Introducing assistive technology (AT) to students with special needs can go a long way towards enabling them in their studies. But with so many choices to choose from, how do teachers pick out the right AT?
Assistant Professor Wong Meng Ee previously shared with SingTeach (see our previous article “Working for Students with Special Needs”, Issue 41) that as a visually impaired student, he struggled in a mainstream school in Singapore. This was because educational services for special needs students were limited in the past.
However, things got better when he enrolled in a school for the blind in the UK. He was thankful for teachers who understood his needs and helped him gain the confidence he needed to do well.
Meng Ee now focuses his research on special education and hopes to help special education teachers find the right tools to help their students. One area he is looking into is assistive technology (AT).
What is Assistive Technology?
A simple set of rubber bands can be a form of AT for someone who is visually impaired, if they are creative enough. “Rubber bands act as indicators for my files – one rubber band wrapped around my file will mean this is for a certain class, two rubber bands indicates another class, and so on,” Meng Ee explains as he touches the files on his desk.
AT is any device or item that can be used to improve the lives of people with disabilities. ATs can be categorized into low, medium or high technology – the rubber bands being an example of a simple, low-technology item. Medium ATs are devices that do not require much training to use, such as a talking calculator.
Modern technology has enabled many high ATs. Meng Ee’s computer, for example, comes with a software that reads out text on the screen.
“I send and read emails and I can do my work on this,” Meng Ee says. “It’s a great enabler for me, because without it, I can’t work or write papers or plan my lessons. You can see clearly how this AT device has given me a level playing field even with my visual impairment. Now, temporarily, I am working more or less on the same level as other people.”
While Meng Ee’s first project delved into students’ relationship with AT, his next one was more concerned with the teachers.
He noted that teachers clearly found AT to be useful, but they were not sure how they could marry the technology to their pedagogy. Also, with hundreds of AT devices available, Meng Ee wanted to know: How are teachers making choices to help match appropriate devices to the students?
Meeting the Needs of Students
A person with any form of disability tends to have more than one need. Imagine a student with visual impairment. They would want to read but lack access to information; they would have mobility needs as they experience difficulties moving around.
Meng Ee advises that the teacher should decide which need they would focus on, and marry that with the help that the school can provide. The use of AT as an aid should not be ad hoc, but can continually help students as they progress through the school years.
However, teachers are finding it increasingly challenging to make choices among the many AT options available.
“When we asked the teachers to explicate their thought process of making a choice, they will generally attribute it to intuition or going with what works,” Meng Ee notes. Is there a way to help teachers become more systematic and informed when making their choices?
(Assistive technology) helps to open up a whole sequence of questions the teachers pose to themselves, their team, or even the children they are working with, in a more systematic way.
– Wong Meng Ee, Early Childhood & Special Needs Education Academic
WATI – Guided Choice Making
To aid the teachers, Meng Ee and his team introduced the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI) tool kit. It acts as an easy guide for teachers to choose a device for their students through a detailed questionnaire, and it is generic enough to apply to a range of disabilities. Best of all, they do not need to undergo formal training to learn how to use it.
”As teachers were not exposed to evaluative tools previously, they found this very useful,” Meng Ee shares. “Now they have a guide and they can work at least more systematically in asking the questions: What are these devices for? How can it help the students? When do you use it, and under what conditions?”
“This helps to open up a whole sequence of questions the teachers pose to themselves, their team, or even the children they are working with, in a more systematic way.”
Furthermore, WATI encourages a team approach. Related literature notes that choice making for AT generally should involve a team of people. Meng Ee explains, “It should involve the teachers, parents, therapists and even the users, who will be ones who are most critical about it.”
Making the decision is just one part of the process. Meng Ee continues, “The entire process should include decision making, training the teacher to use the AT device and marry it with pedagogy, recommending the device to the student, trying the device with the student for a month or so, and coming back to report on it. If the recommendation or the feedback is not very positive, they should run through the whole cycle again.”
However, he cautions against the tool kit being used as the final arbiter of the decision- making process. Ultimately, the student has to be comfortable with the AT device.
Meng Ee notes that those involved see the tool kit as “a formalized process by which a series of questions is asked to help teachers come to a more informed decision”.
Addressing Different Disabilities
Even though Meng Ee has so far been working closely with only the visually impaired, his goal is to create a tool kit that addresses different disabilities. That would be the focus of his new research project.
“I would love to help teachers work with different disability groups,” Meng Ee says. “The tool kit we’re looking into creating in the next phase of our project should help teachers in the same way the WATI has: to guide them to make informed choices.”
Moreover, he hopes this project can help contribute to the new Tech Able, a facility aimed at helping people with disabilities to live and work independently. It will have a Technology Centre which focuses on AT.
“At the end, if our team can also contribute to that, it would be great to be involved on a community level,” Meng Ee says. “We can help make the evaluation of matching AT devices easier for people, and from there, if they are working in the school setting, they can get support from the teachers or administrative to get funds for the devices.”