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Technology breaks down barriers for students
High-Tech Chalkboards

William, a seventh-grader at First Colony Middle School in Sugar Land, uses more than just paper and pencils in his classes. He has a physical disability that makes the muscles in his hands weak, which makes writing long sentences difficult. A micro-cassette tape recorder and a laptop computer help William complete longer writing assignments.

"He is an exceptionally bright young man, but he does have a disability," said Cheryl Little, assistive technology team leader for Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD). "Without the technology, he just would not be able to complete the work, but with the tools, he's able to stay in the classroom and stay successful."

More than 23,000 Texas students with disabilities benefit from assistive technology (AT), which refers to any item or equipment used to increase the capabilities of individuals with disabilities, according to the federal Assistive Technology Act of 1998.

AT can include both low- and high-technology items and can include computers, toys and thousands of other tools that help a person with disabilities learn, work or interact.

"Assistive technology can be anything from a pencil grip and wheelchair to a high-tech device and software," said Nancy Young, AT and behavior specialist with Irving ISD. "An assistive technology device is something without which the child could not achieve his goals and objectives."

Speak and spell
Examples of AT range from simple devices--such as special grips that help students with motor skill impairments hold pencils--to devices like spell-checking systems that "talk" and speaking devices that children with speech impairments can use to communicate. More sophisticated devices include computers that students with physical disabilities can control with their eyes or voice.

William also has used a portable word processor for typing lengthy assignments.

"Whenever I use the technology, it just feels easier for me," said William, speaking in a 2002 training videotape developed by the Region IV Education Service Center, which serves school districts in seven counties around Houston and provides AT leadership for the state's other 19 education service centers.

A good idea
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 require public schools to give eligible students with disabilities a public school education appropriate to their needs and in the least restrictive environment.

In 2003, the U.S. Senate approved $2.2 billion to fund IDEA programs for fiscal 2004, to serve 6 million children nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education gives about $725 million in IDEA funding to Texas annually, said Kathy Clayton, director of programs for the Office of Special Education at the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The Texas Assistive Technology Network (TATN) consists of AT contacts from each of the state's 20 education service centers and from TEA.

"We support the districts in determining whether or not a student needs AT," said Diana Carl, lead facilitator for TATN and director of AT services for the Region IV Education Service Center. "We do a lot of the training and professional development for the teachers."

In 2002-03, Texas schools reported that about 23,000 of some 491,000 students identified for special education services received AT devices or services, according to the Public Education Information Management System, a statewide database maintained by TEA that includes data on student demographics and academic performance. The 2002-03 figure was a 27 percent increase from 2001-02, when schools reported that 18,159 students received AT devices or services.

"Educators are coming to understand that technology can be a very effective and efficient way to bridge the educational gap for individuals with special needs," said Betty Ressel, director of the Technical Assistance Division for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. "If a $1,000 device can help a child be more self-sufficient in the classroom, districts may be able to hire one fewer $15,000 a year teacher's aid--that's a win-win for everyone, including taxpayers."

Charting success
Several organizations are promoting AT in Texas schools and are trying to determine how AT could better serve more students. These groups say that many AT devices could be used to serve children without disabilities as well.

The Disability Law Resource Project (DLRP), based in Houston, provides training, technical assistance and information on the Americans with Disabilities Act and on making information technology (IT) accessible to people with disabilities.

DLRP is working with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), an Austin-based, nonprofit education research and development corporation, to help promote IT that is accessible to all students in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

"A key component of DLRP's mission is to promote the acquisition and use of accessible IT in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools," said Wendy Wilkinson, project director with DLRP. "If schools purchase IT that has been designed to incorporate universal design features, then more students with disabilities will be able to access the technology directly."

As one of its projects, DLRP is identifying schools willing to serve as laboratories for accessible IT. DLRP is working with state and local education agencies to identify and promote best practices from participating schools for other schools to replicate, Wilkinson said.

SEDL is developing fact sheets on accessible IT to distribute to teachers, said Stephanie Weaver, who works in communications for SEDL.

Intelligent tools
Rebecca Wilkinson, a speech pathologist at Kyle Elementary School, is part of a four-member AT team--including a physical and occupational therapist and vision specialist--which serves schools in Hays Consolidated ISD (CISD).

In 2003, the Hays AT team received a $5,000 grant from the Hays CISD Education Foundation to purchase IntelliTools software, a product for students with disabilities, for eight of the district's 12 campuses.

In spring 2004, the AT team was training teachers and forming technology teams on each campus in the district, Wilkinson said. The teams include special education teachers, administrators, therapists and school psychologists.

Every high school student in Irving ISD has a laptop computer, and all elementary school children use a portable word processor called AlphaSmart, said Young.

Some students in the district have been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that makes it hard for students to express details in writing. One student uses an organizational and visual software program called Inspiration to brainstorm, organize and diagram concepts and ideas on the computer, Young said. Another student with Asperger's Syndrome uses a laptop for creative writing.

A middle-school student who can only use one hand to type uses an alternative keyboard with word-prediction software. The keyboard allows the user to type the first letter or two of a word and the software offers several possible word choices depending on the context. With this AT support, the student will be better prepared for high school, Young said.

Teachers, too
Teachers also can benefit from AT. Angela Wrigglesworth teaches reading and language arts to third-graders at Klenk Elementary School in Houston. The 26-year-old teacher was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that affects the muscles used for walking, and has used a wheelchair all her life.

Instead of writing on a chalkboard, Wrigglesworth links her desktop computer to a television screen at the front of the classroom, so that students can see her instructions.

"Writing on the board or overhead (projector) or chart is too taxing for me," said Wrigglesworth. "The television displays whatever is on my computer screen. I definitely couldn't teach without it."

In February 2004, Wrigglesworth won the title of Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2004 at a pageant in San Antonio and became a spokeswoman for Texans with disabilities.

"I think it's a remarkable tool that will benefit children throughout their lives," Wrigglesworth said of AT. "It opens up a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities."

Karen Hudgins