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Resources to Support Disabled Learners

Technological advances make a difference for students with learning disabilities.

Already under pressure to boost student achievement levels and rein in spending, district administrators face another challenge when it comes to educating students with learning disabilities.

With 4 to 6 percent of all students in the nation's public schools classified as having specific learning disabilities, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), most teachers can expect to have students who are learning disabled in their classrooms. And it presents a challenge to teachers and administrators alike, who are required by federal law to be sure such students get the same quality of education as nondisabled students.

Fortunately, a plethora of government agencies, nonprofits and commercial vendors provide teaching materials and guidance to help educators instruct students with dyslexia, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions that make it difficult for them to read, write and organize their thoughts.

Most resources are online, so administrators and teachers can easily access them and students can use them on computers in class and at home. Experts agree that a multisensory approach - using all the senses to relay information - is the most effective teaching method for students, particularly those with dyslexia. Assistive technology (AT), which is a variety of devices and technologies that provide media access for disabled learners, includes a broad range of multisensory products, tools and services. It is particularly effective because it can increase students' self-reliance and sense of independence. It inspires students to develop strong thinking and organizational skills, improving academic performance.

"The technologies that have been developed over the past 20 years for these students are dramatic, and the opportunities to use them are huge." -David Dikter, executive director, Assistive Technology Industry Association

"The technologies that have been developed over the past 20 years for these students are dramatic, and the opportunities to use them are huge," says David Dikter, executive director of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA). An annual assistive technology conference that the association launched in 1999 - the largest, broad-based AT conference in North America - proves how the use of online resources in classrooms has grown in the past decade.

Assistive Technologies

Assistive technology can address many types of learning difficulties. For example, electronic text - text in a form that a computer can store or display on a screen - can be changed in appearance, with different typeface styles and sizes and changes in line spacing and page layout, to help students struggling with reading. Teachers can add or rearrange information to reduce a student's frustration and increase understanding of the material.

Software that converts e-text to speech that is read aloud by a computer also can be helpful, according to "Making the Most of Standard Technology to Enhance Learning," a report issued by GreatSchools. It cites features to convert electronic text within programs such as Kidspiration and Inspiration Software, which specialize in visual learning products that associate ideas, concepts, data and other information with images and graphics. AppleWorks, StoryBook Weaver Deluxe and KidPix Deluxe are other examples of such programs.

In addition to other assistive technology capabilities, a student who has difficulty writing can compose a school report by dictating it and having it converted to text by software that links speaking and writing skills. Dale Brown, senior manager of LD OnLine, a Web site on learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, says it's not cheating. "Technology helps the person overcome their difficulty," he says.

AT is also considered adaptive technology because educators can adapt it to meet the needs of individual students with specific disabilities. LDA says that success for students requires a focus on individual achievement, individual progress and individual learning, and this requires "specific, directed, individualized, intensive remedial instruction."

"The quality of differentiated education in the K12 world has improved significantly." -Paul B. Yellin, director, Yellin Center for Student Success

"The quality of differentiated education in the K12 world has improved significantly," says Paul B. Yellin, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and director of the Yellin Center for Student Success in New York.

Yellin, who has an 18-year-old son "with complex learning problems," which attracted Yellin to do this work, says that laptops and word processing is "making a difference" with such students. Even a routine function like spell check has been "an enormous benefi t for kids who have learning problems," he says.

Educators say recent dramatic advances in technology for use in instructing students who are learning disabled got a boost from 2004 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law was enacted in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities, like other children, could receive a free appropriate public education.

The 2004 amendments included a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), which guides the production and electronic distribution of curricular materials in accessible, student-ready versions, including digital talking books.

Under the standard, publishers of textbooks and other educational materials deliver files of their products to a central repository, the National Instructional Materials Access Center. Then school districts or schools that need materials can get them from the center-usually by going through their state education agency-and have organizations such as convert them to digital formats, says Skip Stahl, project director of the NIMAS Development Center at CAST (originally the Center for Applied Special Technology). Sometimes schools can receive textbooks in digital formats within just a few hours, Stahl says.

"We have made huge strides just in the last few years," says Christopher M. Lee, director of the Alternative Media Access Center in the University System of Georgia. Diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade, Lee can relate to the advances that have occurred. He recalls using tape recorders to listen to books and the difficulties of trying to go back and forth from one chapter to another. "It took me forever to get through a book," he recalls.

With today's technology, "you can go right to a specifi c page, and the software will read it for you and highlight it and enlarge it. You can adapt voices to it and add notes to it," he says.

Handheld Devices

Although never formally diagnosed with the condition, Don Johnston, head of Don Johnston Inc., says he also had a form of dyslexia and did not read until freshman year in high school. Today his company produces assistive technology tools for students with dyslexia. One example, Class-Mate Reader, is a lightweight, handheld device about the size of a portable gaming system with a large LCD screen. With it, students can listen to the audio version of a textbook and other study materials while following the highlighted text on the screen. When used during tests, it eliminates the need for a teacher to read the exam to students.

Technology like that, "if it is used consistently, closes the gap between students who have written language problems and students who don't. It's an incredible tool," says Judy Brady, central offi ce resource specialist for assistive technology in Anne Arundel County (Md.) Public Schools, which uses Don Johnston products.

Visual Tools

Seeing as well as hearing also helps such students learn. In the Beaverton (Ore.) School District, where about 4,200 of 37,000 students qualify as learning disabled under the original federal law for individuals with disabilities, Liz Ferris, district AT specialist, uses Inspiration Software products.

"I'll be called in because a student in K12 is having difficulty getting thoughts down on paper," Ferris explains. "It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so I will use visual representations to help them tell their stories. Then they transfer what they see into a word processing document. They write about those pictures and the story starts coming together."

Similarly, Lindi Weinstein, assistive technology specialist in the Beverly Hills (Calif.) Unified School District, fi nds that special software programs help K12 students organize their thoughts. "If the children in a classroom are writing about living things versus nonliving things, maybe there's one child who can't do it. But he can insert these graphics of little animals in the computer and print it out and he has something really cool," Weinstein says.

"With autism, children have such a wide range of skills, abilities and needs. It's the same with attention defi cit disorder. You try to fi nd some programs that might work with a variety of kids who have a variety of needs versus something that is only good for one person," Weinstein says.

Response to Intervention

One approach to helping students who are learning disabled is a research-based process known as Response to Intervention (RTI) that promotes early identification of students who may be at risk for learning difficulties. RTI involves tiers of increasingly intense levels of service for students who are learning disabled depending on their needs, according to the national learning disabilities center.

"You can go right to a specific page, and the software will read it for you and highlight it and enlarge it." -Christopher M. Lee, director, Alternative Media Access Center, University System of Georgia

First, parents or teachers identify students as possibly having learning disabilities. In the RTI approach, these students receive special services in general education classrooms, with a special teacher who works with the regular classroom teacher. Teachers monitor their progress, and if the students continue to do well, they remain in regular classrooms.

But students who need additional attention and help get higher tiers of service, which could include tutors, special education teachers, reading specialists, speech-language pathologists and even school psychologists.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities in the U.S. Department of Education last year launched an RTI Action Network to boost the concept as a way to improve educational outcomes for all students. The Response to Intervention hypothesis, according to the federal agency, is that the sooner floundering students are identifi ed and given appropriate instruction, the higher the likelihood they can maintain their class placement.

Technical Training

Experts in teaching special needs students believe there still is a long way to go as technology continues to evolve. "One of the most challenging issues we face in this country is having schools keep up with the technology. It's a breeze for students to keep up, but I don't know that teachers and schools keep up with it fast enough to support the students they have in front of them," says Dikter.

He suggests that the costs of buying hardware and software and training administrators and teachers to use it may be among the limiting factors. Per-pupil expenditures for students with learning disabilities range upward from $10,558 annually-1.6 times the amount spent on regular students, according to a national study conducted in the 1999-2000 school year by the American Institutes for Research. Funding from IDEA grants covers about 20 percent of the additional cost of providing special education services, leaving the remaining cost to states and districts.

"Assistive technology provided to an individual student can be expensive," says Brown. Districts "may get a better bang for their bucks if they implement systemwide purchases of technology," adds Dikter.

Lee suggests districts could "do a better job" in training teachers to use the new technologies. "Training in technical systems is huge, and not a lot of districts put a lot of money into training," he says. "Teachers have their hands full as it is, and to add to that, they have to know about this adaptive software. That's a lot for teachers to learn."

But regardless of the challenges, such resources open up new worlds to disabled learners of all grades and abilities. "When some of us were in school, we were taught to read something and then tell the teacher, often in writing, what we understood about it," Dikter says. "For students who struggle with reading and writing, the technology gives them ways to show their teachers what they know and understand from what they are taught."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.