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The Use of Technology in Special Education

The National Center for Education Statistics says that about 13 percent, or 6.6 million, of all students in public schools received special education services in 2014-2015. Furthermore, NCES reports that more than 60 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their day in the general education classroom.

With more special education students in the general education classroom, the need for assistive technology to aid their learning by providing accommodations and differentiated instruction is crucial.

Types of Technology Used in Special Education

Assistive technology increases functional capabilities for people with disabilities and learning differences. For example, a cochlear implant helps a deaf person hear and a wheelchair helps a student get around. Modern operating systems often include settings to adapt the software based on the user’s needs.

Students have different learning styles. Technology can adapt to those learning styles to deliver content in the way that works best for the student.

Special education students often rely on low- and no-tech items such as highlighters, organizers, pencil grips to position fingers correctly, raised paper with tactile cues to keep the child between the lines, timers to show how much time is left to mentally prepare a student for change, and magnetic sheets to hold words and pictures.

What Are the Advantages of Technology in Special Education?

Technology Helps Special Education Students Find Their Voice” shows how students can communicate and express themselves with technology. These are students with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and speech delays. Technology does more than accommodate students and level the playing field.

One common traditional teaching method uses handwritten text on paper and in worksheets and workbooks. Some students struggle to capture their thoughts on paper because they have poor handwriting skills or because they cannot hold a pen or pencil. Technology gives students extra support that traditional methods cannot provide.

Students with visual processing disorders may struggle with reading. Technology can read words out loud to help students who read along, matching the text with the audio recording. In a traditional classroom, the teacher teaches the students in the same way without considering individual learning preferences and differences. With technology, teachers can individualize learning and teach in smaller groups.

Other benefits of technologies include the following:

  • Increased independence.
  • Personalized learning.
  • Better connection with peers.
  • Reduced anxiety.
  • Easier communication.
  • Improved academic skills.

Here is an example from “How Special Education Technology Improves Learning.” A teacher demonstrated how to use a tablet to a student with cerebral palsy who wasn’t able to speak or write sentences. Then when the student received the device, she created sentences. No one would have known she could do that had it not been for the tablet. Needless to say, technology can provide teachers with insight into a student’s cognitive abilities.

What Are the Drawbacks of Technology in Special Education?

One of the biggest drawbacks of technology use in special education involves cost. However, many teachers have found creative solutions. “‘Bridging the Gap': Technology in Special Education” tells the story of a student with cerebral palsy who struggled to keep her place while reading. Her teacher solved the problem by procuring a used iPad and installing an app that would sound out text.

Another downside is the lack of teacher training. Not all technology is plug-and-play. Educators need training on how to make the most of technology and incorporate it into the classroom. Technology can create unrealistic expectations. It cannot cure learning issues, for instance. Educating parents and teachers can help manage expectations.

While technology in the classroom can prove valuable, educators need to watch for the “tech for tech’s sake” trap. Unless the technology has restrictions and blocks in place, students can get distracted by playing with apps or browsing the internet. Teachers want to avoid using technology as a babysitter.

What Technology Is Used in Special Education Classrooms?

Many assistive technology options for education exist for children with disabilities and learning differences. Education World estimates more than 4,000 assistive technologies designed for use in education.

Here are some of the technologies often used in special education:

  • Communication boards: The student points to a picture, symbol, word, or letter on an electronic board or tablet.
  • Text-to-voice: Many operating systems have a setting that reads everything aloud. There are apps that can scan text and read it out loud.
  • Voice-recognition technology: Students who need keyboard alternatives can control their computer with speech.
  • Tablets: Students interact with apps and use them for reading, watching videos, visual learning, and text-to-speech tools.
  • Apps: Students can access content aligned with curriculum that will engage them in learning concepts.

Before deciding on which technology to use, research the available options. In reviewing options, consider the cost and how effective the technology will be when integrated in the classroom.

Also check with your state’s vocational rehabilitation services’ website to find out what support or technology your state may have for individuals with disabilities. Parents may not be aware of such resources.

Make a list of questions to help with the selection processes. Is it easy or hard to learn and use? How reliable is it? Does the tool have many uses or a single one? What are the technical support options? What kind of training will it require for teachers?

The purpose of technology is to help the student learn without barriers. Selecting the right technology entails making sure it meets the students’ needs and aligns with curriculum outcomes.

Technology can reduce or eliminate barriers to learning for students in special education. It allows them to be more independent, keep up with their peers, gain self-confidence, and collaborate with classmates.

Learn more about the UTPB online Master of Arts in Special Education program.


Education World: Assistive Technology in the Classroom — Helping Challenged Kids Get the Most From Learning

EdSurge: ‘Bridging the Gap': Technology in Special Education

National Center for Education Statistics: Children and Youth With Disabilities

ISTE: How Special Education Technology Improves Learning

National Center for Education Statistics: Fast Facts — Inclusion of Students With Disabilities

Frisco ISD: Technology Helps Special Education Students Find Their Voice

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