Assistive technology: 4 EdTech tools that assist students with learning disabilities

Updated: Mar 29

As per an earlier article, education inequality is a global phenomenon that rides along the tail-winds of income inequality. However, one form of inequity that transcends class lines is the access to education for students with learning disabilities.


In 2020, 14% of all public-school students in the US, about 7.3 million students, receive special education. In the US, students eligible for special education are defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted in 1975. Under IDEA, students are identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects their academic performance.


The application of Assistive Technology in education assists students with learning disabilities.

Based on Figure 1, among students who received special education services under IDEA, the largest category, accounting for 33% of all IDEA students, was “specific learning disability.” A “specific learning disability” is a general description that encompasses many disabilities without a specific diagnosis. By definition, a “specific learning disability” is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language that may well manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.


For the rest of the students served by IDEA, 19% had speech or language impairments, defined as a communication order such as stuttering, impaired articulation, or voice impairment. 15% of students had other health impairments, including limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems, ranging from asthma to diabetes.


Figure 1. Percentage distribution of students ages 3–21 served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), by disability type: 2019–20 school year. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgg

Since the enactment of IDEA, learning disabilities have become less stigmatized and more commonly recognized among students. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 2009-10 to 2019-20, the number of students receiving education services under IDEA increased from 6.5 million (13% of all public school students) to 7.3 million (14%). This continual increase has also brought the popularization of AT, or assistive technology. The Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.”

While most modern usage of Assistive Technology refers to medical devices, AT is also commonly used for education, with EdTech being a form of AT. Below are four EdTech solutions that serve as AT for students with disabilities.

1. Health Impairments and Mobility Issues

Classified as the third most prominent learning disability type, those that are classified as having “other health impairments” by IDEA would primarily benefit from this type of learning ecosystem. Other than asthma and diabetes, as previously stated, other health impairments can include more severe illnesses, such as tuberculosis, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, or leukemia.

For students with chronic health issues, the option of having to go to school in person every day may not be realistic. Instead of having to miss out on class, schools much establish a fully integrated online learning ecosystem that would have the ability to seamlessly transition between an online classroom format to an in-person one, accommodating all students. Students with health impairments would have the option to take a primarily in-person class remotely at a moment’s notice.

A second group of students that this type of ecosystem would benefit is not students with learning disabilities but students with mobility issues. This includes students with wheelchairs, walkers, or braces. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, all schools must be wheelchair accessible, but these regulations may not consistently be enforced. Similar to health impairments, a fully integrated learning ecosystem provides students with mobility issues with more options for their education.

2. Reading Disabilities

Based on IDEA, reading disabilities are classified as a “specific learning disability,” impeding students’ ability to comprehend written language. These disabilities can include dyslexia, blindness, or any type of visual impairment.

The solution: text-to-speech (TTS) software. This technology works by enabling printed words to be read aloud using an artificial voice. TTS has evolved over the last few decades. For example, using machine learning, TTS can enable the artificial rendering of more human-like speech in computer systems, making it more user-friendly for children.

Additionally, students with visual impairments are not the only ones who can benefit from TTS. The popularity of audiobooks is not driven by people with learning disabilities but rather by people who find audio and TTS technology more convenient. TTS technology can also benefit students with autism or ADHD who may find it hard to concentrate on reading. TTS, however, is not the only EdTech tool for students that have issues with communication and information retention.


3. Developmental Issues

Autism, cerebral palsy, and other developmental issues often serve as the go-to example for chronic learning disabilities. Autism and other developmental disabilities make up around 18% of all students covered by IDEA. These, among different types of disabilities, including speech, vocal, and swallowing impairments, can make communication difficult.

This is where Augmented and Alternation Communication (AAC) comes in. The definition of AAC has a broad scope, including body and sign language, photos and drawings, or advanced high-tech devices.

AAC does not refer to any specific technology but rather any type of tool or software that can provide an alternative mode of communication. In a virtual classroom, an instant messaging feature can serve as AAC.

A child with autism, for example, may experience anxiety-induced selective mutism but will still be able to communicate through body language. With AAC devices such as a tablet, a child may type or point towards pictures of what they want to communicate.

4. Hearing Disabilities

Other than movement, sight, and verbal speech, another sense used in the learning process is the ability to hear. Although students with hearing impairments account for around 1% of the students covered by IDEA, students with hearing impairments or deafness make up a significant population.

A relatively accessible solution for these students would be implementing audio transcription technology. Audio transcription uses machine learning to recognize sound and speech and transcribe it into a written script.

With videoconferencing being used more and more for education, advancements in creating more precise and accurate auto-transcription tools will continue. In addition, with a fully integrated online learning ecosystem, an audio transcription tool has the potential to transition between an online and in-person classroom setting seamlessly.

Conclusion

Education inequity is an issue that occurs not only across school districts but also within the classroom. Schools are responsible for presenting an education system that provides every student an equal opportunity for success. This is not just for the benefit of students with learning disabilities but for all students. The flexible solutions offered by these EdTech tools allow more students to get involved in the classroom to create a more diverse and emotionally intelligent community. EdTech provides more equity to all students and develops students’ emotional intelligence to build relationships with peers who have different abilities from themselves.


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