Leveling the Playing Field by Using Assistive Technology

At the risk of giving away my true age (which a lady never tells by-the-way), I remember saving information to 5 ¼” floppy disks rather than the Cloud, wasting hours playing Pac Man, not Pokémon, and the excitement of beaming information with my PALM Pilot, instead of Instant Messaging.  I’ve always been fascinated with personal devices that could help keep me organized, make my workload less cumbersome, and just simply give me access to information on the fly.  Some days, I’m not sure if having technology so readily available is a curse or cure; but I do know there are devices and applications that I’d find very hard to live without.   I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t use some sort of personalized technology consistently, on a daily basis.  Whether it’s smart phones, GPS apps, or Fitbits, most of us rely on technology to simplify and enhance our fast-paced, social, and informational lifestyles.  Apple coined the phrase, “There’s an app for that” with release of the iPhone 3G in 2009, and now owns those five little words with a U.S. Patent–boasting over $20 Billion in gross revenue from the App Store alone in 2015.

Now imagine having a disability and reliance on those apps and technological gismos is not a choice, but your means to survival.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, anywhere from 9-11% of undergraduates served by post-secondary institutions have a disability that significantly impacts the ability to learn.  These are the students who may take twice as long to read a chapter in a textbook, and then have no idea what they’ve read after struggling through each paragraph.  These are the students who take medications for a chronic health impairment that impairs their ability to capture key points from a course lecture.  These are the students whose inability to spell makes writing an essay for their FYE course about as enjoyable as a root canal.

College is the time for these students to prepare for the workplace, where there will likely be no extended time to complete projects, no volunteer note-takers, and no one reminding them of meetings or appointments.  However, assistive technology can take the place of these things—mitigating the effects of the disability and helping students become more independent learners, and later more independent employees.

Students with disabilities can learn how to use assistive technologies such as text-to-speech software that reduces the amount of time to “read” an assigned chapter.  Speech-to-text apps that allow a student with dysgraphia to get his thoughts onto paper.  Voice-over applications that allow a visually impaired student to navigate CANVAS. And even a smart pen, not much larger than a Sharpie, assists a student with ADHD to focus during a lecture while writing, recording audio, and then bookmarking notes for retrieval later while studying.  Each of these items, and many more, do not provide an unfair advantage to students with disabilities, but rather level the playing field where persons with disabilities can compete in today’s world—a world where nearly everyone is already using technology to his or her “advantage.”

At LVC, assistive technology is not just for the disabled community.  Any student, faculty, or staff member has the opportunity to explore assistive technology via short-term loan from our AT Lab housed in the Center for Disability Resources—a place where you can learn more about the technology that is helping our students and maybe even inspire an idea or two to add to your instructional repertoire.

And if you still have a solar powered calculator in your desk drawer—stop by the AT Lab.  We probably have “an app for that.”  If not, I’ll loan you my abacus.

Dr. Dawn Showers is the Director of Disability Resources at Lebanon Valley College  dshowers@lvc.edu

 

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