Special Needs Students and Technology: A Match Made in the Classroom

For disabled students learning how to cope of with challenges of everyday life, as well as trying to master skills that will help them be more independent after graduation, technology has proven to be a valuable tool. From educational apps to laser-guided power saws, digital gadgets deployed recently in many schools in Florida's Miami-Dade County are helping to reinvent what education for special needs students looks like.

As David Smiley of the Miami Herald points out, the use of assistive technology in special needs classrooms isn't new. However, prior to the last few years, its use was limited to things like wheel chairs and hearing aides. But recently, solutions that have been used successfully for the general student populations are being used for disabled students to overcome barriers that arise from physical disabilities and mental illnesses.

This has broad implications in South Florida, where according to the state there are 66,000 students with disabilities, although it's difficult to say just how much is spent on assistive technology, or how many the equipment actually reaches. Neither the federal nor state governments compile such information, according to spokespersons. Goldman said accurate numbers couldn't be provided for Miami-Dade due to myriad funding sources and different ways of identifying technology.

Still, new connectivity breakthroughs and devices like eye trackers and even iPads are improving equipment and becoming more affordable.

One example of such tools is eye-tracking technology. It has recently made its way into popular cell phones like the Samsung Galaxy 4 to make web browsing easier. But for students who have very limited use of their arms and hands, the applications are much broader – and more life-changing. The vendor solution used by Miami-Dade is Comlink Enable Eyes, which uses students' pupil movements for everything the rest of us use computer mice or our fingers for.

Special needs students have also benefited from schools' conversion from traditional textbooks to electronic texts. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that disabled kids learn better when using digital textbooks because they're not inhibited by the traditional textbooks' significant heft and small font sizes.

Miami-Dade isn't alone in taking advantage of the switch:

Recognizing the advantages of e-textbooks over traditional books, governments are adopting various methods to speed their adoption. In Utah, where digital texts are quickly gaining supporters among students, faculty and administrators, one of the more popular steps has been to ease the expense of conversion by asking that any texts used in state schools be made available under the open source license – which means the content is available for free to anyone.

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