SEND help: the state of assistive technology in UK education

Are assistive technologies doing enough to support and empower SEND students in the UK? Genna Ash investigates

The Breakdown

  • Assistive technology helps SEND students participate in class and support their personal growth
  • “Regardless of their writing ability, everyone has a good story to tell, and technology is enabling those people to get their stories heard” – Chris Rothwell, Microsoft
  • While students with additional needs are often perceived to be at a disadvantage, they are able to unleash their potential when equipped with the right device or solution
  • “A lack of funding in the education system is…a major issue – schools simply don’t have the resources to finance the tech, especially for those students with more complex needs” – Clive Gilbert, Policy Connect
  • We must shift our focus away from the provision of care and instead promote independent living
  • “This is a mindset issue. From a human rights perspective, I think our educational systems are unacceptable for anyone with a disability” – Professor Luc de Witte, University of Sheffield



According to the Department for Education’s (DfE) report on Special Educational Needs in England, the number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) increased for a third consecutive year as of January 2019, standing at 1,318,300 and representing just under 15% of the nation’s total student population.

Whether their needs are visible or not, these students often require additional support, but that doesn’t mean they are any less capable than their peers. Assistive technology (AT) is a tool that, when harnessed correctly, can empower these students and considerably boost their quality of life.

Source: DfE

How assistive technology supports SEND students

There are two broad ways AT can transform the learning experience; the first being its impact on the learning process itself. Certain tools and devices can help disabled people access lessons and participate in tasks – scanning pens, for example, are portable, pocket-sized devices that read text aloud with a human-like digital voice, ideal for students with visual impairments or dyslexia. Both desktop computers and laptops come with all sorts of assistive tools – predictive text and speech recognition software, for instance, which can be easily incorporated into teaching practice.

“It can also help with personal growth,” Clive Gilbert, policy manager of assistive tech at cross party non-profit Policy Connect, told ET. “These devices can prove invaluable in helping disabled students with communication and taking part in everyday activities. ATs’ ability to help SEND students live independently truly is unparalleled.”

In a study from 2013, Dalton and Hoyt-Hallet explored the occupational deprivation experienced by children with physical disabilities, analysing the use of AT and its capacity to enable occupation and minimise injustice. Occupational deprivation arises from a person’s inability to participate in, or exclusion from, desired occupations for extended periods of time due to factors outside of their control, as per Gail Whiteford’s study on the subject. In her research for Macquarie University, Whiteford found that occupational engagement changes for clients with physical disabilities pre- and post-provision of technology. Her findings demonstrated that occupational enablement is enhanced through assessment and the use of AT, and can also reduce the experience of occupational deprivation and social exclusion in children with physical disabilities. Interestingly, her research found that the provision of appropriate technology bolstered independent mobility, heightened academic achievement, expanded social networks and allowed SEND students to develop more meaningful relationships both in and outside of work.

Anything is possible

“I think that probably the biggest thing that technology has the potential to do, and is doing for people with all sorts of different learning requirements, is helping them access content in multiple ways, as well as produce content in multiple ways,” Chris Rothwell, director of education at Microsoft told ET. “Traditionally, something is text,” he added, “and if you can access the text and read it, you’re fine, but if you’ve struggled to do that for some reason, then that makes life difficult. But technology enables us to say, ‘Well, just because it started out as text doesn’t mean that it can’t end up being audio’ or being displayed in a way that makes it easier for someone to read.”

Rothwell explained that the situation is the same in reverse for students with physical limitations – say, something that makes it difficult to write. With the right device, they can dictate whatever they want to say and use that technology to convert speech into text.

AT has been used to alleviate reading disabilities for almost 30 years, with text-to-speech and speech-text apps, like the ones mentioned by Rothwell, now coming readily ingrained within our devices. Take a look at your smartphone – somewhere in that nifty gadget, there lies assistive technology. The Samsung Galaxy S5, for example, a phone that launched in 2014, came complete with text-to-speech capabilities, activated with a simple shift of its output settings.

Source: All Access in the Libraries

“Technology is making it possible for people to shift the medium between something that they maybe find more difficult for one reason or another, into one that they find easier. Regardless of their writing ability, everyone has a good story to tell, and technology is enabling those people to get their stories heard. It brings the focus to them telling their story rather than the mechanics of actually writing it down.”

The art of inclusivity

Rothwell’s description is a clear display of technology’s ability to ‘level the playing field’, so to speak. While these students might be perceived to be at a disadvantage, when equipped with the right device, their potential knows no bounds.

As a result of the personalisation trend invigorating the education sector, there is a demand from policy for education institutes of every level to demonstrate inclusive practice, and technology is key to doing so for students with SEND.

Around the world, research has provided a wealth of evidence into the effectiveness of classroom inclusion. Various studies have seen all kinds of positive metrics – including the narrowing of attainment gaps, increased interest in specific disciplines, fewer students straying off task and more expressing their gratitude come the end of their education. Clearly inclusion is not just for the benefit of SEND students alone, but rather the entire education sector.

“Our mission statement is to empower every individual and organisation on the planet to achieve more,” said Rothwell. “And if you take that statement seriously, then every individual means every individual and there are a billion people on the planet who have some kind of temporary or permanent disability. And so, thinking about technology in a way that’s inclusive and accessible is a really powerful thing to do.”

An unprecedented challenge

Despite all the positives, there’s still a long and winding road to travel when it comes to true inclusion and maximising the potential of assistive tech.

Limited teacher training around the use of AT is a significant barrier. A lack of professional development opportunities (Messinger-Willman & Marino, 2010) for educators, students and families alike makes it almost impossible to make full use of AT innovations. In most settings, “teachers in both general and special education are still not receiving the pre-service and in-service training they need” (Howell, 1996). Research has found that when professional development is offered, participants generally feel that the information being shared is either too little or too much. On top of this, attendance is not compulsory, and so, what with their towering workloads, you can understand why so many teachers choose not to attend.

“Inadequate training means teachers aren’t aware of the range of AT that’s available to use,” said Gilbert. “AT can be highly specialised, so they not only have to know about the tech themselves but also assess people’s needs properly to match the tech to the individual.

“A lack of funding in the education system is also a major issue – schools simply don’t have the resources to finance the tech, especially for those students with more complex needs.”

Despite the hopeful pledges of strategies such as the Demonstrator Programme and the government’s wider Edtech Strategy – with former secretary of state for education Chris Skidmore announcing funding of £300,000 to support edtech trials for SEND students earlier this year – government cuts to AT investments have left the availability of these necessary services in a dire state. The sweeping cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) announced in April 2014 ­– which stripped almost 70% of the total DSA budget – is a prime example of the state putting SEND students at risk, with the move making the prospect of higher education near impossible for many. It’s well-known across the sector that the number of university starters with a disability is well below the proportion of working-age adults with disabilities. Analysis by Policy Connect showed that the number of students receiving technology equipment through DSA has declined since the £200 charge for DSA-issued laptops came into effect in 2015, despite the substantial growth in the number being confirmed to need support.

With research by the Equality Challenge Unit showing that those who claim the DSA perform at the same level of their non-disabled peers, it’s clear that the threat to SEND students’ hard-earned equality is overwhelmingly real.

“Thanks to cuts to their budgets, specialist roles that used to support education institutes with AT no longer exist,” added Gilbert. “The way money flows through the system is also a problem,” he said. “Funding needs to be allocated properly – in a lot of ways, it doesn’t go to the schools with the greatest needs. It can be quite arbitrary. There needs to be a way of pooling budgets to help funding flow fairly and effectively – perhaps via a multi-tiered system whereby funding is allocated according to needs.”

Gilbert suggests that the pooling of budgets is especially necessary for learners with more complex requirements, as there are usually only a handful of these students in each region. Efficiently diverting the money to schools that tend to enrol more high needs pupils would have a monumental positive impact on the sector.

Source: Labour force Survey, ONS

SEND and the ‘other’

Historically, disabled people have been treated as dependents and in need of ‘care’, rather than being recognised as capable full citizens. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit’s report, titled Improving the life chances of disabled people, suggests that a new approach is needed to support disabled people. It recommends that the focus shifts from providing care to promoting independent living, noting that this isn’t just about being able to live comfortably in their own home, but rather about giving these individuals the choice, empowerment and freedom needed to enjoy full and happy lives.

Luc de Witte, professor of health and sciences research at the University of Sheffield, agrees.

“My most important conclusion is that technology is not the issue,” he said. “There’s plenty of technology that can help. The issue is the attitudes of teachers and the way schools and universities are organised,” he told ET. Professor Witte believes that many of the issues start to manifest before SEND students enter the education system, emphasising that many of these students don’t get access to the same opportunities as the majority of their peers.

“If you look at our university, statistically speaking, you would expect at least 5% of the student population to have some kind of disability. But they don’t exist – they are not here. They don’t even enter the system. That’s the main problem right there, and it’s deeply rooted in society. These students are excluded from the very beginning as the system is not built to deal with them.”

Professor Witte explains that if a student with additional learning requirements gets into university and receives support, they immediately become the exception. “And that’s fundamentally in conflict with what it’s all about, because they want an inclusive education so that they are not the exception. But everything we do creates this separation. There’s an intrinsic conflict there, and that’s why so many students don’t want their disability to be known, which heightens the chances of them dropping out later on.”

While initiatives like the Edtech Strategy and AT pioneers such as Microsoft are undoubtedly raising awareness of these issues, there is a much more fundamental issue at large. As Professor Witte concludes: “Closing this gap should not be dependent on specific government funding. This is a mindset issue. From a human rights perspective, I think our educational systems are unacceptable for anyone with a disability. That is inexcusable, because everyone has the right to be able to develop themselves and follow higher level education if they have the capacity to do so. And there’s no relation whatsoever between having a disability and your intellectual capabilities (unless, of course, the disability is intellectual). It’s a matter of perception that, in my experience, is near impossible to change. Without changing this mentality, we can never achieve true inclusion for SEND students, regardless of the available technology.”

You might also like: The Edtech Demonstrator Programme: a new dawn for the sector


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