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What are some lessons we’ve learned about using assistive technology to support students with learning disabilities?

Expert answer

One thing I’ve learned is that you have to be patient. You have to be willing to try lots of strategies, a lot of assistive technology in the classroom, before sometimes it sticks with the student. Just because you have one student where assistive technology has worked well doesn’t mean it will work with the next student. Even if they have the same disability. That’s because there are lots of variables involved for each student.

So you have to learn to take a step by step approach. You can’t just throw the most expensive or the shiniest technology at the student and expect it to stick. Sometimes you have to phase in technology slowly or try a few different options before you find something that works.

I’ll give you a good example. Sometimes, the service provider or the AT specialist, throws the voice recognition software at a student and it doesn’t work. A lot of times that’s because the provider hasn’t used this step by step process where, for example, you teach the student the core skill of how to dictate before they jump on to the computer trying to dictate in that environment.

So there’s a step by step process to be done before you throw technology to students. Here are two examples. One was with a girl I’ll call Haley. She was in the 9th grade at this time and we gave her a grammar checker called Ginger, which is a great tool. Haley had very serious dysgraphia. She really needed a good grammar checker and spell checker. But she just wouldn’t use it. And it wasn’t for a whole year — until she continued to fail every time she brought home a paper — that she finally picked it up. And I kind of knock myself in the head sometimes because maybe there were things we could have done to get her to use this software. So that’s a lesson learned: for many students you don’t just give them the software; you introduce it to them step by step.

Another student I worked with, we’ll call him Jay, was one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever dealt with. He was just coming out of third grade. It was summer time and his mother brought him to me. She had just got him a very comprehensive assessment and it had 18 or 19 pages. It was a really good one. And it had a lot of recommendations on the last page, but the recommendations really didn’t tie in to the rest of the assessment. The mother didn’t know what to do with all the recommendations. So she came to me and it was my job to spend an hour a week with Jay trying to integrate assistive technology and get him accustomed to using assistive technology so that when he entered fourth grade, he would be able to use technology effectively.

And Jay struggled a lot. He had a lot of different issues. He had some auditory processing deficits, he had dyslexia and all the language-based issues and he had ADHD. He also struggled with dysgraphia and just had low self-esteem. And Jay really touched me because I could see myself in Jay, because he had a lot of the same issues that I had growing up. So I walked in there thinking that I could help him.

And boy, I made all kinds of mistakes. We tried all kinds of technology and the first thing I focused on was his handwriting, which was just a mess. We tried writing guides, we used large paper with lines, we tried all kinds of things.

But nothing really worked until we tried a gripper with a pencil and pen gripper. It was just like a tennis ball and the utensil went through the middle of it. And what we found was that previously, Jay would be so frustrated when he was writing that he would press so hard onto the paper that the pencil would break and there was a lot of frustration there. But once we gave him this tennis ball-style gripper, he seemed to put his frustration around the ball and he started doing a lot better.

The other thing that was really interesting was that Jay was left handed. He had a notebook and the notebook had those metal rings on the side that kept the pages bound. And Jay would keep pushing the notebook at an angle. He moved it around at an angle so it was almost flipped upside down, it was such an odd thing to see. And so we got him a notebook that had metal rings on the top and that didn’t bother him nearly as much because now he could keep his hand much more flat when he was writing.

Then we tried keyboard shortcuts and started looking at keyboards. I thought “Shortcuts, oh my gosh, this has worked with so many other students. We’ll teach him all these shortcuts and he’ll be more productive, he’ll be faster, he’ll have to do less typing.” But that didn’t work at all. The keyboarding was a challenge and it took us a while to figure that out.

I wound up spending four months with Jay and it wasn’t until the third month that we tried a kind of keyboard and gaming learning tool. That made such a difference because he liked the game and all of a sudden his keyboarding skills jumped up and that was exciting.

I think in the fourth month we also tried Dragon Naturally Speaking and that bombed. Voice recognition software bombed completely. He didn’t like it, he wouldn’t use it, and that was challenging for us. We had started off using it where it was on his computer. We loaded it onto his computer so he could speak and the computer would write the words for him.

What we found is that we should have downloaded the app, the Dragon Dictate app which is free, and allow him to practice using that app before we gave him the full blown Dragon Dictate system on his computer. If he could say a word with the app, we’d spell it out for him and then he would type the words himself. He started using the app so much that eventually, with this step-by-step process, he started using Dragon Dictate on his computer.

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