Arizona Schools Boost Special Education With Assistive Technology

For special education students, the use of technology is growing and educators believe personal technology is a helpful underutilized resource in the classroom.

In Arizona, special education students were given iPads, notebook-size word processors, and electronic pens that scan words and display definitions last year. The Arizona Department of Education has awarded a $265,000 federal grant to 12 school districts and charter schools to study how to better equip students with assistive technology, writes Cathryn Creno of

According to Mesa Public Schools' special education director Jan Cawthorne, assistive technology is not a new term for her district or others receiving the grant. More special education students and their parents are demanding tablet and iPads.

"Assistive technology used to mean big, clunky things that kids were embarrassed to be seen with," Cawthorne said. "Now, it is a cool thing to use."

Mary Keeney, assistive technology specialist for the state Education Department, said the grant program is aimed at teaching educators which devices can best help special education students. According to Keeney, federal law requires school officials to assess special education students for technology needs, but they are not mandated to provide all students with devices.

"There is a real science to it," she said. "First, you assess where the student's barrier to learning is; then, you try the technology."

Mesa Public Schools' director of training and compliance Patricia Geraghty said parents of special education students sometimes request that the district provide iPads for their children. Despite the popularity of tablets, they are not a panacea, Geraghty said.

Some kids with manual-dexterity problems have trouble swiping tablet computers and find that traditional keyboards or low-tech pencil grips and slant boards for writing work better, Geraghty said. For other students, pens that scan words and display definitions can replace a computer with a vocabulary-software program, she said.

The Education Department set up an assistive technology loan library on the campus of Northern Arizona University in order to help schools and districts with small technology budgets. In 2012, schools checked out more than 2,000 items, including iPads.

The library allows students and teachers to try the devices before the district purchases them. The Education Department is funding the library with part of the $780,000 grant it receives annually from the federal government.

"Our district has a heavy emphasis on inclusion," said Susan Swanson, Kyrene's assistive-technology specialist. The district, which serves children in Phoenix, Chandler and Tempe, also has a heavy emphasis on technology. Every classroom has five to eight laptops, a projector and a document camera.

Swanson said providing software on laptops to special education students is a priority. Swanson has started an East Valley Assistive Technology group for educators who are interested in sharing ideas about the best ways to serve students.

In the meantime, the Glendale district used $1 million in 2011 federal stimulus funds for setting up its own assistive technology resource library.

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