Assistive technology is opening new frontiers. The right technology has the power to remove barriers for learners with a very wide variety of needs.

In the past, single purpose assistive devices were the order of the day. These devices served a purpose, but set learners apart in the classroom.

Increasingly, apps are becoming more accessible and the learners are using the same devices as their peers. Only the software differs.

CORE Education’s Lynne Silcock does a lot of work in the inclusion space. There are many approaches teachers can take, she says, but the issue is often identifying what the student really needs.

“Often teachers start with ‘I need something for so and so that will do such and such’. When you start to have conversations it widens because it is about inclusive education,” says Silcock.

There is a vast menu of assistive technology options on PCs, Macs, iOS, Android and Windows operating systems. At the budget end that includes the Android Chromebook.

Built in voice typing in these operating systems has become a great academic equaliser for many students, says Silcock.

“Voice typing has been around for a long time, but has really come into its own and now works with the New Zealand accent,” she says. “Google Suite has it built into the toolbar and iOS, Microsoft and Mac have it as part of their normal operating system,” she says.

The move to standard devices means that that learners no longer stand out from their peers, which is a huge leap forward, says Silcock.

Technological development is moving at a rapid pace. On the horizon are even better tools to unlock learning including electroencephalography (EEG) devices that use brainwaves to operate the computer. “Someone has already written a tweet based on just thinking,” says Silcock.

Another now standard technology that is revolutionising special and mainstream education is the touch-screen interface. Even standard mobile phones have touch screens which much more direct and intuitive interface, which makes it easier for early learners, for example.

The big move over the past decade has been the move from computer-based specialised software to apps. But not just any app will do. Apps used as assistive technology do need to be targeted at agreed learning goals for children. Features in apps need to have a clear purpose, clear language model and customisable features if possible.

Specialist hardware still has its place, especially for learners with severe physical needs. For example hardware-based eye gaze systems in conjunction with software allow the mouse to be operated by eye, says Silcock.

The McKenzie Centre in Hamilton actively promotes the use of technologies with children. Shared use with adults helps create opportunities for learning. For example: communication and turn taking.

“Families report particular apps on the home device/iPad are great for helping children regulate in unfamiliar settings such as a waiting room, a bus ride,” says Ruth Michels, assistive technology specialist at the McKenzie Centre.

At the centre a team of occupational therapists, speech language therapists, physiotherapists, and early intervention teachers work together to identify apps which are useful alongside hands-on real tools. Technologies are accepted as useful tool as part of an extensive toolkit, says Michels.

The use of technology is guided by the individual’s plan, the learning goals are planned collaboratively with the whānau and staff members.

Michels says assistive technologies give children with physical disabilities access to play that would otherwise be tiring or impossible to manage. “We position switches for example with an Manfrotto arm that motivates a child to inadvertently repeat those therapeutic stretches, and provide choice making opportunities for the non-verbal child with auditory output.”

The centre also uses apps. An example of a very simple app that has found favour is AlphaBaby. It presents the parent’s image and voice. “Seeing mum’s image on the screen certainly gets their attention, and reaching to touch that image supports the learning of cause and effect,” says Michels.

The centre also uses a number of packages from software developer Inclusive Technologies and apps by HelpKidsLearn, which specialises in learning for special education.

The purpose for any assistive app is to create an opportunity for an interaction, or an opportunity to practise a skill such as isolating an index finger.

Teachers looking for AT for their learners can seek expert advice or contact ministry-funded local assistive technology co-ordinators.

Silcock says the Ministry of Education’s funding process helps clarify what is needed. More information can be found at: Tinyurl.com/ministryfunding