In the early days of COVID lockdown, Dan Phillips, director of the Technology Resource Center of Marin County Office of Education, stood on the front porch of a student’s house holding up an iPad to find a Wi-Fi signal. The student was not verbal and needed technology to communicate.
Phillips couldn’t go into the house, but needed to help the family set up the iPad so the student could participate in speech therapy from home. It was a frustrating situation because Phillips, who has been a speech-language pathologist for 27 years, could not see his students or make appropriate adjustments to their therapy.
Then Phillips discovered an app called Coughdrop. The app, developed during the pandemic, is cloud-based and accessible on any device so Phillips didn’t need physical access to the student’s iPad to communicate. The app also monitors progress so Phillips can determine how his student is progressing. When Phillips wants the student to work on asking verbally for cereal, say, he can do that from anywhere. When the student accomplishes a goal, Phillips sees it.
“With the app, my perspective of what this kid is doing is not just in my therapy session or classroom,” says Phillips. “But based on what he does in real life.”
A watershed moment for accessible tech
The last few decades have brought significant technological advances that have drastically changed school life for students with speech, hearing and vision disabilities. Ten years ago, screen readers, text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology was not widely available. Then came the pandemic, which forced sudden and significant gains for accessible technology. When school became remote, videoconferencing platforms quickly adapted to include closed captioning, a change disability advocates had sought for years.
“I love that the world was forced to learn what accessibility was and how to do it,” Phillips says. “Schools can be slow to the game, but they are learning that if you are putting out content, it has to be accessible. Now it’s not a big deal because of the technology. Ten years ago, it was a big deal.”
A brief history of accessibility tech
There are two categories of technology that help students with speech, hearing and vision impairments: Assistive technology and accessible technology.
Assistive technology is meant to perform a specific task, like a hearing aid that amplifies sound.
Accessible technology is designed with the needs of different users in mind, like closed captioning, which aids people with hearing impairments and also helps language learners who might have difficulty understanding spoken language.
The past few decades and, specifically, the last couple of years have seen considerable gains in both these categories.
The 1988 Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals With Disabilities Act provided grants for technology-related assistance. The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required that state agencies make use of universal design principles meaning “designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest range of functional capabilities and, which include products and services that are directly accessible (without requiring assistive technologies), and products and services that are made usable with assistive technologies.”
Thanks to these laws, AT has become widely available in classrooms, serving both students who have identified disabilities and those who do not. Text-to-voice apps available on every phone are essential for students with vision impairment. But that functionality is also helpful for students who learn better through listening or those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.
Giving students a voice
Speech is the basis of communication, and everything in schools begins with communication. Students who cannot speak — or cannot speak clearly enough to be understood — often use an augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) device. Technological advances have significantly reduced the cost of these devices from up to $20,000 per device to about half or quarter that cost.
Rather than relying on a medical device, however, many families of speech-impaired students are opting for one of the many apps now available for phones and tablets, said Lauren DiMascio Hilary, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) at LAUSD’s Kenter Canyon Elementary School and AAC consultant.
Hilary helps schools match students who can’t use their voices to the right device. She also trains the family, staff and school-based SLPs on how to use the devices properly.
The iPads integrate much easier into the classroom and normalize the use of the device. The biggest factor determining whether students will adapt to the program successfully is whether they see other people using iPads to communicate.
“Everything in schools is communication. Not being able to communicate efficiently can be very frustrating for the student and their communication partners,” Hilary says. “Giving them these devices can empower them and help them feel their thoughts and ideas have importance and are just as important as their peers. Even if they can’t communicate in the same way with their peers.”
Anytime, anywhere speech therapy
Phillips incorporates technology into his speech therapy in many ways.
“Speech therapy doesn’t just happen for 30 minutes on Mondays anymore,” Phillips said. “There’s no denying the impact that the virtual learning years had on special education. The world shifted in how we understand and infuse technology into our lives.”
The last thing he wants to see is a return to schooling the way it was done before virtual learning.
“There’s a tendency in schools to just say, ‘Let’s just get out the worksheets and pretend that never happened.’ But we need to elevate what we did in the past and make it stronger. We’re educators, and hopefully, we learned from that experience.”
Bulky technology no longer the norm for the hearing impaired
When Susan Gottlieb, educational audiologist for the Sri-City SELPA of Southern California, started in the school system 15 years ago, she’d heard stories of students with hearing aids who had to wear boxes over their heads that piped in the teacher’s voice through an attached cord. In order to hear, students endured grating static and high-pitched feedback.
Technology then evolved to speakers, which sat on the students’ desks. It was an improvement but could be distracting to nearby students.
Today, many classrooms have systems that pair a teacher’s microphone to students’ hearing aids or cochlear implants via Bluetooth.
For classes with younger students, Gottlieb sets up a speaker tower that adjusts the volume for the whole class. “The increase in volume and clarity increases attention for all students without being shockingly loud,” says Gottlieb.
In middle and high schools, where students change classes, the students use Roger technology, which searches out and automatically connects the hearing aids or cochlear implants to the closest teacher’s microphone.
In addition, there are Roger pens for students who want a discreet profile. The pen can hang from a lanyard and capture a voice. The student can point it directly at a teacher or set it down on the table during group work to get omnidirectional input.
“The Roger technology is small and non-intrusive and overcomes the two biggest obstacles to hearing in a classroom,” she says. “Distance and noise.”
Remote learning ushered in some helpful new technology, too. When schools began using Zoom, the platform didn’t provide captioning. So Gottlieb found Ava, a captioning app. It easily captions conversations both online and live, so many students continue using the app now that they’re back in the classroom where noise and distractions make it tough to catch every word.
An iPad mini sits on a desk and the app captions what teachers say. In fact, it works so well, students no longer need to have an aide sitting next to them in the classroom to transcribe what the teacher is saying, which is huge.
“Kids don’t want to stand out in any way,” Gottlieb says.
Hearing aid technology has also become more discreet. “Sometimes you can’t even see them,” she said. “It’s so important because they are essential for some kids. The only way they can access the auditory material.”
Bringing Accessibility to Everyday Devices
Luis Perez, a technical assistance specialist at the National Accessible Educational Materials Center at the Center for Applied Special Technology, has always had a visual impairment, although he didn’t always realize it.
Growing up, he would bump into furniture and eventually realized he didn’t see quite the way other people did. Perez relied on his memory a lot to hide his disability.
It wasn’t until he was in graduate school that he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited and progressive disease of the retina that results in tunnel vision.
He considers himself lucky. By the time he returned to school, a revolution in assistive technology (AT) was underway.
Back then, Perez worked in the computer lab, so he got to use the latest technologies. He got to use some of the first built-in screen readers. No longer was AT a separate assistive device; it was on its way to becoming a built-in feature on everyday products.
“It changed my life and gave me hope for the future,” he says.
Still it wasn't perfect. The first iPhone with a screen reader came out shortly after that. But there were no buttons, just a touch screen, which posed a challenge for people with visual impairments. But soon that problem was solved, too. Now all the phones have voice-activated screen readers.
“The biggest challenge when I was diagnosed was I wasn’t told about the options or the supports available,” he says. “It’s important for students to know there are tools and strategies to help you accomplish your goals even with a diagnosis.”
Now students with low vision can enlarge text by themselves, use keyboard shortcuts and customize text size and colors on webpages.
It’s kind of like bicycles, Perez explains. You don’t buy a bicycle for a tall or short person, but each person can raise or lower the seat to fit their needs.
“I believe technology needs to be that same way — flexible,” he says.
Built-in accessibility features remove the stigma that comes with using a device designed for people with disabilities, such as Perez’s white cane.
“It took me a long time as an adult to come to terms and accept and celebrate my status as a person with a disability, so I can only imagine how difficult that must be for someone in middle or high school when young people are already under a lot of peer pressure and trying to find where they fit in the world.”
Improvements to Braille have been slow
The vast number of students who struggle to read traditional text — one in three — have seen dramatic improvements in technology that easily allows for font, spacing or color changes that can eliminate or reduce these visual challenges.
But for the 0.1 percent of students who are fully blind, technology has been slower to evolve. Braille technology, for example, hasn’t changed hardly at all in 40 years.
The American Printing House (APH) for the Blind hopes to change that. The nonprofit has been creating products for the blind and visually impaired since 1858 with a goal of creating things that make a real difference in the lives of people with sight impairments.
These days, the organization hopes to make Braille more efficient and more accessible. Right now, producing a Braille textbook can take more than six months because it is standardized and can only fit 40 characters on one page.
“Imagine what that does to reading speed, comprehension, proficiency or math,” says APH President Craig Meador, Ph.D. Imagine, Meador says, trying to learn calculus with a text-to-speech app.
Greg Stilson, APH’s head of global technology innovation, was in college more than 20 years ago. He says blind students today are doing math the same way he did two decades ago. They load the information into a Braille typewriter, but the text and graphics are on separate pages.
APH is currently working on a product called the Dynamic Tactile Device, which would revolutionize Braille by allowing students to feel tactile images and read Braille at the same time.
“When we show blind people the math problem and they see the triangle underneath, they weep,” Stilson says. “Our stuff looks weird. Sometimes we see teachers go with the low-tech purchase on some of our products because they are afraid of the tech, but that’s not doing a service to the kid. They will not survive in the world that’s coming for them. Learning to use the available technology is the thing students need the most for college and employment later.”
Accessible tech can aid all students
There are benefits to having accessible technology that go beyond making learning easier for students with disabilities. Improved social interaction is just as important. When all students use accessible technology, it becomes easier for kids with disabilities to use those tools without feeling stigmatized.
Too often, teachers think it’s “cheating” for students without disabilities to use accessible technology, such as text-to-speech functionality.
But Perez disagrees. He sees it as leveling the playing field.
The end goal should drive the selection and use of tools, he says. If the goal is to decode text, then text-to-speech technology may not be appropriate, Perez said. If the goal is to understand new concepts, then it may be fine for students to read with their ears or their fingers.
Phillips recalls an old New Yorker cartoon with a janitor shoveling snow from the school steps while a student in a wheelchair waits by the ramp.
“I'm not going to wait for the kids to fail and come to me,” he says. “Let’s ensure that built-in accessibility and our educational content are the ramps, and that we pick the ramp, not the stairs.”