Assistive tech: in a class of its own

Assistive technology is playing a bigger part in the lives of disabled students than ever before. John Lamb, BATA council member, explains

The development of innovative software and hardware has made it easier for students to gain access to learning and ensured that learning materials are much more engaging.The tablet revolution has not only given students cooler devices to work with but provided their teachers with large libraries of images, symbols and educational activities to enliven lessons. Many are available online at low cost.

Students with more complex needs have benefited too. Cheaper and more accurate eye gaze systems, for example, have enabled students with mobility problems to control off-the-peg digital devices with greater ease. Those with difficulties communicating are also more likely to have access to technology-based aids. Long years of campaigning by organisations such as Communication Matters have seen an overhaul of the system for making augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices available to students who need them. “If one young person is enabled to take up permanent employment in adulthood as a result of being supported early on to use an electronic communication aid, this will realise an estimated £500,000 in benefits to the economy over a lifetime,” argues Jean Gross, former communication champion for children.

The popularity of cloud-based software has meant that the learning environment has been extended into the home with students able to access the same applications and devices there as they do at school. This is of particular benefit to dyslexic students who may require extra time to finish their work, or for those struggling in a specific subject area. 

In any case, children wrestling with literacy and learning difficulties are less likely to be set apart by the aids they use such as text-to-speech and speech recognition software, since many schools and colleges have invested in suites of assistive software that are available to all students. “Technology is enabling,” says Lisa Featherstone, an advisor from Jisc TechDis, an advisory service on technologies for inclusion. “If it isn’t enabling then there is no purpose for it. The first thing it can do is allow all pupils to access the curriculum in a way that is appropriate for them.”

The government seems to agree. Some £1m is being pumped into the development of assistive technology for disabled learners through two competitions funded by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and run by Jisc TechDis. The first is called Ready Steady STEM and is about opening up access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The second is called Good to Go and is concerned with work-based technologies.

Entrants for the Ready Steady STEM competition will be asked to tackle the particular problems that disabled science students have in working with pen and paper, manipulating formulae and symbols or interacting with graphical information. Advances in technology, which have seen the appearance of a new generation of innovative applications, have combined with significant changes in the way assistive technology is delivered to learners.

The Children and Families Act, introduced in March, has ended SEN statements and replaced them with school-based education, health and care plans covering children up to the age of 25. The streamlined system is backed by a single assessment process and the option of personal budgets for families of children with SEN to spend on support for their education. The changes, hailed as the biggest shake-up in the system for 30 years, are intended to cut bureaucracy and have been welcomed by those providing assistive technology to children with SEN.  

In future, money will be focused on children rather than schools, who were tempted to spend the cash for SEN on general items such as buildings. The Act also signals a move back towards special schools and away from including disabled children in mainstream education. “Currently, some one fifth of children in the UK are classified with SEN: that must be the highest in Europe,” said Mark McCusker, chairman of BATA and chief executive of assistive software company Texthelp. 

“Technology will help the government in its aim of reducing the proportion of children classed as SEN by helping all children with their learning. There is a role for assistive technology to keep people out of the special category.”

The effective use of technology depends on teachers with the skills to make best use of it. However, despite initiatives to improve teacher training in this area, there are still shortcomings. For example, over half of teachers polled by the Driver Trust for a report called Fish in the Tree received no training on dyslexia. However 84% of respondents also said they thought it was important that teachers are trained in teaching children with dyslexia.McCusker’s argument is backed up by government data which shows that children with special educational needs have doubled their exam performance in recent years. The number of children who passed GCSEs (including English and Maths) with a good grade between 2007 and 2011 rose from 10% to 22%, according to data gathered under the Special Educational Needs Act. The proportion of those with hearing impairments reaching that standard rose by 46%; visual impairments by 37%; multi-sensory impairments by 85%; and physical disabilities by 48%. 

However, the pressure is on to make both GCSE and A-level exams more accessible to disabled pupils. Last year, a change in access arrangements for GCSE, A-level and vocational qualifications allowed text-to-speech and screen reader tools to be used by candidates in all exams, including those assessing reading. A number of organisations are working to ensure the PDF-based exam papers are compatible with assistive technology. Standards and guidelines on the production of PDF for use in exams are currently being drafted. BATA is planning an event to raise awareness of the standards. 

In the longer run making exam papers truly accessible may involve redesigning papers and calling on devices such as touch tablets to enable access to them. There is no shortage of potential users for assistive technology. There are around 1.5m children with special needs in England. In many cases the school receives funding for specialist equipment for a specific child but the equipment or technology can be shared with others. Last year, changes in legislation meant that, for the first time, Department for Education funding went straight to schools rather than via the local authority. From this budget, schools are expected to meet the low-cost needs of pupils with high-incidence SEN, and contribute towards the costs of assistive technology for pupils with severe SEN.

A further 500,000 students in further education and 200,000 in higher education have declared a disability. While provision for further education students is ad hoc and mostly covered by colleges themselves, university students can apply for disabled students’ allowances (DSAs) which cover equipment and non-medical help. Last year the practice of providing students entitled to claim for DSAs with computers came under scrutiny in a consultation by BIS, but for the moment the threat that funding may be withdrawn has been lifted.

Although technology is invaluable in opening up access to learning for students with a range of disabilities, there are still inequities in its provision. In a complicated and often inconsistent system, some learners receive extensive and appropriate support while others struggle to get the help that they need. 


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