Mainstreaming Assistive Technologies In Education
Most of the students with disabilities in an educational setting will have some type of print-related disability; having programs that support reading and writing available on all computers limits the stigma for students who need the help and makes these tools available to other students too. Access should be available to everybody.
Ira Socol of the SpeEdChange blog first got me thinking about this back in April when he wrote Planning for Access. He advocates having certain "baseline" assistive technology programs available on every computer in a school or college:
Every computer in your school, on your campus, should have the basic tools. [...] But those "cost-to-purchase" products should only be part of what is installed everywhere. Your computers must have all "that free stuff" that both builds access and teaches students (and faculty) that supportive technology is everywhere.
I agree totally with their view that "mainstreaming" assistive technology is a good thing. Most of the students with disabilities in an educational setting will have some type of print-related disability. Having programs that support reading and writing available on all computers limits the stigma for students who need the help and makes these tools available to other students too. Students who are borderline-OK with their print abilities usually won't be offered, or won't accept, help from "special education" programs because of social stigma or because they won't admit they need the help. Perhaps if these programs were available on all the school's computers these kids would use the support programs - even if only when nobody was watching - and gain the benefits.
Ira's article included a list of paid and free learning support programs for Windows machines which he suggested could be put on all computers in the school. Here's my version of Ira's list, adapted for Mac OS X computers. The programs listed here would all be appropriate both for a Mac-only campus or for a school who runs a mixture Windows and Mac computers.
Commercial Literacy Supports
In the area of commercial software which many educators will be familiar with already, these support programs are available for Mac:
- Cricksoft's Clicker 5 is a writing support tool available for both Windows and Mac.
- TextHelp's Read&Write GOLD offers reading and writing support on Mac and Windows platforms.
- Inspiration is another writing support tool that helps students structure their planning and research as well as writing for a project. It looks a lot like a combination of a writing support and a mind-mapping support at first glance, and is available for Windows and Mac.
- Cricksoft's Cloze Pro enables cloze activities - lessons of the "Which word fits the gap in this sentence" variety, and is also available for both Windows and Mac.
The above programs are commercial and site licenses must be purchased before you can use them in your school. They are designed specifically to help students who have issues with reading and writing, such as dyslexia.
Built In/Free Supports
What if your school chain of command isn't into this idea or your budget won't stretch? What could an individual teacher or a year coordinator accomplish without needing to spend money? Mac OS X has a lot of built in accessibility features, including text-to-speech support in nearly every program and a full screen reader available for those with vision impairments or very severe reading problems.
You can start to educate yourself about these free accessibility functions by reading the Mac OS X Accessibility for Beginners series. All of these functions - and more - are built into Mac OS X if you know where to look. Some of these features are:
- Speak selected text with a single keystroke or menu option to hear what you've typed or to get the computer to read text to you.
- Use the Dvorak keyboard layout to make typing easier.
- Master Zooming in the screen and Enlarging text size for those with low vision.
- A Bigger mouse pointer can help students follow the mouse.
In addition to these things, set up Safari so it's got bookmarks for print supportive places like Ghotit - spell checker for dyslexic learners. You might also put thought into setting up some standard Basic Bookmarking sites which support your curriculum level and area.
Plenty of free third-party software is also available for OS X, including some assistive technology software, and all free software discussed on ATMac has the tag free on the article.
As print disabilities are common, text-to-speech will usually play a prominent role. I recommend investing in a high quality text-to-speech voice in your language. It's true that OS X Leopard's "Alex" voice is a great improvement on the voices available in OS X Tiger, but the voice is still flat and difficult to concentrate on. Voices such as those from Cepstral and Infovox iVox are much easier to understand. Voices from Infovox iVox now also include a pronunciation editor so you can make sure important words are pronounced correctly - for example relevant to your curriculum and student's names.
Apple's Accessibility Website has recently been updated. It contains information about all the other accessibility related features built into OS X.
If you have a need for a specific student I suggest using the search box at the top of each page or looking through our Resources pages to find out what might help you. If your budget is limited, the article Save Money Buying Mac Applications may also be of help!
If you can't find the answer to your question, please feel free to contact me and I'll give all the help I can. I'm a person with a disability who loves and uses computers - I have no experience or knowledge of teaching. But I'm always wanting to learn and if I can help you to help your students it would be my pleasure.
- Ricky Buchanan