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Assistive tech is a hotbed of innovation

By Linda Estep
April 1, 2015
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Holly Palmer's 5-year-old son, Maceo, is a marvel to her; a bright light whose glow she believes could sweep him into adulthood capable of designing buildings, writing symphonies or falling in love. Granted, he has a few challenges due to cerebral palsy, such as the inability to sit up, speak, move from one point to another or eat without a tube.

His eyes do his talking.

Her optimism is supported by the rapid development of assistive technology introduced to him at 14 months, when Palmer intuitively observed, " "He wants to communicate. I know he is with us." "

Guided by specialists in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), Palmer first introduced Maceo to an iPad with a " "Sesame Street" " game application, and for the first time in his life, " "after recruiting every muscle in his body to get his arm to the screen, Maceo was playing with a toy," " Palmer says. It was a huge step forward.

Before he was 3, Maceo advanced to a symbol-supported communication application called Proloquo2Go, enabling him to talk by tapping buttons on a screen to select symbols. Incredibly, at one point he managed to tap out his wish for another night nurse because he didn't much like the one he had.

Eye commands drive communication

Eye-gaze systems introduced in the last decade allow people with severe physical disabilities to access a computer by looking at a symbol, letter or phrase on a screen grid. In a single second, the system's camera identifies what the user is looking at and selects it, eventually putting together the sentence and speaking it for the user.

Maceo is now enrolled in an inclusive classroom at a public school, is proficient with eye gaze, and can spell, add and subtract. He even has a wheelchair he controls by head movement.

" "I'm thankful we live in a time when technology can provide these things for Maceo," " his mother says. " "He's a super-creative little guy." "

Proper evaluation, match to tools required

The world of assistive technology (AT) in education is an expansive universe, but experts caution against painting it with a broad brush. As Dave Edyburn, ISTE member and exceptional-education professor at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, points out, there are 13 different disabilities defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for school-age children ages 3-21, and well over 25,000 assistive technology devices. So there is no " "one size fits all." " Proper evaluation of students and matching them with appropriate tools is the trick, he says.

" "This is not a trend," " insists Edyburn, a well-known researcher and authority in exceptional education. Assistive technology is not limited to computers or electronics, he explains.

The 1988 Tech Act defines an assistive technology device as any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially, off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.

AT service includes evaluation of a child with disability, purchasing, leasing or providing acquisition of AT, coordinating therapies and services, training or technical assistance for both the child and professionals [both educational and rehabilitative], and others who provide services to the child.

Edyburn feels the need for accessible design is a central issue in the field of assistive technology, creating products that will serve specific needs of children with disabilities. " "The challenge for schools is to find students who need AT and then determine what tools are needed to close the performance gap," " he says. " "The goal is to look at how technology can minimize disability, whatever it is." "

Schools must be very careful in selecting technology, Edyburn warns. Making the right match in a rapidly developing field requires staying up-to-date on what is available. " "There are products in the marketplace that people don't know about. You cannot keep using the same old tools." "

Christy Skura, a physical therapist who works with the Center for Duchene Muscular Dystrophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees and feels teacher training on specific equipment is less important than good training in evaluating needs and then knowing which resource to consult in addressing those needs. Skura also works at the WISH Charter School in Los Angeles, where students with special needs are fully integrated with typically developing children.

" "I think it would be virtually impossible to train special ed teachers to be experts in all assistive technology. There is such a broad range of assistive/adaptive tools available for kids with all kinds of different needs and new products coming on the market constantly," " she says.

Edyburn also expresses concern for students with disabilities having access to new computer-based assessments, such as those required for the Common Core. He wonders if it is time to integrate the two parallel systems of supportive technology (AT and IT) at schools where network coordinators and technology specialists typically manage infrastructure for students without disabilities. He wrote about this very issue in a 2004 article titled " "Rethinking Assistive Technology," " in the journal Special Education Technology Practice citing, " "It is relatively rare to find a school where IT and AT have been integrally linked in ways that support the success of all students." "

ISTE provides resources

A valuable resource for ISTE members is the Inclusive Learning Network, one of 29 ISTE Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), where community members share and collaborate with each other.

Christine Southard, the technology integration facilitator for Denton Avenue Elementary School and the district assistive technology evaluator in the Herricks Union Free School District, both located in New Hyde Park, New York, is the president of the Inclusive Learning Network. " "Educators need to make a commitment to technology integration not only to meet and surpass ISTE Standards, but to make the assistive nature of educational technology ubiquitous to teaching and learning for students of all skill levels," " she says.

Southard is a strong proponent of shared expertise and sees the PLN as a go-to place for educators seeking information about assistive technology. She notes that the network uses several venues to disseminate information or showcase AT tools and devices. Some of those include professional development webinars, small supported open online courses (SOOC), a monthly newsletter, social networks and face-to-face interaction at ISTE conferences.

" "We are there to share information," " Southard says. " "We are a hub for resources and information about accessibility." "

Witness to innovation
Cheryl Temple has devoted her career in education to the needs of students with disabilities. She is manager of assistive technology services for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is the president of the Technology and Media (TAM) Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, an organization she has served in various capacities since her college days.

She recalls the early days of personal computers and her students using the Apple IIe for word processing. " "I noticed that when my students used the computer, their work was readable. Word processing removed the barriers so students didn't have to rewrite the whole thing, and that was major. It was then I fell in love with technology." "

Today, she notes, tech is mainstream and even serves as a confidence booster with older students carrying smartphones. " "Students with disabilities don't stand out so much anymore. Even if they have assistance, people don't notice it as much." "

She agrees that matching students with the proper technology is critical and that not all tools are expensive, something often misunderstood. " "In addition to low-tech tools, sometimes students can use what is at the school already or bring their own device. It is often a matter of teaching students how to use features on technology tools they already have access to," " she explains.

Good training is an essential component to matching students with assistive technology that meet their specific needs, according to Temple. Her county has an Assistive Technology Leadership Program with ongoing hands-on training for teachers. She believes integration is highly important and that college students studying to be teachers should be introduced to assistive technology. " "I'm often surprised at how little they are aware of what is available." "

The power of collaboration

Sometimes what is available is not enough. That's when collaborative minds and determination also can result in a life-changing project, as it did for young Jack Steinberg. Jack is an endearing 11-year-old born with optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition that causes vision impairment. He also has physical disabilities, including an inability to stand up on his own. If he could stand, eventually he might be able to walk.

A single question from a parent at Jack's school was the catalyst for change.

" "What can my engineering students do to make Jack's world better?" " Matthew Siniawski asked of Loyola Marymount University. The answer to that question led the senior mechanical engineering students in his class to design a device to help Jack stand. They also met with the LMU School of Film and Television and collaborated on a film about Jack, the stander they designed and built, and how it changed Jack's life.

Jack's adoptive mother, Ivey Steinberg, is convinced that the student project and the film's public exposure have tremendous potential to help others.

" "His world is going to change with this device," " she says in the video. " "Physically, this is a good thing for Jack, but mentally it is enormous. He can look eye to eye with his peers and it gives him more confidence in every facet of his life. There is no limit to what he can do. These engineering students could kick off a worldwide change for people with disabilities." "

Inspiring to achieve

Marla Runyan, a legally blind three-time national track champion in the 5,000 meters who competed in the 2000 and 2004 summer Olympics, currently teaches at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. She is a role model of self-determination and a fierce advocate of using technology to access education.

" "Kids are drawn to technology and are eager to use it and be cool. That is their motivator," " she says. Runyan works with high school students who are already familiar with using iPads and iPhones. " "How many kids don't want to play on an iPhone?" " she asks.

" "There is a lot of social influence in what they use and want to use. Technology is a gateway to jobs. You cannot go to college without computer skills," " she says. Runyan attended school before many of today's assistive technology devices were available to students. She used Recordings for the Blind, which were four-track recordings delivered by mail. " "Most of the time it was hard for Recordings for the Blind to stay on top," " she recalls. " "In college it was limited. I usually relied on people reading to me." "

Wendy Buckley is an assistive technology specialist for the Deafblind Program at Perkins. An instructor at the school since 1976, she began working with technology in 1983 and now assists both students and teachers in the classroom. She also has her own technology room where students have access to TAPit, a large mobile interactive touchscreen for students of differing abilities.

" "In the world of technology, 'new' means something that came out yesterday," " Buckley says, adding that there are constant improvements to products, as well as new ones introduced.

The Perkins School for the Blind is where Ann Sullivan, visually impaired herself and a graduate of Perkins, provided Helen Keller with the skills to become one of America's most inspiring and admired women, someone who lived an extraordinary and productive life without benefit of sound or sight.

" "We're doing the same thing Ann Sullivan did with Helen Keller, only we are using different tools," " Buckley says. " "I don't think [Ann Sullivan] would be surprised to see what we are doing today. It's always exciting to see what's next. You know something is coming around the corner, but you just don't know what it is." "