Children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) often have the capacity to master high-level content but are unable to access it through traditional forms. Assistive technologies help remove these barriers and allow learners to access and output content in an alternative way. They help bridge gaps while taking advantage of a learner’s strengths.
John Galloway from the London Grid for Learning is a specialist in the use of technology to support children and young people with SEND. He spoke at The Future of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Conference in October 2020 .
What does technology offer learners with SEND?
Students with SEND are not a homogenised group, their abilities and needs are varied. Often, we consider what technology may be needed by looking at ‘types’ of SEND, focusing on the disabilities or diagnosis. Yet, each individual within a group has different needs from their peers. It is more useful to understand different learning needs.
So, when we are thinking about technology and SEND, we should take the focus away from the labels attached to children. Instead, we should consider what it is that each child needs help with.
Technology doesn’t just offer assistance to students with SEND, it benefits everyone. It can improve the speed of working or presentation. For SEND students it can help create continuity between home and school, as well as allow greater independence.
For most students, allowing for repetition and rehearsal space has a positive impact on motivation and self-esteem. John tells us that in his experience, those on the autistic spectrum will often engage and socialise on screen in a way they find difficult away from the screen .
What technology is available?
Assistive technology has become readily available. Every device that we now use can be seen as assistive technology. John notes that “every day we use the touch screen, predictive text, voice control, dictation, audible functions to listen to text rather than read. Now we must ask ‘how can the technology I am using everyday help pupils?’” .
- Apple has a VoiceOver screen reader to describe what is on the screen. Other functions also include zoom, text display options, increase contrast, invert colours, grayscale, subtitles, speech options and touch accommodations. They also have audio options to communicate with hearing aids. If you suffer hearing loss in one ear, the iPad’s Mono Audio setting can combine the right and left audio channels so that both channels can be heard in either earbud .
- Similarly, Windows has functionalities such as narrator, magnifier, high contrast and the options to enlarge the mouse and keyboard on screen .
- Microsoft has great features across their programmes. Word offers the user to dictate, read aloud and translate. These are great for students who struggle with a keyboard. There is also an immersive reader which can change features such as page spacing, colours and contrast. It also allows the user to bring up a ‘letterbox’ that lets the reader view line by line. Microsoft Edge browser also has a great built-in screen reader. However, one of Microsoft’s best features is on PowerPoint. The user has the option to add instant subtitles as they present. This means that as a teacher talks to the class, the PowerPoint can immediately present a transcription.
- Google docs also offer dictation so that students can use their voice to type. Although it doesn’t have the option to read the text back you can get great addons such as Read and Write.
- Wordshark was initially developed to help dyslexic students, specialising in teaching reading and spelling. However, it has even proven popular with postgrad students for learning vocab. Computer games provide a non-judgemental environment to learn spellings, without the fear of failure .
- Widgit Online is used by learners to create text through the help of symbols. These symbols can be great to help prompt students with what they want to say or what they have said. Additionally, colourful semantics help develop grammar and sentence construction skills . The tools are also used by teachers to create communication books to help individuals express themselves or to aid communication with parents who may not speak English. The ability to create visual timetables is another great feature.
- Clicker 8 is a child-friendly word processor. It includes speech feedback, a talking spell checker and a word predictor. You can use Clicker with symbols to support pupils with special literacy or communication needs as they take part in reading, writing and communication activities. The function of Clicker Grids enables pupils to build sentences word-by-word from Word Banks. The new ‘Picturise’ button instantly adds pictures to any Clicker Grid, helping children to find the word they want. It also has accessibility functions such as an on-screen keyboard that breaks the keys down into six large clusters. Clicker 8 can also work with any eye gaze system and switches .
- DocsPlus is a model of Clicker 8 for secondary education. It can help organise ideas and planning writing tasks with a built-in mind mapping tool and an audio note creator. Intelligent word prediction, writing frames, curriculum vocabulary banks and speech feedback tools help learners to write and proof work. Additionally, DocsPlus’ built-in DocReader will read aloud any PDF or Word document (including exam papers) in a clear, realistic-sounding voice .
- Gotalk NOW is similar to Clicker 8 as an interactive display communication app compatible with the iPad. It allows the learner and teachers to create Communication Books with interactive message buttons.
To learn more and explore assistive technology in more depth, EdTech discusses resources to help guide educational organisations on how to provide excellent assistive technology .
Assistive technology is readily available, with most of us utilising the advantages it offers every day. Understanding the technology available and applying it in an educational setting can be a great way to support SEND learners.
 Galloway. 2020. The Future of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Conference
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 Dummies.com. n/a How to Adjust Windows 10 Ease of Use
 wordshark.co.uk. n/a . Wordshark for reading &spelling…now online!
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 cricksoft.com. n/a. Clicker 8
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