A word on assistive technology and universal design for learning: Dispatches from ISTE 2012
While trolling the halls of the San Diego Convention Center at the International Society for Technology in Education's (ISTE) annual conference, I came across a rather interesting session on assistive technology and universal design for learning (UDL). The session was led by Linda Wilson and Lisa Norris, who work for Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools, as leader of the tech team and library media specialist, respectively. Wilson and Norris are often charged with developing new and innovative ways to utilize assistive technology to help special-needs children face the challenges of a public school curriculum. To that end, they convened a 12-person task force made up of various Montgomery County faculty members to compare notes and share ideas regarding better ways to use assistive technology to reach special-needs students.
Apart from the usual declarations about the essential nature of using technology in these circumstances, the pair hit on an interesting concept that tech vendors may find useful. By definition, assistive technology is designed and marketed to a small group of students (special-needs and special-education students, and students with autism or other disabilities) that allows for a leveling of the playing field when it comes to keeping up with the traditional curriculum. This, of course, has the collateral effect of shrinking the market for assistive technology products and dramatically limiting the potential for market growth.
However, this is where the concept of universal design for learning comes in. Wilson and Norris found that the more specialized the technology used in classrooms is, the more stigmatized that technology is in the eyes of their special-education students. They came to see this technology as a scarlet letter of sorts, creating barriers that divided them from the other students. By applying the concepts of UDL to the equation, they were able to make tremendous progress in breaking these barriers and eliminating that stigma for both groups.
Fair warning: UDL is NOT about standardizing your software or products to make them so broad that they cease to serve their original function. It is about providing choices and many different paths to the same destination that give students the option to use assistive technology when necessary, and traditional learning methods when they feel confident enough to do so. Think of a classic piece of assistive technology: closed captioning for television programs. Television manufactures do not make and sell televisions solely for the hearing impaired, with no sound and just digital text. Rather, every television comes equipped with closed-captioning capabilities, and the user has the option of using traditional audio, digital text, or both. Furthermore, by designing all televisions this way, there is literally no difference, no stigma, based on the type of television bought. Likewise, a software program or device that is designed for special-needs students should also have enough options and a broad enough applicability to be useful to all students in a classroom, regardless of their disability status.
Utilizing UDL concepts can also lead to two interconnected side effects. First, it broadens the market for assistive technology and vendors offering assistive technology products. Second, this development leads to increased investment in assistive technology from the IT industry and smarter products for special-needs students and students with disabilities. This last part is not simply theory to Wilson and Norris. Both lamented that when they first began looking into assistive technology products, there were very few companies that offered anything worthwhile, and those companies were typically too small and struggling to make much of an impact. While they conceded that the market has grown since then, they still believe there is plenty of room for improvement, and they hope that by applying UDL concepts to the assistive technology field, that improvement can start happening now.