There are approximately 1.5 million people living in the UK with a learning disability, and almost 2 million people living with a visual impairment. However, of those figures, there are around 25,000 children living with sight loss, and 286,000 children who have a learning disability – with those figures in mind, students learning with a disability often require adaptive or assistive technology to support their education.
Royal Blind, a charity who operate a blind school and care homes for the visually impaired, investigate what technologies can support pupils with complex disabilities, through their education when additional support needs are required.
The use of technology can enhance the learning experience for many children who struggle to get the most of their education because of the barriers they face from their disability. When students with a learning disability have the opportunity to use their strengths to overcome their challenges, it often results in a successful education. Assistive technology is just one approach that allows students to work around their disabilities.
Why assistive technology?
Teaching with assistive technology can address many types of learning difficulties, and make the education experience better for the student, and teacher. AT has tools which can be used to assist those with disabilities that struggle with listening, reading, writing, math and organisation. Whether the student is visually impaired, dyslexic or any other disabilities that cause skill deficits, AT can be implemented into the education processes to help. In fact, research has proved that AT can improve certain skill deficits, such as reading and spelling.
Assistive technology does not aim to provide disabled students with an unfair advantage, but instead provide them with the independence to learn in an environment that allows them to use their strengths to overcome their challenges. Adaptive devices help to increase participation, achievement and independence of the student, by improving their access to the same general curriculum as other pupils without a disability.
What assistive technology is available?
Certain assistive technology tools can be used to support different learning disabilities so that students can learn effectively with their peers. Around 20% of young people with a visual impairment, have additional special education needs or disabilities, with a further 30% having complex needs within the education system. Assistive technology offers support. Generally, the term assistive technology is applied to technology that is used to support children with learning difficulties – most commonly, electronic devices, computer hardware and digital tools that are available on the internet.
For the visually impaired, AT provides students with access to educational assets in a larger format, both in print and digital. For many visually impaired students, digital technology is a way for them to learn in mainstream schools – this is because text can be enlarged, and other senses can be used to aid the learning process, such as touch and sound. Around 60% of visually impaired students are educated in mainstream schools, and AT supports their learning needs, and allows students to learn at their own rate. A qualified teacher of the visually impaired is likely to support the pupil further.
Alternative keyboards have overlays which customise the appearance of the keyboard to encourage production. Not only students with visual impairment who might need braille, or larger keys, these customisable keyboard overlays can add graphics and colours to help students who struggle to type. And it doesn’t stop there – from electronic math work sheets and talking calculators to talking spell checkers, electronic dictionaries and braille technology, AT makes school a comfortable environment for students with a disability to learn in.
Finding the right AT for your student’s needs
Unlike students who don’t have a learning disability, every child living with a learning disability or a visual impairment has unique learning needs. Assistive technology allows the student to take control of their learning journey, and gain some independence in their education – but finding which assistive technology is right for the student can be difficult, as one student’s need may be very different to another. To find the right tool to support their education, establish which tools best address the child’s specific needs and challenges – which tool will help overcome the barriers? The AT tool must be used to the student’s strengths, be easy to use, reliable and preferably portable.
You must also make sure that your student is capable and willing to use the tool – and be aware that a tool that one student can use, doesn’t necessarily mean that another student can use it too. Disabilities are different for each person, and whilst two pupils might both have a visual impairment, their requirements could differ significantly.