Perception and Awareness of Teachers about Technology Integration in Special Needs Education

Education in UAE

With a rapid increase in the population, UAE has felt the need to make considerable investment in educating the people. Presently, UAE is offering a comprehensive education, which is equivalent to the world standards, to all male and female students. Government of UAE is providing free education to all the citizens at all levels.

Education needs in the UAE are addressed by an extensive private sector, with many students of both sexes pursuing their higher education both within and abroad (UAE Interact). With the necessary infrastructure in place for providing quality education, the focus of education in the UAE at present is to devise and implement a strategy, which provide the youth of the country the chance to meet the challenges of the business and industrial environment equivalent to global standards.

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Education of children with special needs is also within the focus of the government policies.

“Handicapped centres supervised by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs cater to those with hearing and physical disabilities, the visually impaired and others with special needs. The Ministry is constantly improving its facilities, at the same time emphasising the role of the family in caring for the disabled. The Ministry of Education and Youth, together with the Red Crescent Society, also opened a centre for autistic children in Abu Dhabi, the first in a number of such centres planned by the Ministry” (Arabian Campus).

Special Needs Education in the UAE

People requiring exclusive attention for their education are among the locals living in the UAE, who are of Arabic origin.Precise number of people in each of the usual special needs category is not available. However, ratio of UAE people requiring special education has been estimated to be between 8 and 10 percent of the population, which is equivalent to the ratio at the global level (Bradshaw, Tennant & Lydiatt, 2004).

Although the problem of children with learning difficulties does exist in the context of United Arab Emirates (UAE), psychological and social research on the learning difficulties of UAE children is rare. However, there are other studies conducted in various settings around the world, which focused on the efficacy of the special education placement of students with learning disability.

Some other studies focused on the effectiveness of teaching by special education teachers and few others on coping with stress among parents of children, who are mentally retarded.

“Also, no effort has been devoted to the identification, prevention, and intervention of childhood emotional and behavioral disorders primarily because of the absence of the screening procedures as well as the unavailability of the empirically based assessment instruments in the UAE public school system.

Consequently, there is no information available that can provide insight into the broad spectrum of competencies, adaptive functioning and problems of children with LD in the United Arab Emirates or on the causes and correlates (e.g., classroom environment) that may have influenced them” (Khamis, 2009).

The Special Needs Education Abu Dhabi, Dubai, UAE Web page recognizes “children and adults with Autism, ADD, Downs Syndrome, and other mental and physical disabilities and handicaps” (Dubai FAQs Information Guide) as persons having learning disabilities. There is no categorization of learning difficulties in the UAE settings. However, UAE Federal Law 29 of 2006 prohibits schools in the UAE from refusing admission to “a child deemed as having learning difficulties or special needs (SN)” (Dubai FAQs Information Guide).

Special Educational Needs – an Overview

Inclusive education has increasingly been an issue of debate concerning the development of educational policy and practices in all countries throughout the world (Farrell and Ainscow, 2002).

As a part of this debates and discussions, the education of children with special needs and disabilities has gained momentum and in fact, special needs education has been made a policy objective in many of the countries (Lindsay, 2007). In the field of special education needs, Smith et al (1998) define educational adaptation as “changes in the manner in which students are taught … they include changes in instructions, assignments, homework and testing.”

We can include the assistive technologies within the concept of educational support included in this broad definition of adaptation. Bryant and Bryant (2003) have highlighted the important role of assistive technology in bettering the education and improving lives of people having learning issues, by enabling them to act independently and at par with others.

The concept of special education has been particularly problematic in view of the elusive nature of the concept and assumptions and practices relating to special education. In the context of United States, special education covers “specially designed instruction … to meet the needs of a child with disability (USDOE, 1999).

There are 13 disabilities covered by the legislation covering special education. In the context of United Kingdom, the focus of special education is on meeting the special educational needs. There is the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, enacted by the government, which encompasses somewhat vague definition of special education needs.

The Code of Practice does not prescribe any specific categories of children having special education needs. However, the Code recognizes that each child is unique and that there is a wide spectrum of special educational needs, which remain inter-related, although there are also specific needs that usually relate directly to particular type of impairment.

The code has recognized the areas of need to include “communication and interaction, cognition and learning, behavior, emotional and social development, sensory and/or physical” (Department for Education and Skills, 2001, p 85).

Historical Overview of Special Needs

Subsequent to the World Conference on Education for All – Meeting Basic Learning Needs held in 1990, the challenge of meeting the educational needs of children with disabilities has been put on the policy framework of many nations in the world. This awareness created by the Conference enabled practitioners and educators to focus on providing education to a broader range of children who were otherwise excluded from getting quality education, because of their mental and physical disabilities.

Despite the differences in categorizing the children as having disability to get education among countries (Booth and Ainscow, 1998), certain overall trends were evident in many countries, who would like to consider designing policy frameworks in the field of special needs education.

Reynolds and Ainscow (1994) observe the development in the field of special education to be of recent origin and of uneven distribution in different parts of the world. The development of special education has taken place in different stages. During these stages, education system has responded in different ways of responding to children having difficulties in learning.

Definition of Learning Difficulties

This review recognizes that there is a continuing controversy on the identification of learning difficulties. Over the past years, theorists and practitioners in the field have identified the need for making changes in the definition of the term so that they reflect contemporary understandings and they expect that such definitions must allow for easier and more consistent identification of the learning difficulties of students (e.g. Kavale & Forness, 2006; Scruggs and Mastropieri, 2002).

Kirk (1962) provided the first formal definition of learning difficulties.

A learning difficulty refers to a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, writing, arithmetic or other school subjects resulting from a psychological handicap caused by a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavior disturbances.

It is not the result of mental retardation, sense of deprivation, or cultural and instructional factors (Kavale & Forness, 2000, p. 5)

There is an increase in the ambiguity of the meaning and scope of learning difficulties in literature, with the application of several terms when describing the issues connected with the problems associated with literacy and numeracy learning of students. There are different terms like “students with learning difficulties, learning disabilities, special needs, reading disabilities, or dyslexia ad students at educational risk,” which are applied to denote the learning difficulties of students.

Practitioners and academicians focusing on this subject have applied these terms as mutually dependent with each other. In this context, Gale (2000) remarked

“Although there have been literally thousands of studies concerned with learning disabilities, particularly focused on primary and secondary education, what the literature generally shows is that researchers are no nearer to a common understanding of what is meant by such terms” (p.130)

While the disagreements on the definition of learning difficulty persisted, there are some definitional issues, where the practitioners have reached a consensus.

These agreements include that learning difficulties affect spoken language, academic and thinking disorders are prevalent throughout life and learning difficulty is not a result of other conditions (Ellis, 2005). It is also agreed that it involves psychological process disorders and it appears to result from central nervous system. Learning difficulty is characterized by underachievement.

Learning difficulty can be identified by the difference between achievement and intellectual ability of the students. The definition of learning difficulty adopted by the Federal government of the United States included the condition that there must be “severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability” (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006, p. 173).

Lack of uniformity in the definition of learning difficulty has impeded the combining of the research findings. For example, Kassen (2002) worked on the inconsistencies in the definition of the term in different research works carried out in Canadian setting. These inconsistencies made the comparison of the studies not only difficult but also ambiguous.

Therefore, it becomes necessary that there must be attempts taken to combine the previous research in the field with caution. Farrell (1997) identifies the varied nature of learning difficulties as one of the reasons for the problem with terminology and definition of learning difficulties. Farrell (1997) notes

“By their very nature, pupils’ difficulties in learning and behavior are complex. Each child is an individual whose pattern of difficulties is unique. To lump children with similar problems into one category may imply that they should all be taught the same curriculum, in the same way and in the same place. The reality is of course quite different. Two children labeled as having specific learning difficulties may in fact require totally different provision and separate teaching programmes” (p.2)

The studies selected for this review reflect the heterogeneity of the field. Wherever, terms such as special needs or learning disabilities were employed in the studies, they have been changed to learning difficulties as long as it was evident that the samples fitted into the definition as provided by Kavale & Forness (2000) for the term included in this section.

Kavle and Forness (2000) observed that although there have been numerous definitions proposed by various scholars, none of them has been received with favor. However, in the context of current America research in the field, the definition provided in the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) be the most frequently employed. This definition is reproduced below.

“The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations” (Oregon Department of Education, 2007).

The term encompasses such conditions as lasting physical disabilities, damage to the brain, dysfunction of brain to some extent, dyslexia, and other physical conditions. “The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage” (Annikeris.com).

Although the above definition is used as the basis for funding of school programs in the United States, the exclusion of external causes such as environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage has generally been considered as problematic (Elkins, 2002; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001).

In order to understand the role and utility of technological intervention inf facilitating the provision of education to children having learning difficulties, it becomes important to understand the types of learning difficulties experienced by children. The following section describes different types of learning difficulties.

Types of Learning Difficulties

Learning difficulties and other developmental difficulties found among school-going children are to be considered as social events with their impact on the social system (Ellis, 2005).

The learning difficulty of children has significant social and emotional problems, as the children with such difficulty may face rejection by peers, which might undermine their confidence. Learning difficulties arise because of a difference in brain structure and also by visual impairment.

This difference in the structure of brain and visual impairment, might be present at birth or in most cases, it is hereditary. This defect affects the way in which the brain processes information and this processing is the most important element in learning.

Learning difficulties may affect the ways in which someone could read, write, hear, speak or calculate. Learning difficulties do not have the ability to reflect the intelligence quotient (IQ) of a person, or the smartness of a person. However, learning difficulties affect the ability of a person to perform specific types of skills or to complete a task.

Learning difficulties cannot be equated with mental or physical disabilities “such as mental retardation, deafness or blindness” (IDEA). Nevertheless, people may suffer from learning difficulties because of mental or physical difficulties. It is not possible to identify children with learning difficulties based on acuity (such as vision or hearing) or other physical signs.

Similarly, such children cannot be diagnosed solely based on neurological findings. Learning difficulties have been considered as variations in normal development. They are regarded as difficulties only in cases where they significantly impact the school performance and adaptive functions.

Learning difficulties thus are “neurologically-based processing problems”. These processing problems will have significant impact on the learning abilities of the individual and might interfere with higher levels of skill such as “organization, time planning and abstract reasoning.”

The following descriptions of learning disabilities have been the finding of Minnesota State University. Because of the information content of the learning difficulties, the information furnished by the University is reproduced in this review to enhance the knowledge on learning difficulties.

Types of learning difficulties can be classified based on the specific processing problem faced by the individual. “They might relate to getting information to the brain (Input), making sense of this information (Organization), storing and later reviewing this information (Memory) or getting this information back out (Output),” (Minnesota State University).

Input

Brain receives information primarily through eyes and ears. While eyes provide visual perception, ears provide auditory perception. It is possible that a student might have problems with both visual and auditory perceptions, which would have an impact on his/her learning abilities and hence it becomes a learning disability requiring special needs education.

Auditory Perception (or Receptive Language)

There may be problem with a person to distinguish between slight variations in sound (known as “phonemes”). The person may face problems in distinguishing the individual phonemes in a normal way. Either of the problems is likely to prevent the person from understanding and processing what is said to him. Further, an individual may face the problem of auditory figure-ground.

This implies that the person would have problem in identifying the particular sound(s) that he/she should listen to under a circumstance, where there is more than one sound heard by him/her. This difficulty is termed as “Auditory Dyslexia”. “Those who suffer from auditory dyslexia are unable to distinguish spoken sentences.”

Visual Perception

When a person has difficulty in differentiating between subtle differences in shapes (known as “graphemes”), the person can be said to have problems with his/her visual perception. The person might perform the peculiar action, in which the person rotates or reverses alphabets or numerals (such as d, b, p, q, 6, 9) and this might result in his/her misreading the symbol or information.

An individual might encounter with the problem of getting confused on which figure(s) to be focused from a page he/she is looking at which has many words/lines. This is called “figure-ground” problem. This problem might result in the person skipping phrases or sentences or reading the same sentences two times.

For some people, there might be a problem in combining the information as seen by the two eyes, which prevents the person to experience the depth involved. This might result in the person misjudging depth or distance and as a result might bump into things.

They may also find it difficult to perform tasks, where it is necessary to have information as to tell the body or hands the actions to be performed. “If there is difficulty with visual perception, there could be problems with tasks that require eye-hand coordination (visual motor skills) such as catching a ball, doing a puzzle, or picking up a glass” (Learning Difficulties Association of America).

This problem is described as “Visual Dyslexia”. “This common problem is the result of being unable to correctly understand information received through the eyes. For instance, a person with this dysfunction may not be able to pick out a pencil from several other objects. Similar letters and words may also be confused.”

Integration

When the brain receives information, it has to perform three operations in order to make sense of the information or to integrate it. The first function is to place the information in a proper manner to retrieve the information when required – “sequencing”. Secondly, brain has to understand the information beyond its literal meaning, which act is known as “abstraction”. As a final step, the information needs to be integrated into complete thoughts or concepts to enhance the coherence of thoughts – “organization”.

Sequencing

A person might find it difficult to perceive the matters in the correct order. For instance, a student with this difficulty might get mathematics sequences wrong. He/she may have difficulty in remembering sequences such as “months of the year, the alphabet, or the times table” (Learning Difficulties Association). The student may be capable of preparing a report with all the relevant and important information, but might not have the ability to place the information in the proper order.

Abstraction

“A person might have difficulty inferring the meaning of individual words or concepts,” (Minnesota State University). This person may often find it difficult to understand jokes, idioms, or puns. The person might face the problem of understanding the words, which might have different meanings, based on the context in which the words are used. For example, the person suffering from this disability may not understand between the phrases “the dog” which refers to a pet and “You dog” which is an insult.

Organization

A student might have difficulties in organizing materials. He/she might have the problem of losing or forgetting things and such problems might result in misplacing papers. The student may also misplace notebooks, or forget to complete homework assignments. The person “might have difficulty organizing her environment, such as her bedroom” (Learning Difficulties Association).

There might be problems in organizing time, with the result that they might not be able to complete a project on schedule. Organizing time is known as an ‘Executive Function’.

Memory

When it comes to the memory of the brain, there are three types of memory functions have been found to be important to facilitate learning. “”Working memory” refers to the ability to hold on to pieces of information until the pieces blend into a full thought or concept. For example, reading each word until the end of a sentence or paragraph and then understanding the full content,” (Learning Difficulties Association).

The second function is “short-term memory”. This is an active process, which involves storing and retaining information. In this process, the information is stored only for a short time. During the process, brain retains the information temporarily and makes it available when needed.

However, at this stage the information is not stored for retaining it for a long-term. The final function is the “long-term memory”. This function involves storing the information for a long time so that such information is available for retrieval when needed. In this context, a person might be facing difficulties with memory connected with hearing and vision.

When a person starts reading a sentence, he/she reads it and holds on to it to proceed to read the subsequent sentences. At the point of time, when the person completes reading the paragraph, the person is expected to comprehend the meaning of the complete paragraph. This is the function of working memory.

The person continues this exercise, and completes reading the chapter paragraph after paragraph and completes studying it. In this case, information is retained until such time; the person takes a test on the chapter and does well. This is the function of short-term memory.

However, there will be problems in retaining the information for a long time, unless the person reviews and studies the information over a long period. With consistent efforts, the person would be able to assimilate the information in such a way that the information becomes a part of his complete knowledge. This function is represented as long-term memory.

Output

“Information is communicated by means of words (language output) or though muscle activity such as writing, drawing, gesturing (motor output)” (Learning Difficulties Association). In this respect, a person might face difficulty in learning because of the issues associated with using a language. This is also known as motor disability.

Language Disability

A person should have the ability to bring out language output spontaneously or he/she should bring it when such output is demanded from him/her. Under spontaneous output, the person involved starts the dialogue on his/her own. The person organizes his/her thoughts and words, which he/she searches for and finds before initiating the conversation.

Conversely, under demand language, a person speaks, when he/she is presented with a request to answer a query or to give an explanation about an issue. This forces the person to organize his/her thoughts to search and find the right words, and at the same time the person has start conversing with the opponent.

Most people who suffer from language disability might not face big problem with spontaneous language to initiate a conversation on his/her own. “However, in a demand situation, the same person might struggle to organize her thoughts or to find the right words” (Learning Difficulties Association).

Motor Disability

“One might have difficulty coordinating teams of small muscles, called a fine motor disability. He might have problems with coloring, cutting, writing, buttoning, or tying shoes. Others might have difficulty coordinating teams of large muscles, called a gross motor disability” (Learning Difficulties Association). This would prevent the person from running or jumping.

“Each individual will have his or her unique pattern of LD. This pattern might cluster around specific common difficulties. For example, the pattern might primarily reflect a problem with language processing: auditory perception, auditory sequencing/abstraction/organization, auditory memory, and a language disability. Or the problem might be more in the visual input to motor output areas. Some people with LD will have a mixture of both” (Learning Difficulties Association).

Hearing disabled students would include those people who suffer from problems of hearing, because either they are deaf or they have deficient hearing ability. An individual classified as deaf is one, who has a hearing disability to such an extent that he/she cannot understand the speech through the ears alone.

In the case of such difficulty, even a hearing aid may not help the person with the learning difficulty to understand the speech. A person suffering from the hearing disability is subjected to significant hearing loss, which requires some special adaptations. However, the person can understand speech through auditory processes (Heward, 2001).

Mental Disability

There is no precise definition of mental disability available in the literature. However, the definition provided by US Census Bureau (2005) is worth looking at. Mental disability is a “physical, mental or emotional condition that makes learning, remembering or concentrating difficult.” According to US Census Bureau (2005), physical disability is “a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities like walking or climbing stairs.”

There are a number of factors, which go into the consideration in arriving at the definition of the term physical disability. Since the disability is difficult to measure, as there is a wide range of difficulties and a person may be suffering from more than one difficulty. Different definitions of disability lead to different understandings and ways to measure the disability (NDA, 2005).

Thus, learning difficulties is a comprehensive term, which encompasses a range of problems. These problems arise when the brain is not able to react to the information sent to it. There is some other impairment, which affect the mobility of the students that affect the learning ability.

A physical disability is a condition that restricts one or more basic physical activities of an individual to a substantial extent, which has the effect of hindering the person from performing some of the daily tasks. There is another kind of impairment which might affect the learning ability of the students is mobility impairment.

“Mobility Impairment describes any difficulty which limits functions of moving in any of the limbs or in fine motor abilities. Mobility Disabilities can stem from a wide range of causes and be permanent, intermittent, or temporary.

The most common permanent disabilities are “musculoskeletal disabilities such as partial or total paralysis, amputation or severe injury, arthritis, spinal cord injury (paraplegia or quadriplegia), spina bifida, cerebral palsy, active sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, polio/post polio, and stroke” (Northeast State).

Additionally, conditions such as respiratory and cardiac diseases can impair mobility due to fatigue and reduced stamina. In the college environment, physical and mobility disabilities often require accommodations to allow students to function successfully in the classroom setting. The affects of physical/mobility disabilities can be visible or invisible.”

Students having mobility impairment may have pain management issues. Most of the physical/mobility impairments are most likely to increase the time people have to spend in performing some of the simple life activities. Students may find it difficult to reach the classes within the time restraint of the schedules, waiting for elevators or due to equipment difficulties.

Special Needs within the ZHO

ICT advancement in general

Technology in education has changed the trend of teaching as well as learning. In the case of meeting the needs of students needing special education, an increased role of assistive technology has been witnessed in facilitating the understanding of the students with learning difficulties to perform better.

Educators and experts are of the opinion that it is important to make use of the potential of technology to create a community of learners by (i) opening the classrooms as a place that provide more communication opportunities; (ii) encouraging more teacher-student and student-student interactions; (iii) bringing more resources into the classroom for the use of students; (iv) creating opportunities for the creation of multidisciplinary and long-term projects which are complex and challenging; and (v) giving the students more opportunities enabling them to explore multiple ways of discovering, creating and communicating information in various formats and ways, (Fulton et al., 1996).

Students requiring special education because of their learning difficulties look for assistive technology more than normal learners. Therefore, the above statements pertaining to the normal learners equally apply to learners with special needs.

Technology in education especially in the form of computers and computer related peripherals have grown largely and they have intruded in to all the areas of human life. With this development, the internet is becoming an increasingly important tool in the information and communication technology. This has changed the way in which teaching profession is performed also (Valdez, 2005). There has been an increase in the expectations from the teachers in the following respects:

The students who live in the information age are exposed to a large volume of information, which they are expected to access, evaluate, analyze and synthesize. Teachers are expected to assist them in all these areas
Teachers are expected to impart knowledge to the students to solve complex problems which may sometimes fall out of the scope of the knowledge and skills of the teachers
Teachers are also expected to cater to the varying needs of the aspiring students to enable them to use their individual potential to the maximum extent (Valdez, 2005). It is possible by technology to assist the teachers to meet some of these expectations and make the teachers more resourceful. All these expectations of the students in the mainstream from their teachers equally apply to the students needing special education.

With the rapid changes in technology, the world is becoming more and more complex each year, with the necessity for both the students and teachers to learn the use of sophisticated education tools in their teaching and learning process.

This enhances the educational needs and requires a shift from teaching and learning isolated skills and information within a content area to the acquisition of new skills and expertise to enable students to solve complex issues in so many different subjects and areas. This presupposes the ability of the teacher to muster the new technologies that can be used in educational field to improve the ability in teaching.

“A growing number of studies have investigated diverse applications of technology-based interventions with children with autism” Goldsmith & LeBlanc, 2004). It is important that the teachers acquire the skills required to handle the technology-based devices, as children with autism need external stimulus prompts for initiating or maintaining a particular behaviour.

Each of the devices might have been developed for use in a multi-purpose way (MacDuff, Krantz, & McClannahan, 2001), which requires adequate training for the instructors and teachers using these devices. Computer-based interventions have gained popularity in recent times.

Computers are useful in facilitating the learning of a number of new skills using which the children with disability can control their emotions (Silver & Oakes, 2001). The computer-based technological interventions are also useful in increasing the problem-solving skills and improving vocabulary, apart from helping children with autism to develop skills in advance generative spelling.

The reading and communication skills of children with autism can be improved by using the computer-aided technological devices. “Moore & Calvert (2000) compared computerized instruction with a lower-tech behavioral program for vocabulary instruction for children with autism and also found that children with autism were more attentive and more motivated when presented with” (Goldsmith & LeBlanc, 2004).

Hitchcock & Stahl (2003) enumerate the emergent approaches of using technology to improve the learning of the students. According to Hitchcock & Stahl (2003), these approaches include using technology

“(a) as a tool to enhance productivity, engagement and performance;
(b) for research, organization, collaboration, and expression;
(c) to improve access, participation and progress;
(d) for discovery and to act upon accessible content to expose patterns and meaning; and
(e) to transform flexible content to preferred media.”

All the above approaches will result in improved access to technology, greater participation of the students in the process of education, and progress in the general curriculum of education.

Factors affecting Technology in Education

There are several reasons that have been attributed by educational institutions by way of arguments against using technology in schools. While the use of some technology may add real value to education, there are some other technologies, which will act as a total distraction for the students affecting their concentration on studies. There are so many other variables, which need to be addressed in the context of education and technology that cannot be treated in isolation is as far as the education is concerned.

The schools and educational institutions often face problems in the use of technology and as a result, they will be subjected to the criticisms of the students. There have not been any expectations about the use of technology in education on the part of both the teachers and the students. Whatever views they are holding are to be considered as unclear and inconsistent (Oppenhimer, 2003).

According to Fulton (1998), the following are some of the factors that need to be taken into account while using technology in education. Since there is a rapid change in the technologies on a daily basis new hardware and software continue to evolve offering new and improved educational opportunities. With poor classroom settings, educational technologies cannot be expected to offer their optimum use as such poor classroom settings may not offer the essential conditions for their use.

Research findings and results are often inappropriately generalized across grade levels, students, subject matter, types of technologies, and applications. Since the teacher is an important link in imparting education, the capabilities of teachers become key variables in the implementation and effectiveness of technology in education.

Special needs and technology

Use of technology for assisting children with learning disability is in practice since long time. Results of past researches reveal that technology has provided great assistance in improving the learning ability of students with special needs (Kober, 1991; Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 1993).

It is to be acknowledged that the educational needs of people with disabilities vary with individuals. On the one hand the children with learning disabilities have to acquire knowledge and skills required to live and move along with other people in the society. On the other, they have additional demands by reason of their physical or mental disability.

These additional demands often referred to as special educational needs are caused by functional limitations of the learners, which prevent them from learning through standard educational instruction methods. In this context, information and communication technology (ICT) plays an essential role in facilitating the children having learning difficulties to access higher quality education.

ICT introduced in teaching-learning process has helped improving quality of education and it enhances learning experiences of the students requiring special educational needs by supporting curricular changes. Although wide range of variations exist in the application of ICT in meeting the special education needs, they may be grouped under (i) compensation uses, (ii) dialectic uses, and (iii) communication uses (.

ICT for compensation use involves the use of technical assistance, which allows children with learning difficulty to participate in the interaction and communication process actively. For example, when the student has motor disability, ICT may assist him to write or read. Compensation use enables the development of the ability of a person to control his/her environment.

The student may also make choices about his/her experiences. ICTs for dialectic use have enabled the transformation of educational approaches. Inclusive education is largely facilitated by dialectic use of ICT.

“Technologies can mediate communication with people having disabilities (often referred to as Alternative and Augmentative Communication). Assistive devices and software to meet the needs of students with definite communication difficulties are specific to every disability.

We talk about the computer as a resource that eases and makes the communication possible, allowing a person with communicative disorders to exhibit his/her abilities in a more convenient way, or people with motor and communicative disorders to start communication, show the needs and make the demands” (

In general, the use of ICT in special education needs is described as “assistive technology.”

Assistive Technology

Several past studies have examined the role of assistive technology in meeting special education needs (Edyburn, 2006; Hetzroni & Shrieber, 2004; Blackhurst, 1997; Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006). These studies reveal that technology has been found to play a significant role in special needs education.

The role that technology could play in the education of students with disabilities needs a focus on the perceptions and awareness of the teachers, as teachers would be able to assist the children requiring special education needs effectively, only when they understand the precise ways in which technology could be used.

Definition of Assistive Technology

According to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 1990, an assistive technology device is “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 functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (IDEA, 1990).

Assistive technology encompasses a wide range of devices. According to Day and Edwards (Helzroni & Shrieber, 2004), the learning environment, which includes assistive technology assists achievement of individual productivity and it is more accessible. The devices are available from low-tech level to high-tech level. Low-tech level devices include devices like Velcro fasteners and furniture adaptations and these devices are simpler and easy to adapt.

On the other hand, high-tech devices consist of computers and multimedia systems, which have interactive capabilities (Blackhurst, 1997). Hallahan and Kauffman (2006) argues that while there are numerous assistive technologies that take care of the special education needs of children, devices which have been created with a universal design for learning are the effective ones and the best to use.

Devices or systems can be said to be created with universal design, when they allow access to as many people in the population targeted by them as possible. Hallahan and Kauffman have defined the term universal design as “the design of new instructional programs to make them usable by the widest possible population of potential users” (p. 551).

The main objective of assistive technology is to enable the students to achieve independence. Assistive technology works to provide volume of opportunities for all primary and secondary school children.

“Assistive technology allows students to reread text without waiting for someone, to increase self-determination and to provide a model for self-actuated learning.” With increased knowledge in assistive technology, teachers can help students in their special needs and make them perform higher level learning tasks independently and they can provide cognitive assistance for all learners in need of assistance.

Nelson (2006) observes that by employing assistive technology; teachers would be able to create parallel experiences to all learners. There is the need for acquiring knowledge and information about the effectiveness of assistive technology and the challenges confronted in their use. Knowledge on the ways in which assistive technology can be implemented is vital (Edyburn, 2006).

Assistive technology helps students with learning difficulties to enable them to live without the help of others. The students cannot acquire these skills without the help of assistive technology. According to Hasselbring and Glaser (2000), assistive technology “can enable even those students with severe disabilities to become active learners in the classroom alongside their peers who do not have disabilities,” (p. 102).

It is to be noted that many assistive technological tools are based on computing abilities and therefore require the use of computers. In order to understand the enhanced role of assistive technology in educating students with special needs, it is important to have an overview on the special educational needs.

Latest developments in the field of ICT have facilitated widening the scope of assistive technology in educating children with learning difficulties.

Computerized educational tools and assistive devices have enhanced the utility of assistive technology in the field of special education by providing children with disabilities the ability to acquire special skills and knowledge, which enable them to meet the challenges of living in the society at par with their peers. The role of assistive technology in meeting the special educational needs is the central focus of the current research.

Assistive technology includes the use of software and is a necessary condition for meeting the needs of special education. In this connection, determination and evaluation of software use and developmental appropriateness for classroom education by the teachers have been a complex task.

This has become more daunting, when one considers the evolution of student-based curricula for meeting the special education needs. One of the major issues is that many of the teacher preparation programs do not contain the procedure for evaluation of software and its use with meeting the needs of special education students.

The programs do not provide instructions or training for managing the needs of special education students and determining such needs. In order to become a special educational instructor having technological competence; teachers must acquire and possess skills to choose the proper software applications, so that they will be able to educate the students to derive the full benefits from the computer applications. The teachers must also be able to align software skills with the curriculum (Weber & Forgan, 2002).

It is important that teachers must understand the ways in which different software would be able to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to control the environments (Weber, Forgan, Schoon, Singler, & Weber, 1999). The teachers must identify proper technological measures, which will be able to stimulate imagination of the special needs students and encourage them to interact with others. The special needs students must be able to use different exploration techniques to develop improved skills (Weber & Schoon, 2001).

Role of Assistive Technology in Special Needs Education

Bryant and Bryant (2003) focused on the ability of assistive technology in helping the individuals having learning difficulties with independent living and assist them in their academic studies.

The objective of assistive technology is to enable the individuals perform their functions at par with their peers, so that they can lead a normal life like any other member of the society and assistive technology helps them in this respect. Effective use of assistive technology within and outside the classroom would enable the students to achieve better performance and promote the feeling of connectedness to academic and social aspects of school (Scherer, 2004).

According to Hasselbring and Glaser (2000), assistive technology “can enable even those students with severe difficulties to become active learners in the classroom alongside their peers who do not have disabilities,” (p. 120).

It is evident that assistive technology has the position of being an important mode of accommodation in any academic setting focusing on students with learning difficulties. This is the main reason that assistive technology has been one of the prescriptions by several legislations over the years.

Despite the positive impact technology has on educating special needs students, published studies found only less usage of technology by teachers (Roblyer, 2004). Results of prior research reveal that the teacher preparation programs do not consider technology as an important part of the programs. On the other hand, if there is technology integrated, the focus shifts to use of the components of technology rather than teaching with the aid of technology across the curriculum.

“Content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, as indicators of quality teaching, become readily evident within the process of technology integration that includes definition, planning, strategies, student management, and assessment (Pierson, 2001)” (Martin, 2004).

However, there is the need to incorporate and stress the importance of understanding the use of technological devices and their applications in teacher training schedules so that they can implement technological applications in the classrooms successfully (Ludlow, 2001; Martin, 2004; Martin & Crawford, 2004; Martin & Crawford, 2005).

Martin (2004) is of the opinion that special education teachers would be able to make use of related technology competently, when its selection and use is embedded in the coursework and field experience of such teachers. This discussion highlights the need for better training of teachers who teach people with special needs.

“Based on indications reflecting a need for better training of teachers, the following issues related to technology use and special education teacher education programs have been identified: (a) university faculty factors such as a lack of modeling of technology in courses; (b) lack of technology implementation in activities and coursework; (c) a lack of expertise to develop complex technology mediated instruction; and (d) lack of technology integration in special education field experiences (Ludlow 2001),” (Martin,2004).

In general, technology integration is one of the important tools, which contributes to providing quality education to students with and without disabilities and therefore teachers must consider developing their skills and exposure to selection and use of appropriate technology, while imparting education to students with special needs.

A study by Mull and Sitligton (2003) found some issues connected with assistive technology that need close attention.

The findings included (i) assistive technology has the capability to provide more individualized assistance to learners and they can measure the progress of the student at the same time, (ii) assistive technology devices are often proved expensive and funding sources for providing the technology to the needy are limited, (iii) it is important to use the assistive technology devices only for the intended purposes and they need to be maintained using the services of qualified and trained technicians (iv) proper training of both students and teachers is required to derive maximum advantage of the technology and (v) there are controversies surrounding the eligibility for assistive technology for students with learning disabilities.

Thus, with many of the students needing special education depending on exclusive instructional treatment for helping them to overcome the impact of disabilities in learning, assistive technology has become a significant element in imparting special education. There are a number of assistive technology devices and software has been designed to meet the purpose of special needs education.

Use of such assistive technological aids, when provided to the needy students with appropriate instructions can provide substantial benefits to overcome the learning difficulties (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000).

Teachers providing special education have been entrusted with increased responsibilities for teaching students with physical, mental and hearing disabilities.

Teacher training programs have recognized the responsibilities and challenges of the teachers, providing special education and the programs comprise of aspects that enable teachers to face the special needs of children having difficulties in learning (Murry & Murry, 2000).

However, researches show that despite the developments in the area of assistive technology that have resulted in the creation of a wide range of assistive tools, software and techniques, teachers are not feeling confident in “choosing, using and matching assistive technology” for taking care of the special educational needs of students with disability.

There are four considerations involved in making effective use of assistive technology.

They are: (i) there must be an assessment of the student to know his/her capabilities and limitations, (ii) there must be adequate knowledge on what is available in assistive technology, (iii) knowledge on the “ease of use of a device, the learning curve for the user or bystander and the noise level of the device” and (iv) it is important that the assistive technology tool is matched to the age, gender and preferences of the user so that there is acceptance and use (King, 1999).

A vast majority of the research has focused on the usefulness of assistive technology in meeting the special education needs of students with disability (Lankutis & Kennedy, 2002). While some studies have focused on the provision of inclusive classroom (Merbler et al 1999), some of the studies have examined separate disability categories (Mirenda, 2001).

Proposed solutions for assistive technology was addressed by the study by Jackson, (2003) and faculty development and need assessment by Bryan et al (2002). However, literature does not contain complete categorization of the disabilities and information on software on assistive technology is limited.

There are several studies, which have investigated different disabilities and the usefulness of assistive technology for students with these disabilities. For example, Merinda (2001) presented a summary of previous research literature on the role of assistive technology in helping students with autism.

“Golden (1999) projected that assistive technology could be used with up to 35 percent of students with health impairment or a learning impairment or cognitive disability; up to 75% of the students with autism or traumatic brain injury and up to 100% of students with physical or multiple difficulties, students who are deaf or hearing impaired and students who are blind or visually impaired,” (Thompson et al, 2004).

As observed by Friend & Cook, (2003), the consideration of assistive technology can be equated to the process of collaborative problem solving.

The process starts with identification of the problem traversing to the stage of formulating solutions. This process is carried out using a brainstorming session ending with the selection and implementation of a solution.

This is usually a continuous process, which involves few members with the association of teachers of special education and general education, who collaborate with each other to address a specific problem. This problem-solving session should result in the selection of the appropriate assistive technology device to be used.

“For example, it may be determined that specific devices, software, or other materials (e.g., handheld spell checkers, software to support first-draft writing, or portable keyboarding devices) are indeed needed by the student as compensatory technology.

If identifying and selecting technology requires more time, information, or expertise-or if it is too complex for the team to consider using a problem-solving process-then a more in-depth technology assessment is needed” (Thompson et. al., 2004).

Assistive technology will provide greater benefits to hearing-impaired children, with many of the options available in the devices, which can help the students. The student using the device has to hear the “sound generation device” and the “device can be one of several things: a telephone, a computer, electronic audio device a television.”

The voice of the speaker must also be audible. There are four different types of hardware, which facilitate the bridge between these devices and the ears of the hearing-impaired. They are (i) Coupling Devices, (ii) Sound Field System, (iii) Radio Aids and (iv) Conversor.

Table exhibited in the Appendix shows some of the assistive technology devices and software available.

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Appendix

Table: Matching Assistive Technology to a Disability

Type of DisabilityObjectives/TasksDevicesApplications
Cognitive

Learning

ReadingElectronic reading machineWYNN

L&H Kurzwell 3000

ReadingPortable reading pensQuickionary ReadingPen Scan-a-Word
ReadingPortable handheld dictionariesSpeaking Language Master

The American Heritage Dictionary

ReadingInstructional softwareMy Reading Coach
Language ArtsInstructional softwareSimon Sounds It Out
WritingWord Cueing and Prediction ProgramsCo-Writer
WritingSpeech Synthesis softwareWrite: Outloud Intellitalk II
WritingSpeech recognition softwareDragon Dictate

ViaVoice

WritingSpelling, grammar, and style checkersWrite This Way
Note-takingPortable keyboardsAlphasmart 2000
MathematicsInstructional softwareMath for Everyday Living

Math Sequence

MathematicsTalking calculatorsRadio Shack Talking Calculator
Auditory memoryPortable prompting devicesMobile Digital Recorder
VisualReadingVideo magnifiersAladdin Pro+

Magni-Cam

ReadingScanner/OCR systemsReading Edge
ReadingBraille translation softwareDuxbury Braille Translator

MegaDots

Computer accessScreen magnification softwareVista PC1

SoomTextXtra MAGic

MobilityLow-tech aidsLong cane
ListeningElectronic aidsMowat Sensor

Sonic Pathfinder

HearingListeningAssistive listening devicesHearing aids

Personal FM Educational System

Easy Listener

CommunicationAugmentative communicationDedicated AACDynaVox3100

Liberator II

Hearing

Communication

SpeechSpeech training softwareSpeech Viewer III
PhysicalSeating and positioningForms and cushionsTumbleForms

PinDot

MobilityPowered wheelchairsAction Storm

Series Power

Environmental controlEnvironment control unitsPowerLink 3

Control Unit

Relax II

Activities of daily livingLow-tech devicesVarious reaches and grippers
Computer accessKeyboard modificationAccessibility Options Easy Access (Apple)
Computer accessAlternative pointing servicesHeadmater2000