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AT Avengers: Create a superhero team for students with disabilities

By Christopher Bugaj
April 18, 2018
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The world needs heroes. Alien invasions lead by those who think themselves gods keep invading the planet in an attempt to enslave or destroy humanity. Those with special abilities come together to defend Earth and all who live here. Each champion uses her or his unique powers to face the challenge. Separately, each person’s abilities might not be enough to thwart the enemy invasions. It is the cumulative efforts of all those people willing to use their abilities for a common purpose that leads to victory.

This is one of the main themes of movies featuring multiple superheroes. When the good guys come together, they always win. It is not Thor alone, even with his superhuman strength and ability to harness lightning, who can defeat the Goddess of Death. He needed the help of the Hulk, Valkyrie, Heimdall and others to save his people in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

Likewise, when Thanos comes to Earth in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-man, and others use their combined powers to attempt to stop the mad titan. The trope of combining efforts and working as a team are common in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or any other superhero universe) as a thematic plot point. If this theme works for superheroes in the movies, why can’t it work for IEP team members in schools as well?

Band together to make the most of your IEP team

The individualized education program (IEP) team for a student is required to consider the technology needs of a student with a disability. This is known as “assistive technology consideration.” If a student requires technology to guarantee a free appropriate public education, it gets documented on the student’s IEP. Each member of the IEP team, like each member of the Avengers, brings unique skills, talents and experiences to the table to aid in the consideration process.

Before heroes can use their powers, they must first recognize that they have the powers and that they can use them for good! IEP members are similar in that they might come with their own trepidations about their abilities to help decide what is necessary.

Just as each student is unique, so too is each member of the IEP team. Some might be more aware, skilled or knowledgeable about devices, systems, software, hardware or other aspects of technology. However, the word technology just means tools, and everyone has some experience working with tools.

If you are participating in the technology consideration process, it’s important to have confidence that your contribution is no less (or more) necessary, important or relevant than any other team member. Like a superhero team, the IEP team values each of its members, whether or not you’re the strongest, fastest, smartest or most technological. Black Widow and Hawkeye, with no enhanced powers, were just as key to stopping Loki in the Battle of New York as Thor and The Hulk. It’s not which ability one might have, but the willingness to use it to help others that matters.

When first coming to the table, each IEP team member might have a different idea about what the student might need. Throughout the course of the discussion, however, the team is meant to move from a separate to a shared perspective.

Bring your tools

Heroes often have iconic tools they use to help them become victorious. Captain America has his shield. Iron Man has his suit. IEP teams can use a tool as well to help shape the discussion about what is necessary. The SETT Framework (student, environments, tasks, tools) developed by Joy Zabala provides a way for IEP teams to come to a shared idea about what technology is necessary.

The team can use downloadable documents from Zabala’s website to make structured observations and decisions about the student’s abilities, the configuration of the environments that the student is in and the design of the tasks the student engages in. While collaboratively working through this framework, the team can decide what tools the student needs along with what alterations to the environments and tasks they should recommend. Using a tool like the SETT Framework helps focus the conversation, keeps everyone on the same mission and provides a pathway for getting everyone to the same result.

Implementing technology

Once you have technology selected, the next step is implementing it. This often takes training. Tony Stark didn’t just jump into his flying suit and start whizzing around in the air. He floundered about knocking things over, smashing windows and generally banging into things. Students and educators alike may need time to experiment with the technology before becoming truly proficient at using it. Failing forward — embracing mistakes and learning from them — is the domain of superhero, educator and student alike.

Invite mentors to assist you

Superheroes often have mentors to guide them through the learning process. Thor and Black Panther, for instance, both turn to their fathers to gather advice. Spider-man looks to Tony Stark and his Aunt May as his mentors.

Who does an IEP team turn to when they need help during the technology consideration process? Instructional coaches work to help educators design inclusive and accessible educational experiences using technology. Using the ISTE Standards for Coaches, instructional coaches can help every member of the team realize and enact their own personal drive, ambition and strength to unlock the hero hiding within!

Boldly inspire others

It might seem that the primary purpose of a superhero team is to stop the bad guy in order to keep people safe. However, the team serves an even grander function. When people see their heroes charging into harm’s way with little regard for their own safety, they become inspired to be heroic as well. Individuals who spend their time, energy and passion to collaboratively tap into their inner strength to help others are inspirational.

When people see others acting selflessly and honoring their responsibilities, they often decide they, too, should be a force for good. Heroism is contagious. A team has the power to make a difference by inspiring others to make a change.

Benefits extend beyond the single student

Individuals who participate in the technology consideration process might walk away with ideas for how to alter a task, change the environment or implement a new tool or resource. When they fly back to their classrooms and act upon those ideas, positive change occurs. These changes then spark conversations or ideas with other educators in their department. Before long, what started as an intervention to help one student with a disability grows into a standard practice for all. In this way, the team doesn’t just help one student, but instead helps change the entire culture of the school.

Superheroes, whether acting alone or in teams, are fictitious. They are fun vehicles for telling exciting, fantastical, yet meaningful stories. Educational teams with the responsibility of selecting technology for students with disabilities have very real consequences.

Luckily educational teams have tools and coaches at their disposal to help them realize their own abilities, make appropriate decisions and steer students with and without disabilities in a positive direction.

Students, when provided with this amount of support, are empowered to figure out just what type of hero they, themselves, want to become. Like the Avengers, educational teams have the ability to save the world, one student at a time.

Christopher R. Bugaj, MA CCC-SLP, is a founding member the Assistive Technology Team for Loudoun County Public Schools. He is the author of the ISTE book The New Assistive Tech: Making Learning Awesome For All, now available for pre-order. Chris has written blog posts for ISTE and also has designed and instructed ISTE online courses on the topics of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning. He has presented over 250 live or digital sessions at local, regional, state, national and international events, including TEDx.