Inclusion in learning environments of students with disabilities, has historically been an issue in the field of education. Though pedagogical approaches to teaching and awareness of inclusive design have gradually improved over time, barriers in the learning environment for people with disabilities continue to persist. This was corroborated through a review of several academic articles on the topic of assistive educational technology and how it can support learners with disabilities. Moreover, whether the disability was physical, such as hearing loss, or neurological, such as a learning disability, the evidence strongly indicates that technology plays a key role in removing barriers to education. This synthesis of five articles explores how technology in education, especially contemporary assistive technology, has positively influenced accessibility for students with disabilities.
Several authors established that students with disabilities have historically faced tremendous barriers within educational institutions. Educational institutions addressing the needs of students with disabilities has increasingly gained momentum in the last 70 years (Hayhoe, 2014). However, many students continue to experience exclusion in education. Once the lack of inclusion was recognized and laws inclusive of disabilities were created, the proportion of students with disabilities in educational institutions steadily rose, creating a demand for tools for accessibility (Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000). Nevertheless, Pliner and Johnson (2004) revealed that institutions were slow to change, and there was little effort made to create learning spaces that would be inclusive of students with disabilities. As time has progressed, major contributors to the accommodation of students has included, more stringent accessibility laws and use of technology in the classroom (Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000; Pliner & Johnson, 2004). Hayhoe (2014) explains that the advent of personal computers in the 20th century, along with mobile computing in the 21st century, have helped to embed technology in non-technology subjects. This coupled with the advancement of assistive technology in general, led to an increase in access and a greater political push for fully inclusive learning environments (Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000). Though Pliner and Johnson (2004) and Hayhoe (2014) have suggested that more progress is needed, technology is now a driving force in an accessible classroom, enabling more students with disabilities to have robust learning experiences and steadily working to remove barriers.
Assistive technology, which can include a variety of technologies, have helped to systematically reduce barriers to education for students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (as cited in Bouck, Flanagan, Miller & Bassette, 2012), which is federal American legislation, defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability” (p. 47). With other authors having similar definitions, this suggests that virtually any technology that can help a student better access learning, can be considered assistive technology. A distinction between technologies was noted by Alnahdi (2014), Bouck et al. (2012) and Hayhoe (2014), with a specialty assistive device specifically being built to aid a student with a disability in their respective educational task, while personal devices being used more broadly, but also having features that allow students to participate in educational tasks. Both types of technologies have shown to help students with disabilities improve learning (Alnahdi, 2014; Bouck et al., 2012; Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000; Hayhoe, 2014).
There are a range of specialty assistive devices and personal devices that help students access the classroom, explored by the authors. Firstly, Hasselbring & Williams Glaser (2000) highlight expensive specialty assistive interventions such as augmentative and alternative communication devices that help students with severe speech barriers communicate, as well as, audio loop devices that help students with hearing aids hear from anywhere in a classroom. Hayhoe (2014), as an example, explores less expensive specialty software, such as JAWS, that can support students with low vision. Thirdly, Alnahdi (2014), Bouck et al. (2012) and Hasselbring & Williams Glaser (2000) examine several studies that showed the benefits of personal devices for students with disabilities. More specifically, Alnahdi (2014) highlights a study that showed learning improvements for students hard of hearing with text highlighting and supportive captioning. Additionally, Hasselbring & Williams Glaser (2000) emphasize how simple word processing software can help students with mild learning disabilities improve their writing. To further highlight the use of personal devices for learners with disabilities, Bouck et al. (2012) demonstrate how an iPad can provide audio, visual, and tactile learning support to students with disabilities. Assistive technology promotes access and independence and “makes things possible, not just easier” (Bouck et al., 2012, p. 47). There is a plethora of assistive devices that help students with various disabilities access the classroom in a meaningful way, with the authors highlighting both specialized and more commonly used technologies.
With a heightened awareness of the need for more inclusive classroom practices and educational technology being a driving force in this process, frameworks on how to best implement an inclusive classroom technology have emerged (Alnahdi, 2014; Bouck et al., 2012; Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000; Hayhoe, 2014; Pliner & Johnson, 2004). Though there is a proliferation of assistive technologies that educational institutions strive to use to accommodate students, Bouck et al. (2012) and Hayhoe (2014) noted that some technologies may marginalize students by potentially singling them out. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach highlighted by several of the authors as a viable framework for incorporating inclusive practices and assistive technology, that enhances the classroom for all learners or ‘universally’. Alnahdi (2014) states that, “assistive technology is essential in the application of a UDL instructional design and, in return, a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides accessible curriculum content, helping to raise the value of assistive technology” (p. 20). In addition, these practices create a classroom culture of acceptance and alleviates much of the need for students with disabilities to spend time advocating for themselves (Pliner & Johnson, 2004). Furthermore, by proactively incorporating technology and a framework that uses inclusive practices, UDL fosters an environment that helps everyone and reduces the need for separate accommodation for students with disabilities (Alnahdi, 2014; Bouck et al., 2012). UDL is still developing and its application to different educational environments and subjects may vary. Pliner & Johnson (2004) stated when referring to UDL, that we must further “engage in research that demonstrates [UDL’s] effectiveness” (p. 112). Nonetheless, UDL has been a leading theory of how to apply inclusive classroom practices that help all students and technology plays a key role in its effective implementation.
Though the authors have expressed the benefits of assistive technology for students with disabilities, they have also reviewed some critical barriers that have hindered advancement. The lack of training for teachers in various assistive technologies makes it difficult for the teacher to then incorporate them into the classroom (Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000). Bouck et al. (2012) argues that using personal technology devices that have accessibility features can be easier for teachers to learn than specialty assistive devices. However, this is not always the case as some teachers will still require training on personal devices. Additionally, some of the everyday technology highlighted by Bouck et al. (2012) are cost prohibitive, such as iPads. Both Alnahdi (2014) and Hayhoe (2014) emphasize the use of common technologies as assistive devices to mitigate costs. However, some students have disabilities that require expensive and specific technologies. As well, it is important to consider that the volume and upkeep of technology forces educational institutions to make funding decisions that are not always in the interest of accessibility (Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000). Training and technology costs continue to be a barrier to accessibility, leaving teachers and schools with the task of balancing these elements with the needs of students with disabilities.
The articles in this synthesis share a common foundation that there is a positive relationship between technology in the classroom and increased accessibility for students. Moreover, assistive technology combined with pedagogical approaches such as UDL, can improve outcomes for learners. The articles demonstrate a need for more research to improve accessibility for students with disabilities, along with addressing obstacles to fully integrating technology in the classroom. Throughout the history of education, students with disabilities have experienced barriers to inclusion, which require a variety of approaches to dismantle, in order to create a learning environment accessible to every student.
Alnahdi, G. (2014). Assistive technology in special education and the universal design for learning. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 13(2), 18-23. Retrieved from http://www.tojet.net/articles/v13i2/1322.pdf
Bouck, E., Flanagan, S., Miller, B., & Bassette, L. (2012). Rethinking everyday technology as assistive technology to meet students’ iep goals. Journal of Special Education Technology, 27(4), 47-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/016264341202700404
Hasselbring, T. S., & Williams Glaser, C. H. (2000). Use of computer technology to help students with special needs. The Future of Children, 10(2), 102-122. doi:10.2307/1602691
Hayhoe, S. (2014). The need for inclusive accessible technologies for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. In Burke, L., (Ed.) Learning in a digitalized age: Plugged in, turned on, totally engaged? (pp. 257-274). Melton, UK: John Catt Educational Publishing.
Pliner, M. S., & Johnson, J. R. (2004). Historical, theoretical, and foundational principles of universal instructional design in higher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(2), 105-113. doi: 10.1080/10665680490453913