8 Online Tools To Help Educate Students With Disability

April 26th, 2013 No Comments Features

Disabled Learner

One of the most remarkable aspects of modern education is the great diversity of today’s classroom. Thanks to mainstreaming and inclusion policies, students of all abilities study in all classrooms from kindergarten through college, even when they have physical, psychological, or cognitive disabilities that seem too challenging to integrate or excluded them from traditional classrooms in the past. This has been a benefit not just for disabled students, who gain  educational opportunities, but also for their non-disabled colleagues, who learn that a student with a disability is in most ways just the same as they are, and no one to fear.

However, this integration creates challenges for educators. For example, the cost of teaching disabled students has more and more often fell on the already-stretched budgets of public schools. As one American school official told The Seattle Times, this “raises an ethical responsibility question. We welcome our students with special needs, but the most expensive programming is on public districts.” This means that many schools may not be able to afford the kinds of special tools and equipment that may be needed.

In some instances, online college programs are also inaccessible to many students. A study by Wichita State University showed that “as many as 80% of all online instructors do not consider the needs of students with disabilities when designing or instructing their courses despite the high percentage of post-secondary students with disabilities.” This situation has resulted in a lawsuit against the University of Montana, brought by the school’s Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana on behalf of students who could not enroll in important courses for their major that are only available online.

Thankfully, educators today can implement many new technologies to make their courses more accessible at little to no cost, to aid students with disabilities, whether those students are in a traditional or online classroom. While most people may be familiar with alternative keyboards and touch screens that replace traditional touch-type keyboards for people with mobility challenges, other new technologies are constantly in development, and each is a great boon to the learning process, opening doors, expanding learning experiences and even broadening the parameters of what can be learned for millions of students.

Check out some of the many tools that students can use to access your course materials and participate in online courses:

  1. Screen Readers are described by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) as “software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer.” The AFB suggests them for those with low vision, because “learning to listen to speech output will prove more productive for such individuals than struggling to read text while leaning close to the computer screen.”
  2. Word Talk is a free add-in for Microsoft Word, this program can read aloud any document written in Word and create audio files that can be saved. In addition, assistive technology expert Paul Hamilton writes that “WordTalk functions can be accessed by customizable keyboard shortcuts–for individuals with vision challenges, or those who cannot use a mouse effectively, or to speed the work of anyone who relies extensively on WordTalk.” In addition, students with reading disabilities can also use screen readers to help them understand course materials.   
  3. Word Prediction programs include a number of different applications, some of which can be downloaded from the Internet, are available to help students with writing challenges. Word predictors “can help a user during word processing by ‘predicting’ a word the user intends to type. Predictions are based on spelling, syntax, and frequent/recent use. This prompts kids who struggle with writing to use proper spelling, grammar, and word choices, with fewer keystrokes.” Students who struggle with memory difficulties might find this program useful, too.
  4. Supernova Access Suite is “a complete screen reader with natural sounding speech and integrated screen magnifier with Braille display support.” This product can be downloaded from YourDolphin.com, which also offers a free trial so that students can make sure it will work for them. This company offers many varieties of this technology, making it easy for students to select the right program for their needs.
  5. Video Magnifiers are also sometimes described as a form of closed-circuit television (CCTV) that “uses a video camera to display a magnified image on a monitor or television screen.” Students with low vision can use them to read their course materials with greater ease. A company named Ulva offers a variety of styles for students to choose from to suit their academic requirements.
  6. Close Captioning and Subtitling: Services such as those provided by the CPC company can be used on both Mac and Windows formats, and enable deaf students to watch the same online video material as their colleagues. This makes it easier for them to participate in online courses that offer video lectures of their professors. They can also use the program to create their own videos with subtitles or close-captioning, which may come in handy for students with speech disorders.
  7. FaceMouse: For students with limited mobility, Claro’s FaceMouse turns a standard webcam into a mouse operator, allowing students to use their head and facial gestures to perform a number of tasks, including pointing the cursor, clicking on sites, or typing on the keyboard. For example, “Claro FaceMouse effectively turns the user’s head into a remote ‘joystick’ controller. Claro FaceMouse has a variable setting for sensitivity, making the mouse pointer easier to control. Specific head or facial actions can be linked to keyboard presses. ‘Head Down’ can be assigned as the ‘Down Cursor’, and ‘Mouth Open’ could be ‘Enter Key’. All the various face actions can be assigned to a keystroke.”
  8. Sip-and-Puff Systems: A truly innovative tool that makes computer use easier for students with mobility challenges, including paralysis and fine motor skill difficulties, sip-and-puff systems allow users to control a mouthstick, similar to a joystick, using their breath. Students can direct the mouthstick to click on web pages, type, and perform other functions.

These technologies can make an enormous difference to students by increasing accessibility and academic performance. No matter what programs you decide to implement or suggest to students, it is important to remember that students using these technologies may require more time to complete assignments and participate in online forums. Also, make sure that the materials you use in your courses are clearly written, scanned properly, and in other ways easy for assistive technologies to access.

One way to do this is to learn more about Universal Design for Learning, a method of preparing course materials, classroom activities, and lectures in such a way that students of all abilities can access and understand them. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning in the United States is a good place to start because it is dedicated to “creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

Finally, if you would like to learn more about the different kinds of technologies that are appropriate for your classes, you can use Dell’s Assistive Technology Configuration Tool, which will help you determine the software and hardware best suited to your students’ needs.  You might also consider joining one of the many  several associations and groups that work to provide students with access to assistive technologies, such as the Alliance for Technology Access.

Remember that no matter what you do, it will help expand opportunities for a great variety of students to become more intellectually fulfilled and succeed in their academic goals.


Jill Rooney, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of History at MassBay Community College, and the author of The Open Academic blog. She has written articles for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smithsonian Press, and the African American National Biography. She has over 20 years experience as a college professor, and specialized in curriculum development and assessment.

You can find her on Google+ or @jillrooney2.

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