Guest Post: Web-Based Assistive Technologies are Expanding the World for All Users

Lindsey Wright writes for the education resource She has written a piece for Leading from the Heart on how web-based assistive technologies can bring us closer to equal access to education.

Thanks, Lindsey :)

**please note, the points in this article are based on US law concerning peoples with disabilities.**

Web-Based Assistive Technologies are Expanding the World for All Users

Although the law requires it, few educational programs provide truly equal access to resources. This means that individuals with a variety of disabilities are missing out on programs from which they might derive a great deal of benefit. I have found this to be especially true in regard to web-based programs.

In many ways the Internet has revolutionized the educational process. Nowadays it is possible for students to attend an online school  across town or even on the other side of the planet. This allows all sorts of educational institutions to keep enrolment numbers up and even provides these schools with more revenue. The downside is that few of these web-based distance learning programs offer any kind of reasonable accessibility for learners with disabilities ranging from blindness to mobility issues.

Although most online classes are offered at a college level, I can make the argument that children who require assistive technology to keep up in elementary and secondary school also tend to get short shrift when it comes to web-based courses that could, with just a few minor adjustments, become the sorts of programs that encourage inclusiveness for all students.

The reason that many students with disabilities have difficulty using web-based learning resources is that these tools are often not designed with these students in mind. This lack of planning leads to what are better know as gratuitous barriers. These barriers are a feature of programs that serve no particular purpose, yet effectively bar students with disabilities from using them.

However, if a few small adjustments are made it can become easy for students with various impairments to engage in online learning. For instance, including an equivalent audio program for students with reduced sight capabilities might quickly and easily transform a relatively inaccessible program into a viable alternative. Additionally, designing online courses that feature text sizes that can easily be manipulated can benefit not only those students who are sight-challenged, but students who have issues with motor skills as well. Larger text makes it easier to make certain selections. Sometimes the only barrier to a student being able to use a particular program is as simple, basic, and easy to solve as that.

Online education can be hugely beneficial to all students, increasing each learner’s knowledge base tenfold. Yet for these programs to benefit the largest number of students accommodations must be built in at the beginning stages of development. I firmly believe that this is one of the best ways to ensure accessibility for all learners smoothly and without a great deal of extra expense. For learners who have severe mobility issues, the Internet can provide an especially valuable window on the world. Not only can learners who cannot otherwise attend school have the opportunity to study but they can also make interpersonal connections with other students around the world who may be dealing with similar issues and can share their experiences and knowledge freely.

More students with motor disabilities are gaining access to specialized keyboards. Many of these keyboards feature larger keys or place them in a variety of configurations to make them eminently usable for a wide range of users. I have also discovered that some users benefit from the use of an onscreen keyboard that they manipulate through the use of a pointer or joystick. Furthermore, other students with sight impairments are being supplied with screen readers that can send internet content to a word synthesizer or a display of Braille. Even students with mild learning disabilities are discovering word completion software and other tools that can help them use the Internet as a powerful learning tool.

Each of these new technologies breaks down barriers and makes the world accessible through the portal of the Internet. Although some may require extra expense, I have discovered that many of these innovations are already built in to the keyboards most people own or can be downloaded at little or no cost. For instance, users who have relatively new keyboards can turn on certain functionalities like sticky keys, filter keys, and mouse keys that make it easier for users with disabilities to use a regular keyboard. This may not be a reasonable accommodation for all users, but it can certainly benefit a large portion of the population.

Technologies meant to improve internet access for people with disabilities are developing rapidly and I believe they will continue to do so for many years to come. As the Internet continues to expand its breadth and depth, so too will the accommodations for users with disabilities continue to expand and grow more sophisticated. I believe very firmly that users with all sorts of different capabilities can utilize web-based programs to increase their knowledge and make connections with other learners around the world. It is, I think, the next step to creating a barrier-free planet, where everyone is free to roam wherever their imaginations allow.

Recent articles, elsewhere

I’ve been writing some articles on Special Education for, thought I’d publish some links to the articles I’ve written so far. Enjoy!

(and I am shamelessly asking for some comments on the articles themselves as I have yet to receive any! :) )

Special education resources in Ottawa and other areas July 4, 2011
Is Ontario properly organized for children’s mental… June 23, 2011
Helping students with special needs to bridge gaps… June 23, 2011
Links: Full-Day Kindergarten in Ontario June 18, 2011
Sam starts full-day Kindergarten this September June 18, 2011
Integration of students with special needs is not… June 17, 2011

A wish for my nephew as he starts school

I have a nephew with special needs. He is a beautiful, caring 4-year old boy. He is also clumsy, he stutters, has a very limited vocabulary, and is constantly moving in an impulsive sort of way. He doesn’t understand the word no, he likes to dump things (including the contents of coffee mugs. His mother really likes that one. Especially when it happens on carefully cut out, ironed, and organized pieces of fabric for a quilt), and still isn’t potty trained. He has both fine and gross motor control issues, as well as what seems to be a central auditory processing disorder (non-diagnosed). (see this article about a woman living with central auditory processing disorder. It is one of the best descriptions of it I have come across.) None of this means he isn’t a bright boy. He is.

Have you already forgotten that he is a beautiful, caring boy? My hope for him is that the teachers he meets throughout the school career ahead of him have the patience and clarity of thought to see this bright, beautiful caring boy, to not let him be reduced to the sum of the descriptive elements I sketched above.

How can we ensure this happens? How can we create this particular hope for the future?

Research – do your homework and visit schools, meet educators.
His parents have already started the process by researching the best schools for him and meeting with his teachers before he began in their classroom to talk about his needs. Last year, though only 3 at the time, his needs were assessed and he began full-day schooling with educators who understand his need for structure and patience. They are also able to explicitly develop his fine and gross motor control skills as well as address some of his behavioural issues through a structured, goal oriented IEP (Individualized Education Plan).

Follow up – keep the lines of communication open
His parents have met with his teachers on an ongoing basis to have conversations about how he is doing and if he has met certain goals or if goals need to be modified. They keep the lines of communication open so that everyone is on the same page. They also talk about what he does well. They foster the beautiful, caring side of him.

Be consistent – follow the same plans at home and school
If educators are working diligently with your child, it is important to follow up what they are doing at home. Since my nephew’s behavioural issues are being addressed at school his parents can help his educators by following the same plans at home. Children with special needs crave consistency, structure, clear outcomes. Without this, they can spiral out of control and unwanted behaviours can increase. When a child ‘acts out’ he really is calling for structure in his life. When I showed this to my sister, for pre-posting approval, she commented with this:

One thing I would add is that the parents are often at wits end and when discussing the needs of the child in the setting of the classroom – it would be lovely if those needs could be addressed in the home setting as well. We are often asking for help with how to deal with him At Home. It is frustrating to always hear that ‘he doesn’t do that here‘. We are finally reaching outside of the school system and getting psychologists involved.

The teachers are great – and it helps to put his capabilities into perspective (often saddening) but they don’t come home with us.

It’s a good thing that they are asking for help from psychologists though I think it would be good to also have one of their teachers come home with them and show them what to do. If ‘he doesn’t do that here’ then show his parents how to create an environment where he doesn’t do that at home as well!

Be flexible – know when it is time to change
Flexibility does not mean let him get away with things. Flexibility has to do with understanding that sometimes structures need to change. For example if one of your structures for a child is to correct him when you catch him doing something (like dumping a coffee cup) and you feel that you are constantly correcting him, well, that particular structure isn’t working. Be flexible, change it to work for you and your child. If you aren’t sure how to change it, speak with your child’s educators and even his doctors. They are such an important support for you because they are not your child’s parents and so can keep a certain emotional distance that allows them to see what needs to be done.

Out of all of this, the most important thing is to talk with your child’s educators on a regular basis to make sure that his needs are being purposefully addressed both in and out of the classroom. As a teacher, I so appreciate those parents who do this – it makes my job not easier (teaching is not easy) but purposeful because I know that my work is making a real difference, that it is helping to create a positive future for the children I work with.

**Much of this article was included in Sam starts full-day kindergarten this September at

Assistive Technology Helps Kids…Fixing a broken link

This article has been linked to via the Calgary Herald but somehow it leads to a broken link. Thought I’d patch that break here :)

Assistive Technology Helps Kids with Learning Disabilities – An Interview with Andrea Prupas

Assistive Technology Helps Kids with Learning Disabilities. An Interview with Andrea Prupas

**For some reason the original article has a very difficult time loading. I managed to get it to load only once, so copied it here. The title links back to the original article.**

Assistive Technology Helps Kids with Learning Disabilities – An Interview with Andrea Prupas

September 9, 2010 6:41 am View Comments


Ben Yoskovitz


Andrea PrupasI had never heard of “assistive technology” until Andrea Prupas reached out and introduced herself to NextMontreal. I looked at Andrea’s site and company, inov8 Educational Consulting and was particularly intrigued by the references there to mobile devices (including iPads). I’ve seen my own kids use an iPad and it’s an incredible experience; they instinctively get it and can dive into all kinds of apps within seconds. So it makes complete sense to me that iPads and similar touchscreen, handheld devices could be used to help children with learning disabilities. And the possibilities are quite amazing.

One of our goals with NextMontreal is to introduce everyone to a broader spectrum of technology and how it can be used. We said from the beginning, “This isn’t just about web and mobile startups.” So Andrea’s story and experience is interesting – although not a technologist, she’s actively using technology in her business, and doing so in unique ways. It’s a story worth sharing.

NextMontreal: What is assistive technology?

Andrea Prupas: Assistive technology is a broad term for any device that helps an individual bypass the challenges associated with their disability. There are multiple categories of assistive technology, designed for different populations and different purposes. The assistive technology that inov8 Educational Consulting uses can be divided into two categories: “learning and educational aids” and “augmentative communication aids.” Learning and educational aids are specifically designed to help an individual actively engage in the learning process and overcome academic difficulties. Augmentative communication aids are technologies that provide individuals with an alternative method of understanding or communicating language.

Assistive technologies must meet the specific needs of an individual that requires it, and not the other way around. Our key guiding principle with assistive technology recommendations is: person first, technology second.

NextMontreal: What does inov8 Educational Consulting do?

Andrea: inov8 Educational Consulting works with families and their children with special needs, to use assistive technology tools to educate and empower. We help these families to provide the most effective learning environment for their child. We are highly specialized and work with children with diverse learning needs. Many of our clients are children with learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, language disorders and developmental delays.

We offer two types of specialized services. Our parent seminar series, called “succeed@school” is designed to inform families about specific hardware and software available in the area of special education (for example, using an iPod as a communication device or using a specialized piece of software to develop math skills). Our other service is private consultations for families. We will work one-on-one with the family and child, integrating the software/hardware into the school curriculum or into their home environment (for example, we will show the student how to produce an essay with the use of the software, or we will show the family how to customize a communication app to suit their child’s home environment).

Above all, we always take a pedagogical, personalized approach to the use of technology. The most well-designed, innovative tool might not be well suited to the needs of a specific child. That’s why it’s critical to perform a comprehensive assessment to determine which tools would be most effective.

We are proud to say that we are a consulting company specializing in mobile and portable devices such as the iPod Touch and iPad as well as standard computers. We will customize a package on these products for an individual child, based on his or her needs. These applications are research-driven, highly interactive, powerful, mobile and effective; and they can have a significant impact on learning for students with special needs.

NextMontreal: How do you leverage technology for educational purposes? Can you provide examples of work you’ve done with customers implementing technology solutions for education/assistive learning?

Andrea: My background and expertise is in special education, and as a consultant I work with the principle that the technology has to support the pedagogy or curriculum. It’s not about the latest, coolest app. Rather, it’s about research-informed design of applications that are based on sound pedagogical practices. A number of the apps on Apple products were developed based on effective pedagogical practices in education. For example, Proloquo2Go, an augmentative communication app on the iPad or iPod, was developed because picture-based communication is a research-based, successful method of teaching children with communication disorders to communicate. The technology revolutionized this methodology; picture-based communication is now small, portable, easy to use and easily customizable.

We use software that has a strong research base. For example, another software that we use was designed and tested with students with severe reading disabilities. The software is very powerful; it can correct spelling and grammar errors extremely accurately as it works from a database of common errors that individuals with reading disabilities will make.

Our work has been primarily with families and children in the area of communication, and academic skills. We have students who have difficulty with organizational skills, and knowing where to begin when it comes to producing a piece of writing. Software that allows a student to visually organize their work prior to writing has been successful with a number of our clients. We also have students who need picture support for reading and writing. With this software, a picture is inserted into the text as a student types, maximizing comprehension. We also have students who are using picture communication systems, but want a more mobile and customizable solution with the iPad or iPod.

NextMontreal: What are the best assistive tech/learning apps on the iPhone/iPad?

Andrea: There are so many excellent educational apps in different areas, so that’s a really tough question…but here are some of our top applications for five different areas.

  1. Augmentative Communication – Proloquo2Go is the most comprehensive and powerful communication app to date. It is a full communication system in one app, at a fraction of the cost of traditional communication systems that allows the child to communicate with pictures. It’s effective on both the iPod and iPad for different reasons; the smaller devices allow for more mobility; young students can carry it easily. Installed on the iPad it allows students with fine motor difficulties greater access.
  2. Behavioural Intervention – A great application in this area is Model Me Going Places. This app shows slide show models of children displaying appropriate behaviour. It is based on research in video modeling that has been proven very successful with children with autism.
  3. Fine Motor Skills – IWriteWords is an excellent app that allows the child to practice writing letters, numbers and words. The child traces the letter on the iPod or iPad with his/her finger. This program is very well designed with excellent results; some schools in the US have reported implementing them in Kindergarten classes for all students. The progression is based on current research in teaching pre-writing skills, and the hands-on interactive activities are excellent for students who have difficulty writing with a pencil. Originally designed for the iPod Touch, the iPad makes the application even more effective by allowing for more movement when tracing. Kinesthetic and tactile writing activities are especially effective for students with special needs.
  4. Voice Recognition – Dragon Dictation is the premiere app in this area. Originally designed as a business tool, it will transfer spoken language into text on any of the Apple hardware, and it allows you to then e-mail your text or send it as a text message. It is a very versatile tool that can be used on a laptop computer or mobile device. It is amazingly accurate and a great tool for students who have reading disabilities, or who are unable to write due to physical disabilities. We use this software to work with students with learning disabilities who have great difficulty with the writing process.
  5. Organization – MyHomework is a great app. This tool was not designed necessarily for students with learning disabilities but can be very effective with upper elementary and high school students who need to keep better track of their homework.
  6. Reading, Text to Speech – The Read2Me App allows you to import your own text file (even from the web) into the iPod or iPad, and will read the text aloud. This is helpful for students who might be weaker readers but are able to understand the meaning of the text through listening.

NextMontreal: How do you validate new software or apps to verify their benefits?

Andrea: We follow assistive technology blogs in order to get the latest information on new apps and products. We read reviews from both the technology and education sectors, from parents, teachers, software companies, university researchers, consultants, etc. We also feel strongly about reviewing the research behind the software/app to see if it is based on valid, sound evidence. We attend conferences in the area of assistive technology-these are hands-on conferences that allow you to try the hardware and software through training sessions. Then we work with the software or app ourselves, and we encourage our clients to try it before they buy it.

NextMontreal: What kind of hardware is there in this space? Can you provide some examples?

Andrea: The hardware leader in the mobile device market has been Apple for the past few years. Their devices range in cost and features to provide consumers with numerous options from the iPod Touch to the iPhone and the iPad. However, learning software for students with special needs is not limited to mobile devices. Any desktop or laptop computer can take advantage of different software available to reduce barriers to learning.

NextMontreal: How have you seen technology benefit children with special needs?

Andrea: What motivated me to start this company is the enormous impact today’s specialized assistive tools have on a student’s learning.

I have seen technology benefit students in four areas:

  1. Communication – A communication tool allows a student to express his/her wants and needs. Children who are non-verbal or with limited verbal skills can express themselves, sometimes for the first time.
  2. Autonomy – When there is a good match between the technology and the student, they become more independent and involved learners. They are able to work through academic or social tasks with support from the technology.
  3. Academic skills – When technology is effectively applied for a specific area of difficulty, academic skills improve. For example, we use specialized reading software for children with autism who need a different learning approach to reading. When their reading improves, skills in other areas improve as well.
  4. Self-confidence – Children with special needs have sometimes struggled their entire school career with academic skills. The effects on their self-confidence and self-esteem can be devastating. These tools give them the opportunity to be successful learners, and they feel confident as a result.

NextMontreal: What’s the market opportunity for tech companies developing applications (software, mobile apps) for assistive learning?

Andrea: In order to work effectively in the area of assistive technology, tech companies need to partner with experts in the educational field to develop software targeted towards specific needs. Development of apps for Apple’s mobile devices is an area that is exploding. As of this April, Apple sold 50 million iPhones and 35 million iPod Touches. In the first three months after the iPad release, Apple sold 3 million devices. Canadian statistics indicate that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders is at more than 1 in 200 people, and 1 in 10 Canadians have a learning disability. Together, these statistics provide an indication that there is enormous opportunity for companies interested in developing assistive technology.

Do you see a lot of active development in the assistive technology market? Are there a lot of startups in the space? Or are there incumbents that rule the market?

Andrea: In the assistive technology market, there have been several companies that have dominated the market for years, and continue to do so in specific areas. These are a few examples: Mayer Johnson (BoardMaker) Don Johnson (Co:Writer, Read:OutLoud) Cambium Learning Technologies (Kurtzweil), Crick Software (Clicker5, WriteOnline), and Freedom Scientific (Wynn).

However, there are new players that emerge every year; Ginger Software is a newer company that has, in my opinion, developed one of the most innovative and effective products to date for students with reading disabilities. In addition, companies that have traditionally developed print-based reading and math remediation curriculums and products are now breaking into the software market.

New companies developing applications on Apple products would be, in my opinion, considered to be “start-ups” in the assistive technology market. Some companies have simply transferred their technology into an “app” format in order to be compatible for mobile device. However, other companies, such as AssistiveWare (Proloquo2Go) have designed completely innovative apps based on best practices in special education. Therefore, there is great opportunity for new companies (both start-up and established) to develop the market.

NextMontreal: Where do you see the next 5 years in terms of assistive technology? And what’s the future hold beyond that?

Andrea: Software is becoming more and more flexible, providing multiple solutions for an individual; for example a piece of writing software can include multiple advanced features that will take the student through the entire writing process fully supported, from note taking to the final writing product. Mobility, portability and touch interfaces have gained in popularity and are only going to increase. In addition, these tools are highly accessible, engaging, easy to use and low-cost. The possibilities are endless…in the next decade we will see incredible advances. This is great news for our students who will move on to new opportunities and experience success due to the development of new assistive technologies.

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