The Potential Benefits of Assistive Technology on Special Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Taher Kameli and Chathan Vemuri

 

The switch to virtual learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a process of adjustment for most grade-school students. Yet the challenge has been particularly acute for students with special needs.[1] Given the particular demands of the disabilities involved, the difficulty of providing specialized instruction via virtual schooling and the challenging priorities of parents under the stress of the pandemic (particularly if they are of lower income), grade school students with special needs are left at a disadvantage as their specialized form of instruction may not be effectively conveyed via virtual learning applications such as Zoom.[2] The COVID-19 pandemic, by virtue of making social distancing and remote learning necessary, removed the structured physically interactive and nuanced routine that makes so much special education learning possible.[3] This leaves special education students struggling to learn and keep up with their classmates.[4] Instead, they are left trying different routines to create new plans from scratch with which to learn during the pandemic, with an added role for parents in trying to figure out what works.[5] This often burdens parents and guardians, for they are now expected to assume the roles of school, teacher, lunch monitor, nurse, recess monitor and effectively educational researcher for their children’s education, all rolled into one, adding to their stress in dealing with an economically and medically debilitating pandemic.[6]

 

Added to this are the varying needs that must be covered in helping to develop pandemic-friendly individualized educational plans (IEP) for special education students as guaranteed to them by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).[7] Whether it be dealing with reading-related struggles to visual and hearing impairments to dealing with multiple disabilities that may hinder the ability to learn and process information, individualized education plans are difficult to develop from scratch for pandemic-adjusted learning when formerly sustainable IEPs are no longer feasible and parents have trouble trying to figure out new strategies for helping their kids learn.[8] Even worse is when schools, in the interest of convenience, try to force through remote learning plans without parental approval where they cut corners on in-person services, depriving children of much needed learning strategies, as happened in Massachusetts.[9] Indeed, it can safely be said that special education students and their parents are the most adversely affected by the pandemic-induced changes in grade school education.[10]

 

That being said, extra effort put in by parents and teachers has helped come up with some ways of bypassing these difficulties to at least attempt to get specialized instruction through to students with special needs via remote learning.[11] Assistive technology has proved to be a beneficial asset in improving special educational instruction for students with disabilities in the midst of pandemic-related social distance learning.[12] Students with special needs are able to use assistive technology to take advantage of their special education services, such as using screen readers to have texts read aloud or braille readers to read by themselves if the students are visually impaired[13], using voice-activated features to identify and retrieve necessary information from a text, and having access to artificial vision technology to assist students with reading if they have dyslexia.[14] A common low-technology tool is an added pencil grip so that students with disabilities can more easily write.[15] Other services available via assistive technology such as abbreviation expanders, alternative keyboards, audiobooks, graphic organizers, optical character recognition, portable word processes and variable-speed tape recorders help facilitate and ease remote learning special education for many students with special needs.[16] Assistive technology’s potential to help students with special needs also has a global benefit as well. In the disputed region of Kosovo, where impoverished students with special needs are effectively excluded from education due to being unable to access remote learning technologies during the pandemic, international organizations such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and foreign nations like the United Kingdom (UK) have helped provide aid in the form of tablet computers to help students with special needs get access to the necessary assistive technologies to be educated alongside their peers.[17]

 

Despite potentially benefitting countless students with special needs, assistive technology’s impact has been limited and still has a long way to go to help students get the most out of their special education services in the event of a renewed lockdown or any other time students may have to learn from home. Many online platforms used for remote learning are not compatible with assistive technology and even when they are, nuances such as the highly personalized instruction with American Sign Language requiring a physical presence, are lost, leaving students with disabilities at a disadvantage.[18] Some students have trouble using the technology required of them and this leads them intimidated to progress through their education in the event of remote learning.[19] Some disabilities, such as cortical visual impairment (stemming from the brain as opposed to the eyes) require constant physical exposure (in this case to bright objects moving in particular ways) in order to be remediated, and this cannot be necessarily accommodated by assistive technology.[20] Additionally, assistive technology is not a one size fits all service that can simply be provided at will. It requires a process of trial and error by which parents and teachers figure out which technology works best for the child’s special needs and in what way it can be used.[21] As such, parents with little to no experience in figuring out which technologies work with their kids and how have to go through coaching from teachers and therapists to make the most of these assistive technology tools, which adds pressure and takes considerable time from the child’s education.[22] Not to mention the difficulty in ensuring student engagement with the lesson plan via Zoom and the assistive technology in question.[23]

 

In spite of these challenges, the rising use of assistive technology demonstrates a potential to enhance and spread accessibility of special education services to students with special needs. Assistive technology is a required consideration for setting up a child’s IEP and is necessary for ensuring that a child gets their free appropriate public education guaranteed to them by the IDEA.[24] Constant communication and engagement with schools and professionals is essential[25] if assistive technology is to be helpful method by which children with special needs can get the education they need while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

 

Please contact the Law Offices of Kameli & Associates, P.C. at info@kameli.com or please give us a call at (312)-233-1000 if you have any questions about assistive technology and its use in providing special education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Hill, Faith, The Pandemic is a Crisis for Students with Special Needs, The Atlantic (Apr. 18, 2020) available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2020/04/special-education-goes-remote-covid-19-pandemic/610231/

 

[2] Id.

[3] Nelson, Angela, How COVID-19 Has Affected Special Education Students, TuftsNow (Sept. 2020) available at https://now.tufts.edu/articles/how-covid-19-has-affected-special-education-students

[4] Id.

 

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Hill, Faith, The Pandemic is a Crisis for Students with Special Needs, The Atlantic (Apr. 18, 2020) available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2020/04/special-education-goes-remote-covid-19-pandemic/610231/

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Hepner, Jonathan, How Assistive Technology is Supporting Students Through the Pandemic, EdTech (Nov. 13, 2020) available at https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2020/11/how-assistive-technology-supporting-students-through-pandemic

[15] Episode 20: COVID-19 Effects on Assistive Technology in Education (transcript), Disability Rights Florida (Nov. 19, 2020) available at https://disabilityrightsflorida.org/podcast/story/episode_20

[16] Hepner, Jonathan, How Assistive Technology is Supporting Students Through the Pandemic, EdTech (Nov. 13, 2020) available at https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2020/11/how-assistive-technology-supporting-students-through-pandemic

[17] Aliu, Leonora, Assistive Technology Ensured Inclusion of Children with Disabilities, UNICEF (Mar. 25, 2021) available at https://www.unicef.org/kosovoprogramme/stories/assistive-technology-ensured-inclusion-children-disabilities

[18] Hill, Faith, The Pandemic is a Crisis for Students with Special Needs, The Atlantic (Apr. 18, 2020) available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2020/04/special-education-goes-remote-covid-19-pandemic/610231/

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Episode 20: COVID-19 Effects on Assistive Technology in Education (transcript), Disability Rights Florida (Nov. 19, 2020) available at https://disabilityrightsflorida.org/podcast/story/episode_20

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Special Education: Assistive Technology Illinois State Board of Education available at https://www.isbe.net/Pages/Special-Education-Assistive-Technology.aspx

[25] Episode 20: COVID-19 Effects on Assistive Technology in Education (transcript), Disability Rights Florida (Nov. 19, 2020) available at https://disabilityrightsflorida.org/podcast/story/episode_20