Technology puts more pupils in the mainstream

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The children in Dana Romanczyk's classroom at the William Carter School in Boston have severe special needs. They are unable to speak and are in wheelchairs. Yet they can activate a blender in cooking class or tell a teacher they have papers to take home with the help of technology.

At Watertown's Hosmer School, a fifth-grade boy who has reading difficulties works with occupational therapist Beth Lloyd and can participate in his classmates' project on explorers, thanks to a computer program that reads to him.

The schools are part of a movement in education to integrate technology into mainstream curriculum and general classrooms so students with disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, blindness, and dyslexia can join their peers.

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Bringing assistive technology into the mainstream curriculum and classroom, a process known as universal design, makes education accessible for all children, allows children with special needs to feel included in a school's social life, provides for a more equitable education, and better prepares them for life outside school, supporters say.

“You've made it almost seamlessly accessible,” said Jennifer Edge-Savage, director of implementation services for Kurzweil Educational Systems, a Bedford company that develops reading technology for those with learning difficulties or visual impairments. “When you're surrounded by technology in a classroom, that one student with a laptop doesn't look so out of place anymore.”

Teachers and occupational therapists use assistive technologies ranging from computer software, portable or enlarged keyboards, Internet-based tools, MP3 players, iPods, voice output devices, videos, and switches that enable students to activate machinery.

Technology has been used for special education for decades, but the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have spurred more intense efforts to mesh technology with mainstream curriculum. The education act requires educators to consider technology for students with special needs so they can be accommodated in the general classroom.

The key is finding the right tools and strategies to include all children in the classroom, said Madalaine Pugliese, the assistive technology graduate program director at Simmons College, the only school in the region to offer such a program. At the Council for Exceptional Children's annual convention in Boston this month, Simmons held an assistive technology showcase, highlighting best practices for integrating the technology into classrooms.

The key isn't just adding technology randomly, said Pugliese. Inclusion means examining what tasks a child needs to perform and tailoring the technology to the student, she said.

“We haven't left anyone out,” she said. “I think that's the real spirit of the work we're trying to do.”

For the students in Romanczyk's class, who range in age from 15 to 21, using switches to turn on a blender or toy shows them cause and effect and allows them to do things that others normally would have to do for them, Romanczyk said.

She also uses computer software to print out pictures symbolizing choices so students can indicate their preferences. The children are able to connect with their environment and are more engaged, she said.

“It's had a tremendous positive impact,” she said. “It really allows kids to be kids and interact with their typically developing peers. It allows them to shine.”

The availability of free Internet programs also has helped boost the use of technology in schools, said the Hosmer School's Lloyd. She uses programs such as text-to-speech or Voice Thread, which is similar to Powerpoint and allows a user to upload video, voice, or text.

One kindergartener with developmental delays was able to learn to greet the adults in his life after watching a five-minute video that included the adults saying “good morning” as their photos appeared on the video. A fifth-grade girl has used it to learn her spelling words, while teachers have taken video of students behaving appropriately and shown it to them to reinforce good behavior.

“In the old days, it used to be the pencil and that's all it was,” Lloyd said. “I think technology just opens up a lot more possibilities for kids with a variety of abilities.”

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