All Students Being Equal

Help your special needs students using these resources.

Talk to any informed teacher or parent of a child with disabilities and they'll tell you assistive technologies (AT) can have a dramatic effect on the quality of education. In addition to giving special needs students the ability to access computer resources, AT can be life-changing for kids with significant communication, mobility, literacy, visual, and hearing challenges. But implementing AT in schools is a complex issue. There are various categories of commercial and open-source products, each with multiple technology options. Diverse learning environments, educator experience, product awareness, individual student needs, legacy computer systems, and budget limitations all have an influence on district AT selections and services, as well.

When it comes right down to it, successful AT implementation takes additional time and often money. For most districts, both of these resources are in short supply, and some educators unfamiliar with the field of AT may feel overwhelmed. However, numerous books, Web sites, conferences, and online discussion groups can get educators up to speed on the educational applications of AT (see the sidebar "Log On" at the end of this article).

What follows is a sampling of assistive technologies currently available on the market. Consult online databases such as or the ATA Hub for a wider range of tools developed for students with special needs.

= Literacy Support

Literacy support and authoring software are a boon for students with receptive (reading/listening) and expressive (writing/speaking) language problems associated with disabilities such as dyslexia. For students who need reading support, simple text-to-speech or screen-reading utilities are available at minimal cost. Inexpensive options include TextAloud MP3, at $29.95, and ReadPlease products, which range from $49.95 to $79.95. Text-to-speech capabilities can also be found in newer operating systems like Mac OS X Tiger.

More expensive, feature-rich literacy support software packages include Kurzweil 3000, TextHelp Read&Write GOLD (, and SOLO by Don Johnston. These products range from $785 to $1,495.

Early literacy products such as Clicker by Crick Software help students with developmental, learning, and mobility challenges write. Teachers create word, phrase, or sentence grids; as students point and click grid cells to create sentences and paragraphs, Clicker reads the words aloud as they appear on the screen. A Clicker single user license is $199. The IntelliTools Classroom Suite, which includes IntelliTalk, costs about $300 for a single user license.

Finally, speech recognition software products such as Dragon Naturally Speaking provide computer dictation and composition options for students with the cognitive ability to understand the technology and independently generate content.

= Communication Aids

Students who are nonverbal are unable to speak on their own because of conditions that interfere with language development or vocal control. These students can communicate in and out of their classrooms using a variety of simple or sophisticated augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools that allow users to interact and socialize with others. Specialized AAC software can be installed on desktop, laptop, and handheld computers, with prices ranging from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Some AAC applications function similarly to word processors with speech output; others feature quick click symbol grids with programmed spoken messages. For example, using Simple BIGmack communicator buttons, educators and students can quickly record sound effects and expressions that are fun to incorporate into story time, games, and activities. For a full list of AAC software developers, visit the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.

= Mobility Tools

The IntelliKeys keyboard can be customized for students with physical, visual, or cognitive disabilities .

Students with motor control issues that interfere with fine and gross motor activity or who don't have the ability to move can use specialized equipment and technologies to support computer access at school. For starters, it's necessary to have height-adjustable, accessible computer workstations that allow students in wheelchairs or standing frames to work comfortably. The surface angle of the table should also be able to be customized.

Switches are also important. For students in wheelchairs or with severe mobility challenges who may only be able to activate a switch with a head movement or other limited movement, there's a handy device called the Magic Arm. For example, if you mount a Magic Arm on the computer table and attach a switch to it, the arm can be easily adjusted for switch contact at various heights and angles. The switch is plugged in to an interface box so the switch can function as a mouse click. Another popular switch product is the wireless IntelliSwitch from IntelliTools, which sells for $299.

= Vision Support

There are a variety of technologies for students with perceptual disabilities such as sight impairment. Using specialized software for the visually impaired, electronic resources such as Internet resources, some CD-ROM content, and online handouts can be converted to audio format, enlarged, visually enhanced, or translated into Braille.

To help students who are moderately vision-impaired see the computer screen, check out low cost and freeware screen magnifiers that allow users to increase the size of text and images at Commercial developers of magnification, scanning, and screen reading technologies for the visually impaired include Ai Squared, Freedom Scientific, Dolphin Computer Access, and GW Micro. Depending on the product, screen magnification capabilities range from 2X to 15X original size. Simple built-in magnification and zoom options are available in newer operating systems and Web browsers, as well.

For blind or low-vision students, Braille translation software, notetakers, keyboards, and embossers range from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. GW Micro's Braille Sense, which allows visually impaired users to access computer files using refreshable Braille and synthesized speech output, costs $4,950. GW Micro is currently offering its U.S. customers a one-year subscription to the etext library at until July 30, 2006.

= Auditory Assistance

The Small Talk from GW Micro comes with Window-Eyes software already installed .

Students with hearing impairments may benefit from technologies such as personal assistive listening devices, classroom sound-field systems, or speech-to-text technologies.

Assistive listening devices (ALDs) help students with impaired hearing or central auditory processing disorders receive more direct communication in a busy classroom setting. When the teacher wears a transmitter microphone and the student wears the receiver, background noises are less disruptive to listening and learning. Consult the list of ALD developers at

Sound-field systems are designed to enhance the auditory learning environment for all students in the classroom and typically range from $1,000 to $2,400. The government in Alberta, Canada has developed a comprehensive document called the Sound-Field Systems Guide for Classrooms that provides product selection and implementation guidelines. Some vendors in the audio amplification business include Audio Enhancement, Phonic Ear, and Califone.

Laptop-supported speech-to-text and sign language systems that convert instructor speech are available but not widely used. Expect to pay more than $6,000 for a system and be aware that speech recognition technologies and captioning systems could result in translation errors. Two companies that develop these products are PPR Direct, maker of iCommunicator, and SignTel, developer of the SignTel Interpreter.

Janet Hopkins is the author of Assistive Technology: An Introductory Guide for K-12 Library Media Specialists.

Research Review: AT's Role in U.S. Education

In January 2006, the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) published "Moving Toward Solutions: Assistive & Learning Technology for All Students," a synthesis of diverse perspectives about the current and future status of assistive and educational technologies in the United States. Five key recommendations are outlined in the NCTI report as pivotal for facilitating successful AT implementation:

  • Leadership capacity
  • Identifying and leveraging existing networks and resources
  • Addressing the pace of innovation vs. implementation
  • Balancing universal design and assistive technology
  • Developing a research agenda to inform policy and practice

To see the full report, visit

Log On

Perceptual Disability Resources

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Apple Accessibility

Job Accommodation Network

National Federation of the Blind

Linux Accessibility Resource Site

Microsoft Accessibility

AT Implementation Help

Accessible Technologies for All Students

LD Online Tech Guide

Michigan's AT tutorials

Motor Impairment Resources

Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology

University at Buffalo AT tutorials