Empathy rules, But inclusive empathy rocks. What could be better and more sublime than devising ways to make our less fortunate brethren feel at par with the rest? Can Assistive Technology make it happen?
Need for Assistive technology
With the advent of interactive technology, the manner of teaching and learning has undergone a dynamic shift. There has been a transformation where classrooms are now more diverse, engaging and encourage collaborative learning that focuses on better understanding, learning, and retention. Through innovative programs and futuristic technologies, differently-abled students can now access coursework, communicate thoughts and ideas, engage in educational experiences and learn at their own pace. Technology helps them enjoy an enhanced opportunity of participation in academic activities.
It is important to understand how different technologies have been introduced and existing technology has evolved based on the various forms of disabilities that exist. No one form of technology can be applied as the only assistive method. Disabilities can be broadly classified as Physical/Sensory, Cognitive, Psychiatric and Pathological. In many cases, there is a possibility of a student experiencing more than one kind of disability. It is rather tough for a student to be able to manage his disability while completing his tasks and challenges. Hence, Assistive Technology has been a powerful tool to help students perform tasks they previously would not have been able to complete or achieve.
What is Assistive Technology?
Any item, piece of equipment, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities can be an Assistive Technology. It helps people who have difficulty speaking, typing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking or performing similar functions. Different disabilities require different assistive technologies.
Some critics argue that it’s silly to categorize some technology as “assistive” and other technology as simply “technology.” All technology assists its users, whether they are “disabled” or not. A good example are the curb cuts, the ramp-like dips in sidewalks. Originally designed for people in wheelchairs, they turned out to benefit parents with strollers, roller bladders and a host of other users.
Schools use a range of assistive technologies based on individual learner needs. Options may include:
• alternative access for students who have limitations in physical strength, movement and coordination (eg. pencil grips, switches, supportive seating, wheelchairs, scooters and walkers)
• alternative keyboard for students who find a conventional keyboard challenging (eg. keyboard with larger or smaller keys, remote keyboard, onscreen keyboard.)
• alternative mouse for students who have difficulty using a regular mouse (eg. trackball, joystick, smaller mouse)
• alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) systems for students with complex communication needs (eg. speech generating device, communication app for tablet)
• literacy support software for students where they are incapable of accessing written information for their learning (eg. text to speech, speech to text, text to picture, word prediction)
• visual support to assist students to understand concepts and organise ideas, as alternative ways to deliver information to students with low vision (for example software that magnifies text, graphic organiser, visual timetable).
Examples of Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Text-to-speech software: it captures text and translates it into audio format. This is particularly useful for textbooks, PDF reading assignments and more. Similarly, text-to-picture software helps capture text into picture format. It helps learners and students with ADHD and dyslexia. Some softwares have font designed for dyslexic readers which reduces confusion with bottom-heavy characters.
Braille printer: The printer precision-heats a specialty foamed paper to create a page of Braille (or other 3D images) in one to two minutes. The printer could also be fitted with audio instructions, to aid auditory impaired users.
Several applications of AI are available for the low-vision community which offers audio guidance in a vast array of situations. It can read text aloud as soon as it appears in a smartphone’s camera viewfinder, it identifies products by barcode when shopping and describes surrounding scenery and its colours. Over time, it will learn to recognize the user’s friends and describe their facial expressions.
We have eye-tracking devices that turn the human gaze into a hands-free mouse. To use the technology, students with limited motor skills and verbal difficulties simply need to look at their screen, while a mix of infrared projectors, cameras and machine-learning algorithms can detect their point of focus.
There lies a huge opportunity for application of assistive technology in the classroom in the area of Artificial Intelligence and mapping apps.
Though AI already has transformed lives of people with disabilities it is not always accurate. However, if used with human monitoring and vetting, it can work much better. Once it can work reliably on its own, it will transform daily life for people with a wide array of disabilities. Higher-quality AI could also generate useful tools for people with Autism who have difficulty understanding facial expressions.
Mapping apps already offer users spoken navigation instructions and a largely accurate sense of their surroundings nearly everywhere in the world. Many blind people memorize the layouts of their neighbourhoods and with improvements in digital mapping, the maps of the future could support blind people navigate without assistance. Augmented and virtual reality could help blind students orient themselves in new environments especially in smaller spaces, such as a learning environment.
The devices can require specialized handling and the teachers or facilitators need to be extensively trained for its usage and need to get accustomed with it. Who knows, the ultimate assistive classroom technology in the classroom might be a teacher who asks, “How may I help you?”