece via FM radio waves, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. This allows for students to better isolate the information provided by the instructor while actively participating with their peers. A soon to be released option, the OrCam Hear, will use artificial intelligence technology to scan the speaker’s lip and chin movements and filter out excess noise (e.g. in a large lecture hall), transporting only the desired vocalizations to a Bluetooth connected device (i.e. earbuds, hearing aids, or cochlear implant).
  • Speech-to-text software
    • This type of software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or Apple Voice Control, allows the student to control a device and dictate documents, notes, or emails by using only voice commands. This is a game changer for individuals who experience physical limitations or loss of dexterity.
  • Text-to-speech software
    • This type of software changes typed text into audio output. It can be instrumental in aiding students with speech disabilities, impaired vision, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and various learning disabilities. The technology is available in several different forms. Handheld options, such as the Scan Marker, the C-Pen, or the OrCam Read, permit the user audio access to printed material via a dedicated external device. Seeing AI is an application available on iOS devices, which will allow scanning of signs, labels, and single page printed material. Other options, such as Apple Spoken Content or Natural Reader, provide audio feedback for digital text on computers, tablets, or phones.
  • Portable Video Magnifiers
    • Video magnifiers allow students with low vision to view printed information and material provide on a whiteboard or projection at a level of magnification and contrast that enhances functional vision. These devices can be handheld, portable desktop, or attached to a computer. Some options provide Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which allows for text-to-speech access. Options like the Magnilink Premium 2 will not only provide OCR of quizzes or worksheet, but it also has the ability to convert the image to a PDF that can be completed on the computer.
  • Specialized keyboards
    • While a keyboard may seem like a standard computer accessory, there are many options that can address a range of learning needs. Multiple types of braille inputs/outputs support the blind community who use the language as their main form of information gathering. Alternative layouts can address an array of physical needs, such as condensed options for one-handed typists or a handheld option (Rii X8) that focuses on thumb dexterity as opposed to full hand dexterity.
  • Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) Devices
    • This category can encompass many different devices. From simple communication boards to complex EyeGaze devices, AAC supports communication and independence among students who are non-verbal. The device may be lower-tech, using only point and touch pictures, or it could involve a direct select digital board which utilizes motor planning. No matter the style, this type of AT promotes peer interaction, classroom learning, and community independence.

There’s also flexible furniture, pencil grips, the use of graph paper to teach math skills, screen reading magnifiers, and talking devices which are all considered to be assistive technology. Students in Tennessee who have a case open with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation may request an AT evaluation to see what tools they might benefit from in the school setting. The school system may also request an individual contract for an evaluation to fulfill an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goal. Access to assistive technology is expanding every year. We can only dream of what it will be in the near future!

This article is a collaborative effort of Jennifer A. Graves, Ed.D., Jennifer Cunningham, OTR/L, ATP, & Lindsey B. Wilkerson, M.S. Clinical Mental Health Counseling, The STAR Center, Inc.