Think Outside the Box: Technology and Disabled Students

This past year, I worked as a teacher in a severely/moderate handicapped classroom at a local high school. This article based on my own experience may provide you with some ideas on providing similar students with opportunities in technology. I was responsible for seven students and four aides. Four of the students
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This past year, I worked as a teacher in a severely/moderate handicapped classroom at a local high school. This article based on my own experience may provide you with some ideas on providing similar students with opportunities in technology.

I was responsible for seven students and four aides. Four of the students were in wheel chairs and the others were able to walk on their own. The class had been through more than eight teachers in the previous six months and much of the technology that was in the classroom was either lost, unused, or hidden away.

Because of the costs and time-commitment to obtain additional state credentialing, my stay in the classroom was only from January until July. Still, the impact of the changes was impressive and of value for the students and families involved. Here is a list of some of the ways I was able to integrate technology into the classroom in such a short time:

  • Classroom Website
  • Sensory Room
  • Low Tech
  • Class Play with PowerPoint

Class Website

Since first learning about Websites, I have always had one for my classes. A class Website provides numerous benefits for the teacher, students, and the parents. A student benefits from extending, revisiting, communicating, and reflecting on class assignments. Parents benefit from a Website by being able to see what is going on in the classroom and thus supporting the teacher in his/her efforts. The teacher benefits from a Website in the opportunities that lie in communicating with parents/students, and increasing student achievement.

In Special Education, the opportunity for parents to be able to see what is going on in a class can be an important benefit, especially for parents of severely handicapped students who may not be able to communicate verbally about their daily activities. This was the case in our class. As soon as our Website was completed, parents commented on how much they enjoyed the site and the photos we posted. They were able to have relatives from far away access the site, and were able to talk to their children about what they did for the week.

Another benefit was credibility. Many of the parents never knew what their children did throughout the day. Sometimes the students may have worked on skills with which their parents were unable to help because, unless the teacher told them, they never would have known about them,. A well-managed Website can create a transparent class that increases communication and student achievement. One example of this is of a student who worked on puzzles most of the time. Although he was profoundly retarded, he demonstrated problem solving and sorting skills. We began to see if he was able to sort various objects by color and size. After several weeks of trying, he also mastered these skills as well. We set up a variety of different colored hats on a table each day for him to sort by color. We took pictures of him and posted them on the Web and sent them to his family. His parents were able to repeat the exercise and talk to him about what he had done.

One of the first free sites I learned about for teachers to create their own Web pages can be found at Schoolnotes.com (www.schoolnotes.com). Even for teachers without a technology background, this site is a no-brainer to set up. The only negative is you can’t upload pictures to this site, but it does allows you to enter information on the class, create links to interesting sites, and create flash cards.

Of course if you do have a technology background, or just have an adventurous spirit, you can always build your own Website. One way to do this is to contact an ISP provider that can host your Website. A relatively inexpensive provider charging as little as $8 a month may be found at LunarPages (www.lunarpages.com). The site also features an option to create a chat room as well as online bulletin boards. I did this with no programming experience at all and found the tech support very helpful.

To create your Website you could buy some hi-powered software, such as Macromedia’s Flash or Microsoft’s FrontPage, but I recently found a program that was very user friendly and did not require intensive training. Webeasy 5 doesn’t require any HTML programming or technical skills. If you can cut and paste, you can use this software to create a class Web page. Best yet, it cost me under $70.

Before you buy anything though, protect yourself by doing some homework. Have a talk with the district person in charge of technology. You may be able to post your site on the school or district server. Also be sure to get permission from the parents on taking and posting pictures of their students on the Website. Don’t forget to find out what your district policy is for this as well.

One negative to having a Website is the time it takes to update it, but if you make it part of your curriculum and design it so you only add to it, a Website can be manageable. If not, you can cut back on the updating, perhaps to bi-weekly or, less advisable, monthly. If you have aides in the class, you can also designate the responsibility to them once you have it up and running. Students can help, too, by taking digital photos of each other and doing simple technical chores. The more integrated you make it the experience, the more meaningful it becomes to the class.

Sensory Room

A sensory room is a room that offers students with disabilities the opportunity to touch, feel, control, communicate, and thus sense things that others take for granted. Some of the benefits of a sensory room can include development of reaction to the five senses, increased motor skills, relaxation, opportunity for human touch, and increased communication. For more information on what a sensory room is and its benefits you can go to Special Needs Toys.

Much of what a sensory room is, or can be, relies on the ability of the teacher to use technology and make it accessible for those with disabilities. Turning on a television or a radio, computer, or blender can be impossible for a person with a disability, forcing them to be dependent on others. I was happy to discover very quickly that there exist a number of companies that make devices to facilitate student control for the disabled. One such company is Ablenet (www.ablenetinc.com).

Our Sensory Room consisted of a 10 x 10 foot space. On one wall we had shelves holding a computer, a television, various lights, an old record player, and a radio. Staff painted the room to reflect the colorful Disney characters that the students loved to watch. Each of the electronic devices was hooked up to a bank of switches. A table at student level allowed easy access to the switches. At first some students didn’t know how to participate, but we soon discovered that, with encouragement and a little facilitation, they soon began to develop their own independence. Some liked to listen to the radio, others enjoyed the record player, others lights, etc. We also were able to use the room to develop lessons in which we would ask students to activate specific items and most times they cooperated and were successful. I can’t tell you the emotions a teacher feels when this actually comes together, especially when working with students who are disabled.

Low Tech

A student with Cerebral Palsy had a Dynavox to facilitate communication. It allowed him to push a button and select from a variety of pre-designed conversations to which he could react. The technology allowed him the ability to interact with others. Also, his mother discovered a device that was basically a recorder resembling a big yellow button. Several minutes of conversations could be recorded and each time the button is hit a new message is played. We would record a good morning message to each of the staff and students and then an aide would wheel him around to each person and the student could say good morning. He loved doing this and the social interaction it provided.

One way, we were able to save money and to provide the same opportunity of communication to other students was to purchase some tape recorders and then hook them up to a remote button. We were able to duplicate the function of the other device and allow student control to play tape cassettes of music and stories.

These remote buttons opened up a world of opportunities for the students to have the chance to participate in mainstream classes. Instead of sitting and listening to a class, they were able to participate in the classes by helping the teacher: turning on an overhead, VCR, or other electrical device. Students helped in the kitchen and prepared food by turning off and on the food processor with the aid of a remote switch.

Class Play

As a culminating experience, at the end of the year, we planned to put on a play. Unfortunately, we discovered that we were running out of time and we couldn’t guarantee the performance of the students. So, we created a play story of The Three Bears using PowerPoint. We had students pose and take pictures of each other in the different settings. Students also helped out with painting of sets. We downloaded the slides and created a presentation from there. We also created a book for the parents and sent out pictures to those who didn’t know how to access the PowerPoint presentations that we put on diskette for them.

In Conclusion: Lessons Learned

I really enjoyed the time and challenges I had working in the class. It made me realize how technology can be used to provide opportunities for students with disabilities. The experience also showed me how important it is as a teacher to think outside of the box when using technology for class lessons. In some cases, a low-tech approach is just as good, or better than a tech approach with a computer. Regardless of how the technology is used, or incorporated, it is only as good as the people who are using it and monitoring it. Instead of setting something up and walking away from it, students need the human element there to motivate, interact, and push them onward. Technology is only a tool that can be helpful if we take the time to use it and adapt it to the curricular goals of the class. Students and staff benefit when the technology is used in a way to improve the life of the individuals involved, instead of using it as an isolating or baby sitting device that keeps students separated from others.

Other resources for special education:

Attainment Company Inc.
Provides communication devices and resources for children and adults with special needs.

Mayer-Johnson
Provides software, hardware and books for persons with special needs.

AbleNet
Provides a line of user-friendly communication tools that encourage social interaction at home and in the classroom.

Peter Dragula is a part-time instructor for the University of Phoenix.

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