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/ Home / Library / Articles on Education / Special Education / Assistive Technology for Students with Mild Disabilities
Assistive Technology for Students with Mild Disabilities
Author: Michael M. Behrmann
Technology is bursting into the classroom at all levels, as a tool for
teachers to develop, monitor, and provide instructions, and for
students to access and engage in learning. P.L. 100-407, The
Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of
1988 (Tech Act) was designed to enhance the availability and quality
of assistive technology (AT) devices and services to all individuals
and their families throughout the United States.
What Are Assistive Technology (AT) Devices?
The Tech Act defines AT devices as any item, piece of equipment, or
product system (whether acquired off the shelf, modified, or
customized) that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional
capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT devices may be
categorized as high technology and low technology. Many low-tech
devices can be purchased at a hardware store, selected from a catalog,
or fabricated using tools and materials found in home workshops
(Franklin, 1991). Examples might be note-taking cassette recorders,
pencil grips, NCR paper/copy machine, simple switches, head pointers,
picture boards, taped instructions, or workbooks. High-tech devices
frequently incorporate some type of computer chip, such as a hand-held
calculator or a "talking clock." Examples might be optical character
recognition (OCR) calculators, word processors with spelling and
grammar checking, word prediction, voice recognition, speech
synthesizers, augmentative communication devices, alternative
keyboards, or instructional software.
How Can AT Be Applied in Instruction?
Lahm and Morrissette (1994) outlined seven areas of instruction where
AT could assist students with mild disabilities. These areas include
organization, note taking, writing assistance, productivity, access to
reference materials, cognitive assistance, and materials modification.
A number of approaches are available to assist students with mild
disabilities in these areas of instruction.
- Organization: Low-tech solutions include teaching students to
organize their thoughts or work using flow charting, task analysis,
webbing or networking ideas, and outlining. These strategies can be
accomplished using graphic organizers to visually assist students in
developing and structuring ideas. A high-tech solution might be the
outline function of word processing software, which lets students set
out major ideas or topics and then add subcategories of information.
- Note Taking: A simple approach is for the teacher to provide copies
of structured outlines for students to use in filling in information.
A high-tech approach might include optical character recognition,
which is software that can transform typewritten material into
computer-readable text using a scanner.
A teacher's typewritten notes can be duplicated using either NCR paper
(carbonless copies) or a copy machine. A slightly more high-tech
method is to use microcassette recorders. Or, notes can be read by a
voice synthesizer, allowing students with reading difficulty to review
the notes much the same as reviewing a tape recording. Recorders are
beneficial for students with auditory receptive strength, but they may
be less useful for those needing visual input. Videotaping class
sessions may be helpful for visual learners who pick up on images or
body language, or for students who are unable to attend class for
extended periods of time.
Laptop or notebook computers can provide high-tech note taking for
many students with disabilities. An inexpensive alternative to a
full-function portable computer is the portable keyboard. The
limitations of these keyboards are in formatting information and a
screen display limited to four lines of text.
- Writing Assistance: Word processing may be the most important
application of assistive technology for students with mild
disabilities. Many of these students have been identified as needing
assistance in the language arts, specifically in writing. Computers
and word processing software enable students to put ideas on paper
without the barriers imposed by paper and pencil. Writing barriers
for students with mild disabilities include mechanics: spelling,
grammar and punctuation errors; process: generating ideas,
organizing, drafting, editing, and revising; and motivation: clarity
and neatness of final copy, reading ability, and interest in writing.
Grammar/spellcheckers, dictionaries, and thesaurus programs assist in
the mechanics of writing. Macros, a feature that allows keystrokes to
be recorded in a file that can be used over and over, also assist in
mechanics. Macros can be used for spelling difficult text, for
repetitive strings of words, or for formatting paragraphs and pages.
Macros also save time for students who have difficulty with either the
cognitive or motor (keyboarding) requirements of writing. Word
prediction is assistive software that functions similarly to macros.
If a student has difficulty with word recall or spelling and cannot
easily use the dictionary or thesaurus feature, then word prediction
software offers several choices of words that can be selected.
Teachers can use the editing capabilities of the word processor during
the writing process, making electronic suggestions on the student's
disk. If the computer is on a network, students can read each other's
work and make comments for revision. Painter (1994) indicated that
peer feedback was an effective way to assist students in generating
and revising text. Computer editing also reduces or eliminates
problems such as multiple erasures, torn papers, poor handwriting, and
the need to constantly rewrite text that needs only minor
modifications. The final copy is neat and legible.
Motivation is often increased through the desktop-publishing and
multimedia capabilities of newer computers. A variety of fonts and
styles are available, allowing students to customize their writing and
highlight important features. Graphic images, drawings, and even
video and audio can be added to the project to provide interest or
highlight ideas. Multimedia often gives the student the means and the
motivation to generate new and more complex ideas.
- Productivity: Assistive productivity tools can be hardware-based,
software-based, or both. Calculators, for example, can be the
credit-card type or software based, which can be popped up and used
during word processing. Spreadsheets, databases, and graphics software
also offer productivity tools, enabling students to work on math or
other subjects that may require calculating, categorizing, grouping,
and predicting events. Productivity tools also can be found in small,
portable devices called personal digital assistants (PDAs). Newer PDAs
can be used as notetaking devices via a small keyboard or
graphics-based pen input. Some PDAs can translate words printed with
the pen input device to computer-readable text, which can then be
edited with the word processor and transmitted to a full function
- Access to Reference Materials: Many students with mild disabilities
have difficulty gathering and synthesizing information for their
academic work. In this arena, telecommunications and multimedia are
providing new learning tools for the students.
A computer and a modem can transport students beyond their physical
environment to access electronic information. This is particularly
appropriate for individuals who are easily distracted when going to
new and busy environments such as the library. Telecommunications
networks offer access to the information superhighway. Students can
establish "CompuPals" with other students, which often motivates them
to generate more text and thus gain more experience in writing.
Students can also access electronic encyclopedias, library references,
and online publications. However, these experiences should be
structured, because the information highway is complex and it is easy
to get distracted or lost as opportunities are explored.
Multimedia-based tools are another way in which information can be
made accessible to students. Multimedia's use of text, speech,
graphics, pictures, audio, and video in reference-based software is
especially effective in meeting the heterogeneous learning needs of
students with mild disabilities.
- Cognitive Assistance: A vast array of application program software is
available for instructing students through tutorials, drill and
practice, problem-solving, and simulations. Many of the assistive
technologies described previously can be combined with instructional
programs to develop and improve cognitive and problem-solving skills.
Multimedia CD-ROM-based application programs offer another tool for
assisted reading. Similar to talking word processors, CD-based books
include high-interest stories that use the power of multimedia to
motivate students to read. These books read each page of the story,
highlighting the words as they are read. Additional clicks of the
mouse result in pronunciation of syllables and a definition of the
word. When the student clicks on a picture, a label appears. A
verbal pronunciation of the label is offered when the student clicks
the mouse again. These books are available in both English and
Spanish, so students can read in their native language while being
exposed to a second language.
- Materials Modification: Special educators are familiar with the need
to create instructional materials or customize materials to meet the
varied needs of students with disabilities. Today there are powerful
multimedia authoring and presentation tools that educators can use to
develop and modify computer-based instructional materials for students
with mild disabilities, providing a learning tool that these students
can access and use to balance their weak areas of learning with their
Authoring software allows teachers and students to develop
instructional software that can incorporate video, pictures,
animation, and text into hypermedia-based instruction. Multimedia
authoring software is very easy to learn and use. In fact, authoring
software packages are even available for young children. For example,
if the objective is to teach map reading, an image of a local map can
be scanned in and specific locations can be made into buttons that the
students can click on, causing a short video clip playing of the
familiar location. A set of questions might be asked using both text
and synthesized speech to have students give directions on how to get
the location shown on the video. Students could then write directions
(or draw their own map). Digitized pictures of landmarks could also
be incorporated into the directions. These directions, along with the
images, could then be printed for use in completing the assignment.
Without the ability to author and incorporate multimedia easily into
instructional software, such computer-based training would be
impossible because of the need to incorporate the shared learning
concepts inherent in local environments into the assisted-learning
process. Such instruction can make learning more efficient and
certainly more real for students for whom abstract learning and
generalization may be difficult.
Franklin, K. S. (1991). Supported employment and assistive
technology: A powerful partnership. In S. L. Griffin & W. G. Revell
(Eds.), Rehabilitation counselor desktop guide to supported
employment. Richmond, VA : Virginia Commonwealth University
Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Supported Employment.
Lahm, E., & Morrissette, S. (1994, April). Zap 'em with assistive
technology. Paper presented at the annual meeting of The Council for
Exceptional Children, Denver, CO.
Painter, D.D. (1994). A study to determine the effectiveness of
computer-based process writing with learning disabled students under
two conditions of instruction: Peer collaborative process model and
nonpeer collaborative process model. Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.
Asen, S. (1994). Teaching and learning with technology. Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Johnson, L.J., Pugach, M.C., & Devlin S. (1990). Professional
collaboration. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 22, 9-11.
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. (1988). Power on! New
tools for teaching and learning (OTA-SET-379). Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.
The following Internet sites provide additional information on
assistive technology for students with disabilities:
Gopher sites: gopher sjuvm.stjohns.edu
St. John's University
Electronic Rehabilitation Resource Center
University of Washington
From Behrmann, M. (1994). Assistive technology for students with mild
disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 30(2), 70-83.
Adapted by permission.
Michael M. Behrmann, Ed.D., is an associate professor of education at
George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.