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How VR and AR Can Be Used to Support Students with Special Needs

vr and ar
(Image credit: Thinkstock\Tan Kian Khoon)

In recent years, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have helped teachers educate, motivate, and increase classroom interaction for students of all ages and abilities by making learning more accessible, memorable, practical, and engaging. 

VR immerses the user in a 3D environment in which they hear, touch, smell, and taste stimuli. Students interact either through a traditional desktop and VR software or wear a head-mounted display (HMD) and data glove. AR enhances physical content with 3D effects so that users remain external observers and observe the augmented effects through apps such as Google Lens (opens in new tab).

The challenges implementing VR and AR are mostly logistical and technical. Qualified staff and plenty of space is required for VR, plus users can become easily distracted and need to be trained in digital competencies. Apps entail data security and privacy issues. Equipment can also be expensive.

Still, schools can employ even limited AR and VR solutions, especially to support students with special learning needs. 

Supporting Students with Special Needs 

Both AR and VR have been shown (opens in new tab) to increase motivation, facilitate interaction, develop cognitive skills, improve short-term memory, and make lessons more enjoyable. The greatest effect lies in improving communication skills (opens in new tab), especially in students with hearing problems. For autistic students, VR seems to facilitate social interaction.  (opens in new tab)

Examples of VR and AR being used to help students with disabilities abound. Teacher Veronica Lewis uses Google Chromecast (opens in new tab) to enlarge images for visually impaired individuals, and employs VR screen readers, such as VoiceOver and TalkBack, that describe the environment with information from alt text in the images and videos. Morehead State University researcher Sue Parton has shown (opens in new tab) how deaf students benefit from Google Glass (opens in new tab) and from video (opens in new tab) and 2D barcode camera phone scanning (opens in new tab). In The Deaf and Dumb School in Gujarat, India, where some students don’t recognize their own names, staff uses VR images (opens in new tab) processed through a program called Foton (opens in new tab)to teach them. Multiple studies have shown that VR and AR help users on the autism spectrum recognize facial emotions and improve their social skills (opens in new tab).

For learning disabled individuals, AR can improve vocabulary through gamefication. In India, educators have created an interactive textbook (opens in new tab) that uses 3D images, audio clips, and videos to explain text. Other studies show how VR has been effectively used to improve social anxiety (opens in new tab), language deficiencies (opens in new tab), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (opens in new tab), physical or motor disability (opens in new tab), cognitive deficits (opens in new tab), dyslexia (opens in new tab), and Down syndrome, (opens in new tab) among other disabilities.

At the 53rd St. School in Milwaukee, Megan Rierdon, a special needs educator, uses Google Earth VR (opens in new tab) for field trips. “The kids sat down in a chair, put on a virtual reality headpiece and saw a tour walking around an entire greenhouse,” Rierdon told (opens in new tab) the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “[They] were reaching down to touch the dirt and waving to the people they saw.” 

AI-based Training with Molly Porter (opens in new tab) helps prepare students to discuss their disabilities with interviewers.

Too much sensory overload? At the Perkins School of the Blind (opens in new tab) relaxing 360-degree videos of animate or inanimate objects or locations is used to calm students. 

More Promising VR and AR Options on the Horizon 

With developments in VR and AR on the rise, applications are immense. For example, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan are developing iGYM, (opens in new tab) an augmented reality system designed to teach wheelchair-bound children community-level sports.

Developers are also beginning to prioritize accessibility during design (opens in new tab), leading to lighter headsets and more user-friendly controllers, among other gear, for users with physical disability; appropriate color choice, audio descriptions, and text and image magnification for children who are blind; and clear transcripts and closed captioning for users who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Ultimately, teachers will be able to use virtual and augmented reality to make a classroom environment that fits the needs of any student.

Leah Zitter, Ph.D., is a High-Tech Writer and Research Scientist.