Technology is often hailed as the great equaliser, enabling individuals to access learning and support in a variety of ways according to their individual needs. So why is it that technology designed specifically to support students with disabilities and learning difficulties is still not found in many mainstream schools?
Dr Simon Hayhoe, a Centre Research Associate in LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science (CPNSS), specialises in issues affecting students with special educational needs and addresses the issue in a new book, Research, Reflections and Arguments on Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age edited by L. Burke, to be published this March.
In a chapter that explores the need for inclusive accessible technologies, Dr Hayhoe argues that traditional accessible technologies are some of the last barriers to the full educational inclusion of students with additional needs. The technology designed to aid students with disabilities and learning difficulties is, he claims, too often failing to reach children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
"Educational technology has been established in various forms in schools for some time" says Dr Hayhoe, "yet assisted technologies have so far failed to evolve to include all students in mainstream education.
"This is primarily due to designers and engineers over-intellectualising the problems face by students with these difficulties. They look for solutions that will assist students with particular difficulties, rather than asking how a product could be designed to be inclusive of everyone. This, all too often, leads to devices that are too immobile, awkward or physically restrictive for mainstream schools to install and maintain."
Perversely, this means that the devices designed specifically to assist students with special needs end up creating situations where the student cannot enter mainstream education because the schools cannot afford the technologies or do not have the teachers with the skill to use them.
"Too many assisted devices remain relegated to single classrooms and special schools because of this" he argues.
Furthermore, because the use of these devices often identifies the user as having a special need, they can themselves create a situation where students in mainstream education have their self-esteem eroded due to the social and cultural stigma of using such devices.
To address these problems, we need to approach the subject in a new way, reshaping the existing understanding of what an assistive technology is and the terminology used to describe these devices.
"A good start would be renaming 'assistive technology in education' as 'inclusive educational technology " Dr Hayhoe says. "If designers start with the viewpoint that they are creating devices to include people with disabilities in all mainstream social and cultural settings, rather than as technologies to assist people with special needs, this could help them move towards true inclusiveness."
Equally key, however, is the need to design technology that is fit for purpose in all environments. "Make the design customer-led and not determined by the perceived issues a student will face as perceived by academics or engineers with no first-hand experience of the issues their users face as perceived by academics or engineers with no first-hand experience of the issues their users face" Dr Hayhoe recommends.
"If we focus solely on the individuals for whom the technology is created, products will become more inclusive and accessible."
“This can be achieved by training and encouraging people with disabilities and learning difficulties to create their own technologies, or at the very least by including people with disabilities in the design process, and not just as end user testers.”
Finally, Dr Hayhoe cautions, it is necessary that assistive technology should not signify inferiority, particularly in matters of intelligence. The emphasis must be that students with disabilities and learning difficulties still have human capital that is valuable to their societies.
Despite the current issues users of assistive educational technologies face, the future is looking brighter. A shift towards this way of thinking has already begun, with the increased use in schools of mobile devices such as tablets and MP3 players enabling students with special educational needs access to portable mainstream technologies that can assist them.
“This form of learning lends itself to the education and training of students with disabilities and learning difficulties as they can record mainstream classes, access extra data that they may need in those classes and even have access to specialist media such as Braille through the web” Dr Hayhoe points out.
Apple in particular, he stresses, has made a commitment to accessibility in its mainstream devices, ensuring that its iPads, for example, feature a number of inclusive features such as voice functions to aid people who are blind and text on screen for people with hearing impairments fitted as standard.
“We are starting to see changes in the way these technologies are being developed which is leading to greater choice for students with disabilities and learning difficulties in mainstream schools” Dr Hayhoe concludes.
“Ultimately, however, if we are to design technology that integrates students and others with disabilities and learning difficulties in all aspects of life, we must consult and include users of this technology at every stage of the design process and in the long term, train people with disabilities and learning difficulties to engineer technologies that best serve their own purposes.”
This process has begun, but, cautions Dr Hayhoe, there is still a long way to go.
‘The Need for Inclusive Accessible Technologies for Students with Disabilities and Learning Difficulties’ by Dr Simon Hayhoe, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology, UAE, will appear in the book title Reflections and Arguments on Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age edited by L. Burke, published by Melton, Suffolk: John Catt Educational Publishing in March 2014.
posted 12 February 2014