Adaptive technology, or assistive technology, is defined as the use of devices to increase, maintain, or improve the capabilities of a person with disabilities by providing physical and sensory access, for example, through the use of a wheelchair or Braille. When used with computers, adaptive technologies are also called adaptive hardware or software. The term adaptive technology has now broadened to include instructional technologies used to meet special teaching and learning needs in classrooms, including those of students identified as at risk of school failure and those identified as gifted and talented. This entry looks at how adaptive technology contributes in an educational setting.
Adaptive technology can potentially help individuals with disabilities achieve greater independence and self-confidence. The field of special education historically has had an interest in technology, specifically in assistive as well as instructional technologies that extend an individual’s abilities in classroom environments and beyond.
Various assistive technology laws have been passed to provide guidance, funding, and standards for the development and distribution of these devices. Among these, the reauthorization of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (Public Law 108–364), a grant program, increases the availability of funding and access to assistive technology for states to continue implementing their technology-related assistance programs. Another important piece of legislation, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, was amended in 1998 to include Section 508, which requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 addresses the uses of special keyboards, touch screens, and closed captioning, for example, to facilitate access to electronic information.
Even with the efforts of the federal government and individual state programs to provide this type of assistance to the disabled, challenges remain. Standards for providing access, training, and support related to adaptive technologies can vary from state to state. Further, lack of resources, trained professionals, and timely acquisition and delivery of assistive devices can hamper successful implementation of these programs.
Despite these challenges, professionals working with the disabled can maximize individual success when using the devices by being knowledgeable about the needs and abilities of the disabled with whom they work, as well as by continuing to learn about adaptive technology and how to create a good fit between it and the user. Educational preparation programs and continued professional support are key to maintaining the best practices in the field.
Since the 1990s in public schools at the K–12 level, there has been a move toward inclusive classrooms in which special needs students receive instruction alongside children in the mainstream program. Because of this, teachers and other school professionals, for example, must be able to identify technologies that support all students and be able to adapt those technologies to meet the specific needs of students with disabilities who often encounter difficulties in meeting the demands of the school and classroom environment.
Working at a desk using a traditional QWERTY keyboard and a mouse is the most common way of interacting with a computer. However, this set-up is not useful for all. Adaptive input devices can help special needs students to send information to the computer. Standard keyboards can be adapted with Braille or raised character caps attached to the keys, or the auto repeat function can be disabled. Alternative keyboards are specifically designed for individuals with limited motor skills. These usually are larger in size than standard keyboards, have larger keys with increased spacing between them, and offer increased sensitivity. The letters and numbers are often arranged in sequential order and marked with pictures.
For individuals unable to use the traditional computer mouse, touch-sensitive screens, joysticks, and head-operated devices activate and control cursor movement with less demand on the user. A puff switch, for example, activates mouse functions as the individual puffs or sips through a tube. Other input devices include voice recognition software that can convert spoken words into text on the screen as well as replicate mouse functions. Students with limited mobility also can use an electronic pointing device operated by a headset that translates eye and head movement into cursor movements.
Similarly, output devices, such as computer screens and printers, can be adapted to produce large text and graphics, including Braille characters. Black type on white background screens can be reversed to show white characters on a black screen. Large print keyboards and oversized monitors are also helpful to the visually impaired. Speech output is possible with synthesized speech that can generate an unlimited amount of vocabulary and digitized speech that records and digitizes real voices but which is limited to words previously recorded.
In addition to computer hardware and software, other technologies assist a student with basic life activities such as standing and sitting straight, holding a utensil or pencil, or elevating his or her head. Seating and standing products such as therapeutic seats and active standers help persons with disabilities to sit or stand comfortably and safely, while maintaining or improving their health. Walking products such as canes and walkers, and wheeled mobility products such as wheelchairs and electric scooters, allow the physically challenged some freedom of movement.
Students with learning or language disabilities can use technology to help them experience success in classrooms. Students with learning disabilities, who often struggle to organize their thoughts and produce written documents, benefit from software features that help with outlining, spelling, and grammar. Word processors with speech output help students with writing tasks by reading out loud the students’ writing. Software programs are also available to assist with hand-eye coordination, study skills, and cause and effect.
Presently, advocates for the disabled support the idea of universal accessibility, or universal design of devices and technologies to achieve excellent usability by all—persons with disabilities benefit from the design and the typical user can also benefit. For example, curb cuts in sidewalks, which allow a smooth and gradual transition from the sidewalk to the street level, help persons using wheelchairs and also those pushing baby strollers, carrying wheeled luggage, or skating. Recently, universal design concepts have been applied to computers in order to include disability accessibility software as part of the operating system so that access would be readily provided and not require specialists to make modifications to the computer before a disabled person can use it.
Universal design concepts are also being applied to learning—to support students with disabilities in gaining access to the general education curriculum. While modifications to instruction and materials occur regularly for these students, the changes are usually reactive, and students will tend to experience lag time in achieving access to the curriculum. Universal design seeks to change this by providing a proactive way of thinking about access.
- Behrmann, M., & Schaff, J. (2001). Assisting educators with assistive technology: Enabling children to achieve independence in living and learning. Children and Families, 42, 24–28.
- Skylar, A. A. (2006). Assistive technology online resources.
- Journal of Special Education Technology, 21, 45–47. Starkman, N. (2007). Making the impossible possible. T.H.E. Journal, 34, 27–32.
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