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Benefits of text-to-speech tools
Text-to-speech is a tool that is often looked at for students with disabilities to provide them independence from having somebody to have to read aloud for them, and what text-to-speech basically is, is that you take any type of digital texts available and pair it with a synthesized voice. Synthesized voices have really come a long way over the years, and it's a part of our everyday world.
Now, I mean, you can push your text on your phone and have it read aloud to you so that when you're driving you're not distracted from that and you can hear something read. So it's a tool that's really quite ubiquitous now, but it's really powerful for students who are struggling with reading to be able to give them access to more complex texts to give them access to grade level texts that they might not be able to either decode or comprehend in written format on their own.
So it's just a different way to address that, get to be able to listen to what you're reading and whether it's the whole thing being read aloud or as students encounter a challenging word to help them be able to decode. So it's not an all-or-nothing strategy either.
People know how they could access it themselves on their phone, but they're not always thinking about how they can use that with students. So they do need to be taught explicitly, and there are a lot of tools that are out there that they can use to access text-to-speech. Sometimes it's built into some of the web-based resources that teachers are using, and sometimes it's add-ons that you can layer on top of digital text that's available.
So tools like Read and Write for Google, tools like Snap and Read from Don Johnson you layer right on top of any digital text that you have available, but I do find we have to train teachers how to use it, and give them lots of opportunities, even to practice using it. Even more powerful than training the teachers is going in and training the students, and I've seen students be very successful in learning how to use and manage those tools from second grade all the way up.
So when you train the students and they don't have to rely on the teacher they are often a lot more successful. Our kids are living in a very digital world, and so these kinds of digital tools are just a part of their environment. Teachers are not always quite there yet.
I see that in the classroom all the time, of a friend leaning over and reminding, "Oh, you know, did you remember to turn on Snap and Read?" Or, you know, asking for help, or even silly things like, "What voice did you choose?" And then being able to find the right voice. Kind of, you know, sometimes that silly voice is initially appealing, and then they realize, "Oh, I really need something that's gonna be more meaningful to me."
Audio books for struggling readers
So when we talk about reading these days, we need to talk about reading not just as reading with a book and reading with our eyes, but that there's lots of formats for reading, and audio reading, being able to listen to audio books, being able to listen to podcasts has to be recognized as a valid way of getting to content.
As adults, I know I listen to podcasts and books on my commute every single day, and I'm getting exposed to literature that I wouldn't have time to get to any other way, and so we need to make that as valid for kids as it is for adults. So being able to use audio books and podcasts as a way of accessing that grade level content or higher, more rigorous content is critical.
There's a lot of fabulous resources out there for audi obooks. There are multitude of — you know, we can look at commercial sites like Audible where you can pretty much get any book that's available as an audiobook where it's narrated. That's also a big piece of the engagement. Sometimes we need to look at — when we look at text to speech, that doesn't have the same intonation to it that a recorded audiobook has with narration, and that really adds meaning to the text for many students.
So there's sites like Audible, but there's also tools like Learning Ally and Bookshare that have audio books, and then free and accessible resources for anybody to use, like the Maryland Digital Library Consortium, and that's in the state of Maryland where if you have access to a library card from any county in Maryland you have access to thousands upon thousands of audiobooks, but every state has a version of that that's available, and again, those are free without —
You know, it's a lending library situation. Just like you get to check out a book going physically into it, you get to check out that book for 21 days or however long it is through that online resource.
I know sometimes, you know, there's this, oh, are libraries dead now? We — you know, with the ease of being able to get, you know, a book on your Kindle or, you know, being able to get that content online, but they're not dead, and so, you know, public libraries still have a really huge role in what parents can get, and there's everything on there from picture books to, you know, classic texts.
And it's all there with the library card. All you have to do is enter that library card in, and you've got access to it.
Flexible digital media for students with reading disabilities
When we talk about digital media, you can have something that's up there digitally that's not accessible, that's basically an image, and it's not the same as having something where you can click on that text where you can do something to the text, where you can manipulate the text, and that's where the flexible digital media comes in, that it's not a locked PDF where you can't do anything to it, but being able to go in and increase the size of the font in it.
So for somebody with a visual impairment, change the background colors of it, again, for somebody with different needs visually, whether it's because of a learning disability and they benefit from high-contrast, or whether it's because of visual impairment, being able to have that text be selectable and therefore it can be read aloud by text-to-speech, being able to enlarge, being able to move an image around, that type of thing.
There are more and more tools that are addressing when things are not created inherently flexible, so there are tools that can capture it and do optical character recognition and be able to read the text, but that adds complications sometimes, and so if publishers and producers of digital media can think from the beginning of how to make it flexible and keep it flexible then it's available to a much wider range of consumers.
So when those producers make it flexible they can get it out to more consumers.
Speech-to-text for struggling writers
So speech-to-text is a technology that's really come a long way in the last ten years or so. Again, just like other technology advancements that are more ubiquitous now, you and I might not think twice about dictating into Siri something that we're searching for. That is essentially speech-to-text. It's the technology recognizing what you're saying and being able to respond to that.
And so when students, when kids are using that educationally it can take away the barriers that spelling presents to them, that the physical act of writing may present to them, that keyboarding, sometimes students, their brains are working faster than their fingers can go, so even when we're talking about students being able to use technology to do their writing in, sometimes they haven't developed those keyboarding skills yet.
So being able to use speech-to-text to get that input and provides students with an opportunity to write in a different way, at a higher level oftentimes, than they might be able to get out when they are trying to figure out, "Well, how do I spell that word?" You know, "How do I — " you know, "How do I form those letters? It's not legible." So, again, it's a different means of input. The power then is to pair it with the text-to-speech so that they can also listen to what they wrote.
So text-to-speech isn’t just about reading. It's also about writing, and I really encourage students to take advantage of both sides of those tools, so inputting when they're — they've hit a block and they don't know how to get started with writing that sentence and I ask them, "Well, tell me about it. Okay, now turn on the dictation on your computer. Turn on the dictation via, you know, Google and the voice notes. Turn on the dictation if you're using an iPad and you can use Siri for that recognition."
Whatever the tools are that they're using, "So now talk it out, write as you're talking. Okay, now let's listen to that. Does that make sense to you? What do you need to do differently? Do you see in the text that got generated on the screen there? Does that make sense?" So hearing that back, and it's amazing how when kids hear aloud what they've written that they can recognize mistakes or confusion that might be there for their audience.
Gaining independence with AT tools
So text-to-speech and speech-to-text are tools that any student can use, but there are some students that need to use those tools, and that's where those types of tools really become assistive technology. They enable them to do something that they can't otherwise do without those tools.
So speech-to-text for students who have a learning disability that's very spelling-based and they can't get past the spelling errors but they have that content internally to be able to output, so that speech-to-text provides that bridge that avoids the spelling challenges for them. A student with fine motor impairments is able to use speech-to-text to independently generate.
For so many years, students have relied on a scribe, and you see it over and over again in IEPs, student will have a scribe. A scribe makes you dependent on another individual, on an adult in your world. Speech-to-text allows you to be independent as that student with a disability and built their self-advocacy for I can do this on my own, and that's really what we want for all of our students, and so providing that is an assistive technology for them.
Text-to-speech, on the other hand, is the flipside of that, and for those students who have a reading disability, who have a visual impairment, that text-to-speech allows them to be independent instead of having a human reader where you're dependent on somebody else being available for you, that text-to-speech takes that away for a student with a disability, and that assistive technology really provides the access that they need in order to access the general education curriculum, which is what our mandate is. Not just our goal, but it's our mandate.
Technology that makes writing fun
Technology really becomes not only providing access for students to become writers, as far as overcoming physical or learning challenges, but there's that engagement piece, and so when we take away some of those barriers they become more engaged. There are things that absolutely make writing fun. When you tell a student that you need to write a three paragraph essay that can be really intimidating.
When you, instead, tell them that they need to create a three panel graphic novel that becomes a lot more fun, and so using tools like Comic Book Creator resources out there, where they are combining graphics and speech bubbles and text together, and then they see themselves as an author, just like some of their favorite authors that are out there who are writing graphic novels, that can be a huge way to come — overcome some of those barriers for students.
Same thing, giving students an option instead of a three paragraph essay, well, instead I want you to create, you know, a three-to-five slideshow deck, and you need to put images in there, and you can find multimedia to go with that, so for students to learn that there's more than one way to get to writing.
So the same way that we have lots of avenues to reading, we need to provide lots of avenues to writing, and the standards dictate that. They're asking us to incorporate multimedia into student output, as well as student input.
Authentic writing, for a wide audience
I think it's about the idea of students having an authentic audience for their writing. So students now are consuming videos. They're consuming digital input that's being given to them, and so when they are given that opportunity to not just create something that a teacher's gonna see but to create something that can be put out there for a larger audience, and whether it's a closed audience, like families in a community, or whether it's out there on a blog that anybody can access, then they see themselves as really writers.
"It's not just for my teacher that I don't care, you know, necessarily about beyond impressing that one person." So when we have an authentic audience for students to speak to the value of what they're creating goes up, and their engagement in that goes up as well, and we are living in an age where we are both consumers and producers of media, and students are consumers and producers of media as well.
And technology levels the playing field for students, so if I've produced something digitally nobody knows that I have illegible handwriting. There's tools that help me with my spelling. I don't have to worry about producing a less than perfect product, as compared to my same-age peers. There's that leveling component to technology.
And that builds confidence for students who maybe don't feel as empowered because of their disability to be able to do that.
Low-tech writing tools
So there's not just high-tech tools that are out there, and as much as technology is ubiquitous in our world there's still a value to a lot of low-tech tools, so one of my favorites is using sticky notes. So when students start generating ideas on sticky notes you can rearrange those on your paper so you don't have to erase and put this, you know, "Oh, maybe this wasn't my main idea. Maybe this is a supporting detail. Well, I don't have to erase. I can just move them around and be able to use that."
So one of my other favorite tools for low-tech tools for students to use are different sized index cards, so the idea that I might put my big ideas on a big index card, how I'm gonna put some of my little supporting ideas on a little index card gives that visual tactile feel of, oh, you know how important is this idea for my writing?
So there's a whole range of low-tech supports that are out there. There are certainly — we aren't giving up pens and pencils yet, and different types of pens and pencils that are out there for students to be able to use. A lot of times students who are having difficulty with a pencil or with a ballpoint pen do so much better with a marker on a whiteboard because there's less drag to it so they don't have to press as hard.
You've got to press pretty hard, and if you've got physical weakness in your hands, writing firmly enough with a pencil can be really challenging. Giving students a whiteboard and a dry erase marker decreases that physical strain, and also it's so much easier to erase it when you've made a mistake than when you're trying to erase pencil from paper.
Built-in AT tools
One of my favorite assistive technology professionals, Caroline Musselwhite, uses the expression dance with the partner that you came with. So when we tap into the inherently accessible features in the tools that we have we're able to provide students easier access to assistive technology. So on a Kindle or on a tablet you can press and hold the text and it will read it out loud. I don't need another tool on top of that.
I might need more sophisticated tools depending on that individual student's need, but it's a place to start. If I'm using a Chromebook, which have become more and more pervasive in schools because they're affordable and they're durable, there's a whole host of Chrome extensions and Chrome add-ons that can be layered on top of tools. So, for example, if students are really distracted by all sorts of stuff on a web page you can use the Chrome extension Mercury Reader and it takes away all the background, and you're just left with the important text and pictures that are there.
So lots of things that are very easy to layer on top of tools that we might already have and resources that we have in our classrooms to be able to provide access to any student, but especially to students who have assistive technology needs.
For teachers: where to learn about AT tools
So teachers that are looking for resources to learn about how to use assistive technology or access technology that they may already have in their classrooms to support students who are struggling or who are learning differently there's a range of resources that are out there.
One of my favorite resources is the Center on Technology and Disability, and there is a range of archived and live webcasts available on all sorts of assistive technology topics, from universal design for learning to technology for early childhood to technology for students who are transitioning out of schools.
There's many articles and videos that are available there as well, for teachers to learn at their own pace and to take advantage of that just in time learning when they need it because sometimes when we go to something and learn about it and we don't have the opportunity to use it right away, it's not as useful as when I can go on, search for the topic that I need information on right now, and access it.
The Center also has a large number of resources for families to take advantage of. There's the family guide and an AT glossary that are available as part of the family portal on the Center for Technology and Disability
I would also recommend that teachers take advantage of Twitter to be able to develop personal learning network. They can follow AT Chat to be able to have at the ready a whole host of experts to ask questions to, and so that's just one of many. There's also LD Chat that's through understood.org, so many, many resources that are available to teachers to be able to get bite-sized chunks of learning just when they need it.
How to choose high-quality apps for kids
There are literally hundreds of thousands of apps that are available for mobile technology, and I sometimes refer to it as an app-alanche, and how do we choose as parents? How do we choose as teachers what apps to use? What are going to benefit students? So I actually have created a checklist of what to look for in a high-quality educational app.
The first thing that I really like to start with is that is that app open-ended? Can students do — can kids do a range of different things with that, as opposed to being taken through a specific sequence where there's only one right answer. The next thing that I'm looking for, and it's tied into being open-ended, is does it provide opportunities for problem solving as a way of stretching kids as they're engaging with those apps?
I also want to look at does it provide a culturally relevant and diverse set of characters that are a part of it? Can any student who is interacting with that app either see themselves in it or not see a stereotype within there? So those are three of the top things that I look for when I'm choosing a high-quality app. Is there more than one direction that students can go in with that app?
Does it help them engage in problem solving and develop their language along with that? And can they see themselves in the app as well, so is that culturally relevant to them?
Apps for children with learning differences
I know oftentimes that parents or teachers are looking for apps to address a particular disability, for example, autism, and if you were doing a search, you know, on the iTunes Store for apps for autism you might come across a lot of what I might call drill and kill apps, which are gonna to take you through this is a right answer, we're gonna get to that. What I really prefer to look at is what's a particular need that that individual student has?
So do they have a hard time transitioning from one task to another? So would an app that has a timer feature help them be able to transition from one activity to another? Would they benefit from an app that allows you to create a digital schedule, a digital picture schedule for that individual, to create a social story with that individual as the highlight of it?
So if a student has a really hard time getting ready for bed at night, taking pictures of that student as they're going through that activity and being able to then send that home digitally for a parent to go through, "Well, this is what we're gonna do first. This is what we're gonna do next. This is what we're gonna do last," can be really of value. There's some wonderful apps out there that help anybody, but children in particular, who have difficulty managing their emotions.
One of my favorites that I love to use with students when they're in high-stress mode is called Breathing Bubbles, and it's basically where you ask students with the app how they are feeling. They get to choose an emotion, and then we take them through the steps of how do you breathe in and out and being able to relax and reduced yourself from that high-stress to a lower stress situation.
So lots of different apps out there for lots of different reasons. There's many apps out there that allow students to experience play in ways that they might not be able to be initially successful because of their disability. So maybe a student with fine motor needs isn't able to interact with block play in a typical manner. Well, you can get out there with an app. There's a wooden block play app that you can use.
There's LEGO apps that you can use where a student is more easily able to navigate the fine motor component of the app rather than the fine motor component of having to actually physically interact with those blocks, so being able to use those types of tools. But if I went searching for fine motor that's probably not what I would come up with, so looking at apps out there through that lens of how do they provide accessibility, how do they help a student or a child overcome a challenge that they're having at that.
Guidelines for using apps with toddlers and preschoolers
So when we're using apps and mobile technology with very young children, we need to be cautious with how — the types of apps that we're using. The point of using an app with a young child is not to sit there as a babysitter and entertain them, and so when I look for apps for young children, for infants and toddlers, it's really can I be interactive with the child with that app? Does it allow for play that is that is — could be replicated without the technology but allow me to do it with the technology?
So there's a fabulous set of apps out there called My Play Home and there's My Play Home, My Play Store, My Play School where I can — it's as if I've got an infinite set of digital paper dolls that I can use interactively with a child, and it's not for the child to sit there, a two-year-old to sit there and do it by themselves, but for Mom and Dad to be doing now with their child and using language with them. So how can they be interactive?
Apps are not also just about sitting still with a piece of technology in front of you, so how can I use mobile technology in the world that I live in? This the most photographed and videographed generation that we have ever had. Every parent is out there every second with their phone capturing their children on film and then sharing it with the world.
So how do we get kids involved in that, and then choosing the pictures that they want to send to grandma and grandpa, or choosing the pictures that Mom is gonna post to their Instagram story, or deciding — "Videotape me doing this, Mom," or, "Let me videotape you." So those are ways that we can use digital technology, mobile technology effectively with young children. When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their revised guidelines about a year ago they came out with revised guidelines for screen time because the old guidelines said no screen time for children under the age of two.
They really realized and acknowledged that it's a little difficult to do that in today's world where parents are out there with these screens all the time. So instead, how do we make that interactive so that students — excuse me, not just students — so that young children are learning with their parents, with their caregivers the power of that technology.
Being able to use FaceTime or Skyping being with grandparents, being able to have a young child who's one parent is traveling all the time, have that face-to-face interaction through a video chat is an important and critical way to use technology.
How technology can enhance language skills
There's often a fallacy that starting technology with young children with disabilities is going to inhibit their ability to develop language skills or motor skills and that we need to try to — have them speaking before we introduce an augmentative communication technology tool for them, and there's actually excellent research out there that shows that there's no too young age to start using those types of tools with children who are having challenges with communicating.
So with those tools that five, ten years ago cost thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to be able to present to a student that now we can take on a tablet for a very low cost, or at least a very relatively low cost, and present it to a student, there's no danger that using an augmentative communication app on a mobile technology is going to prevent a child from starting to communicate, and in actuality it's going to enhance their communication skills because they're gonna learn the power of using words and language to express themselves.
They're going to be building those internal language skills and understanding that when I touch an image of a goldfish cracker that I'm gonna get goldfish cracker instead of ah-ah-ah, so there's no time that it's too young for a child to be using that, and parents' fears or preschool teachers' fears that if I allow them to use this technology to communicate they are not going to develop the oral language skills —
Believe me, the oral language skills, if they have the ability to use them, it's far easier for us to talk than it is for us to access a device, and if they have the ability to do that they will, and in the meantime the technology becomes a bridge to that language, and if the language, the oral language isn't going to come easily then it allows that child to develop the vocabulary, that syntax, that grammar, that understanding of how communication and language works in order to express themselves.
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
So universal design for learning, which is not assistive technology, is an important concept for parents and educators to understand. It's the idea of having multiple and flexible means of presenting information to someone of having multiple and flexible means of some being — somebody being able to express their understanding of something and multiple and flexible means of engaging.
That's the big picture of it. If I was to distill it down to one thought it would be providing choice so that there's not one right way to do any of those things. There's not one right way to give students access to information. There's not one right way for a student in a classroom to let us know that they've mastered the content, that they've mastered the standard that we're asking them to, and there's not one right way of getting a student to be interested in learning.
So when we incorporate universal design for learning into a classroom it really means am I providing not just lecture at a student, not just asking them to read a book, but am I giving them opportunities to have multimedia experiences?
If students are gonna present the argument of whether Pluto should be reclassified as a planet or not they can do more than just read about that in a book. They can go find videos on it. They can find digital articles on it. They can go and look at a book, a real paper book, because that's still a valid way to find out information, and then when they're trying to convince me of what their viewpoint on that is they don't have to just write that three paragraph essay that I was talking about before.
They could produce a video on it with images that they've brought in. They could write that essay if that's the way that they want to be able to generate that information. They could use a graphic organizer to structure that and give me all their important talking points from that. They might decide that they're gonna create a online game where we're gonna learn about, you know, the arguments for that.
So there's not one right way to do things, and the way that, in a classroom, it's successful is if you've gotten them engaged in it — and the way that a student is gonna be engaged — that one student is gonna be engaged is not the same way that another student is gonna be engaged, and one of the mistakes that teachers make is they want control in their classroom, and so if I only have to teach things in one way I'm gonna be in control, instead of letting students choose, "Well, this is the best way for me to gain my information," or, "This is the best way for me to gain information."
That empowers students. It gives them autonomy, and it makes them really think critically about the best avenue for learning.
Benefits of UDL for students with learning disabilities
So in a ideal universally designed for learning classroom we're gonna have that flexible digital material that we talked about before. So if I have resources that can be brought up through technology but could be printed out, could be read by a screen reader, through text-to-speech, could be enlarged for the student with visual needs, can be — a word can be clicked by my English language learner to translate it into their native language, so I'm supporting students with a range of learning needs, but that is all coming from that same original source, that flexible digital material.
So students with learning disabilities absolutely are going to benefit from a universally designed for learning classroom because it allows us that base point to layer the technology tools that they need. So if I'm presenting a resource that's digital I can put on top of that a text-to-speech tool. If I am presenting that image digitally I can layer on top of that the alt text that a student with a visual impairment needs.
If I am presenting materials digitally, again, I can provide that opportunity for my English language learner to interact with that material over and over and over again independently until they are able to comprehend that information because the time that it might take them might be longer without the teacher having to repeat it over and over and over again.
So giving students with a range of different needs the ability to make that information customizable, for the student who is above grade level to go and seek out information that can be upgraded for them, that can be more complex text. So it's not just students with learning needs at the lower end, but students with learning needs that we want to accelerate as well.
Creating the dream UDL classroom
Oh, boy. If I had all the money in the world and the Gates Foundation were to gift me with whatever resources that I needed, I would invest in a range of digital tools. I wouldn't look at just getting Chromebooks. I wouldn't look at just getting iPads. I would wanna have a combination of both so that I can meet the learning needs of students who are gonna interact best with technology where they're typing and being able to access a keyboard, and also for students that are gonna be able to swipe and access that information.
I would also look at it as much resources as I could get that would allow students to be producers of digital content themselves, so access to the apps and tools within those digital tools to be able to create iMovies, to be able to edit and produce video content.
So not only would I look for those tools that are part of a universally designed for learning classroom, but I would look at the assistive technology that can be used in conjunction with those tools. So would I have the augmentative communication apps that can be loaded on those devices? Would I have the standalone augmentative communication tools? Would I have access to the resources in an assistive technology lending library where when a student comes in with a specific need that isn't addressed by that universal design for learning that the tool can then come into the classroom and meet that student's need?
So having a wide range of different tools available, that would be the most wonderful thing in the world if the funds were available to be able to do that.
AT tools at home
The wonderful thing about so many of the assistive technology tools that are available now in the cloud is that when we purchase or subscribe to that tool for a child in school is they are then able to use that same tool at home simply by signing into it, so making sure that parents know that they can do that and to set that expectation that when their child's doing homework at home that they can access that same word prediction tool, that same text-to- speech tool, that they can — at school, at home.
And again, the key is often to teaching the students about that and letting them know, "You can sign into this at home. You don't have to just have it at school." The other piece is that when we have a wide range of tools in our library, whether they're physical tools or cloud-based tools, was we have more ability to let go of those and let them go home. Technology is far more durable than it ever used to be, so not just investing in the technology, but in investing in protective cases for that technology.
We, as adult consumers with our cell phones, are looking for the best protective case so that when we drop it, well, we can do the same thing for the technology that we're allowing students to have at home, and that's guaranteed to a student with assistive technology needs through their IP, to be able to access not just education in the school setting, but to access the educational demands that they have at home to be able to engage in homework, to be able to communicate effectively outside of the school building.
When parents are entering into the IEP process, it's important for them to know that at every IEP meeting that they have for their child there should be a discussion of assistive technology needs. It's part of the IEP process, and it's not something that should just be glossed over quickly. "No, no, no. This student doesn't have assistive technology needs," because it doesn't always mean a school providing a big specific device so that discussion is important to consider.
Are there writing tools, like speech-to-text available for a student to be able to use? Does this student require a picture schedule? That is a simple type of assistive technology that if a student's using it, it needs to be a part of that assistive technology discussion. Assistive Technology can be a device or a service.
It can be a part of related services that are being delivered, but it can also be included in the supplemental aids and services, and it needs to be part of the discussion of every single IEP meeting, not just because it's legally required, but it really helps teachers and parents understand the full complement of supports and strategies that their child can benefit from as a part of their individualized education program.
Self-advocacy for the AT tools student’s need
Students need to learn to be advocates for their own needs, and teachers and parents need to empower their students to ask for those tools as well, and one of the best ways to do that is by ensuring that the student understands the tools that they're using and the benefits that they have that — the benefits that they gain from using that tool, explicitly teaching the student how to use the tools that they have, and giving them those opportunities to be the controller of that.
So again, if I teach that student how to use that text-to-speech tool and not just train the teacher how to use it then that student is going to better be able to know when they need to use it. With the high-stakes testing that students are in right now it requires that students use that tool on an ongoing basis in order to be able to use it in the high-stakes testing that they're in, and students need to be comfortable with that, and they need to be able to understand that it benefits them.
Going forward, as students leave public K-through-12 education and move into college or career worlds, they also need to understand and know these are the tools that make me more successful, and I can do a better job being successful in college. I can be a better employee in the workforce if I have access to these tools as well.
So they move from where — if we don't empower students when they're younger to ask for the tools that they need, to understand why they're using the tools that they need, and to have some part of the decision making of I like this tool better than this tool, I like this voice better than this voice, I like this font better than this font, it allows them to develop the skills that, as they are leaving the world of entitlements in school setting to the college and career world where they need to advocate more for their use of that. Nobody's going to remind them that, "Oh, you get to use this text-to-speech tool. You get to use this speech-to-text tool and dictate your work." They have to be responsible for that, so they need to get buy-in young. Some of that happens when we have that universally designed for learning classroom because most often students who abandon their assistive technology tools abandon it because it makes them look different than their peers.
“I don’t want to look any different”
So in a universally designed for learning classroom where every student has choices about the tools that they use, whether they're an English language learner, whether they're a student with a disability, or whether they're just a general education student, and not everybody's doing things in exactly the same way then that student learns to value the tools that they chose to use, and then continues to use them, as opposed to saying, "I don't want to look any different."
If everybody in a classroom is doing pencil and paper work and you're the student that can't effectively do pencil and paper work, and so they give you a computer, or they give you a tablet, and, "Oh, well, you get to have it 'cause it's on your IEP, but none of my friends are using that." Whereas if a teacher said every day when kids came in to do their writing activity, "Would you like to write on the tablet? Would you like to on the Chromebook? Would you like to write on the whiteboard? Would you like to write with pencil and paper?"
Then every student could pick the tool that best meets their needs, and the student who has the assistive technology need where not only is it their preferred tool, but it's the tool that they must have in order to be successful, they're gonna be more accepting of that because there's not "I'm different from anybody else." It's that I get the same opportunity as all my peers have to choose the tool that meets my learning needs.
AT challenges for teachers and schools
There are lot of challenges to providing assistive technology and accessible instructional materials for students to be successful and access the general education curriculum. I think one of the biggest challenges is the massive amount of resources that are out there and being able to filter through them.
So teachers taking advantage of opportunities for training through Center on Technology and Disability resources, being able to get out there developing a professional learning network through Twitter, taking advantage of resources like PBS Learning Media and the inherently accessible content within that is critical.
Not being overwhelmed by the app-alanche of tools that are out there, and the fact that every day there's a new tool, and do I — well, this new tool came out. Do I stop using this tool because something else came out? Continuing to use the tools that you feel are successful, but being open to looking at, "Well, this isn't quite meeting a student's need anymore, so where do I go from that, and how do I get there in a way that doesn't take me down a rabbit hole of all of the tools and resources out there?"
So as the overwhelming amount of resources that are available to teachers, and how to manage them and categorize them. So using those best practices of, "What am I looking for? Is it open-ended. Is it — allow for problem solving? Can a student manage this tool without a lot of adult support and set up? You know, how can they be the most independent with the tool that they're using?"
"What's comfortable to me, as a teacher, so that I am more likely to use it with my students? Is it something I can model in my instruction as I'm up there in front of students? Does it align with the content in the curriculum that I'm using?" So how to manage all of the stuff that's out there 'cause you could get lost in that and then throw up your hands and say, "I just can't do any of this."
I have a young lady. She's a young lady now. She's — but when I started working with her she was first grade, so six years old. She was nonverbal. She's non-ambulatory, and she was a student that if you looked at her sitting there in her wheelchair you might think that she was really capable of a lot, but because we started using assistive technology with her early on and gave her access to augmentative communication resources and devices, we looked at ways — how is she going to be — as soon as we saw that light go on with the responses that she was providing with her augmentative communication device, we knew, all right, we need to figure out how are we gonna get this little girl writing and giving her access to assistive technology writing tools?"
Word prediction, so that as she became a speller it didn't take her 20 minutes to spell one word, as she started to blossom and grow that we kept adding to her repertoire of tools, and ultimately this little girl who couldn't walk or talk or use her hands effectively has gone on to be a published children's author.
And my favorite thing is seeing her Facebook posts — now that she's out of school and I can be friends with her on social media, seeing her Facebook posts about the Dallas Cowboys every weekend, and I — it's evidence to me that she is using her assistive technology in a way that is incredibly meaningful to her, and that means that we were successful.
We started with this little girl that if you looked at her you could have easily said, "Ah, she's not gonna do too much. Let's see what we can do to keep her happy, and let's keep her low-level things," but because the assistive technology revealed to us that this was a little girl who had so much going on inside, she is now an adult who is working, playing learning, interacting, socializing in ways that we probably never would have dreamed because the technology wasn't there when she was five or six years old that's there now when she's 25 years old.