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  • Assistive Technology for Students with Mild Disabilities:Whats Cool and Whats Not

    Howard P. Parette, Brian W. Wojcikand George Peterson-Karlan

    Illinois State University

    Jack J. HourcadeBoise State University

    Abstract: Professionals on IEP teams increasingly are considering the potential contributions of assistivetechnology as they develop programs for students with disabilities. However, a significant technologicalgenerational gap may exist between the members of these teams and the young people they seek to serve, as thequality and quantity of student interactions with technology may differ dramatically from those of IEP teammembers. This gap may manifest itself in the selections of technology that may impair social acceptance ofstudents with disabilities by their peers, or that students will not use. In this paper we suggest a variety of bothlow-tech and high-tech tools that hold unique dual promise to (a) facilitate successful access to the generaleducation curriculum, and (b) enhance social acceptance by nondisabled peers.

    The reauthorization of the Individuals withDisabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA, P. L.105-17) mandated that education profession-als consider assistive technology (AT) when de-veloping individualized education programs(IEPs) for all students with disabilities[1414(d)(3)(B)(iv)]. This mandate pre-sented substantive challenges to the educa-tional community, given that (a) more than3.8 million children with mild disabilities hadnot been afforded such consideration whentheir IEPs were initially developed (Edyburn,2004); and (b) teacher preparation in assistivetechnology best practice service delivery re-mains less than effective (Lahm, 2003; Wojcik,Peterson-Karlan, Watts, & Parette, 2004).

    Compounding this scenario is the fact thattodays students with mild disabilities are partof the Millennial generation (Howe & Strauss,2000) whose exposure to technology, andpreferences for technology applications, maybe very different from the education profes-sionals who may be making decisions abouttheir IEPs. Millennials, or those children bornbetween 1978 and 1982, have been describedhave having many characteristics that make

    them strikingly different from teachers work-ing with them who may be from differentgenerations (e.g., Gen Xers, Baby Boomers;Raines, 2001; Tapscott, 1998). A particularlynoticeable difference between Millennial chil-dren and persons from preceding genera-tions, is their perceptions of and experienceswith technology across the developmental pe-riod. Exposure to and use of technology bythese students is deeply embedded in the be-havior and cultural values of these children.Whereas, many current education profession-als have had to accommodate to technology,that is, learning in later life how it works andhow it may be effectively used, Millennial chil-dren have grown up with technology, assimi-lating its use (Tapscott), and learning to use itfar more quickly than people from precedinggenerations. This disparity between familiaritywith and adeptness in using technology hasbeen noted: As with people without disabili-ties, there is certainly a generational gap re-lated to technology use, particularly computeruse, with younger generations adopting andusing the technology more rapidly (MikeWehmeyer, personal communication, April 2,2004). Millennial children, including studentswith mild disabilities, have grown up in worldsurrounded by varying technologies (e.g.,computers; multimedia; cell phones; videogames) and such exposure has shaped their

    Correspondence concerning this article shouldbe addressed to Howard P. Parette, Department ofSpecial Education, Illinois State University, CampusBox 5910, Normal, IL 61790-5910.

    Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 2005, 40(3), 320331 Division on Developmental Disabilities

    320 / Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities-September 2005

  • preferences and expectations markedly. Theyare comfortable with using technology, andsee it as a means to remain connected to theworld around them (Raines).

    Unfortunately, little is known about thetechnology use patterns and preferences ofstudents with mild disabilities (Parette, 2004;Peterson-Karlan & Parette, 2005). Longitudi-nal analyses of technology use patterns of Mil-lennials have revealed differential and grow-ing usage of an array of technology on a dailybasis (Miller & Norton, 2003; Tapscott, 1998).Similarly, studies have shown higher technol-ogy abandonment rates for school devices(that may be outmoded, such as tape record-ers) among older students with disabilities(Riemer-Reiss & Wacker, 1999), along withdisparate rates of computer and Internet usewhen comparing typical peers and personswith disabilities (cf., DeBell & Chapman,2001; Kaye, 2000). More generally, however,technology use is deeply embedded in thelives of Millennial children on a regular basis,and in ways that are not completely under-stood by todays education professionals (Pa-rette).

    Lack of understanding regarding technol-ogy use patterns and preferences of studentswith disabilities is further complicated by thelack of wide-scale application of universal de-sign for learning (UDL) principles (Centerfor Applied Special Technology, 1999-2004;Rose & Meyer, 2000). The focus of UDL is oncreating learning environments where stu-dents have access to the learning itself, thatthey experience changes in their knowledgeand skills and that they grow in their capacityto learn (Rose & Meyer, p. 68).

    If, in fact, education professionals are insen-sitive to the preferred technologies that stu-dents with disabilities may currently demon-strate that can facilitate their learning andincrease their access to the general educationcurriculum, they may inadvertently be inhib-iting optimal learning experiences for thesestudents. One recent approach to addressingsuch concerns has been development of atechnology toolkit, i.e., compilations of anarray of technology devices having broad ap-plicability to many students with mild disabil-ities in a particular classroom (Edyburn, 2000;Parette & Wojcik, 2004; Puckett, 2004; Watts,Thompson, & Wojcik, 2004). For example,

    Parette and Wojcik described specific catego-ries in which technology held potential utilityto increase access to the general educationcurriculum and facilitate learning for studentswith mental retardation. Puckett described anapproach to identifying software, equipment,and strategies to support students with milddisabilities in general education standards inmath and language arts. Other studies havebeen conducted to develop toolkits for stu-dents with severe disabilities (Heart of IllinoisLow Incidence Association Resource Acad-emy, 2004), develop skills in literacy (Fonner& Marfilius, 2005), and create broad toolkitshaving applicability to a diverse range of stu-dents (George, Fulcher, & Nichols, 2001;Lahm, Bell, & Blackhurst, 2002). Such effortsreflect a movement toward better understand-ing the relationship between specific technol-ogy applications and positive classroom out-comes among students with disabilities.

    Based on experiences of the authors of thisarticle with regard to toolkit development andits applications in classroom settings, a rangeof technology devices have been identifiedthat hold particular promise both from a UDLperspective, as well as a cultural perspective(i.e., sensitivity to Millennial children andpreferences they may have for devices). Wehave termed these devices cool, or havingappeal to current school-age students withmild disabilities given both their design andappearance, but their potential to facilitatelearning and acceptance by typical peers whoalso use an array of technology solutions intheir daily lives.

    Whats Cool

    In making decisions about the preferences ofstudents with mild disabilities for specifictypes of technologies, multiple perspectivesmust be given consideration. First, the stu-dents perceptions of particular devices andtheir utility have to be considered. While re-search has yet to systematically examine stu-dent-perceived success in classrooms as a func-tion of particular technology use, inferenceshave typically been drawn based on decisionsmade by education professionals and familiesin developing IEPs.

    Whats Cool and Whats Not / 321

  • Cool Tools that May Assist in Writing

    Students with mild disabilities often experi-ence difficulty with one or more aspects of thewriting process (Behrmann & Jerome, 2002).Conveying ideas using written language oftenpresents challenges to students with mild dis-abilities (Johnson & Myklebust, 1967; Mykle-bust, 1973; Poplin, Gray, Larsen, Banikowski,& Mehring, 1980). Overall production mayalso be impeded. Students are frequently un-able to write their thoughts quickly enough(De La Paz & Graham, 1995) which may limitthe amount of ideas the student is actuallyable to commit to print. Graham, (1990) alsonoted that some students with mild disabilitiesexperienced difficulty with text productionskills as the mechanic of writing interferedwith both the quantity and quality of theirwriting. For individuals with learning disabil-ities, composing orally may allow them to cir-cumvent transcription or text productionproblems (e.g., handwriting, spelling, andpunctuation), which in turn may allow greaterfocus on higher-order concerns such as plan-ning and content generation (De La Paz,1999, p. 173). All of these factors interferewith the writing process.

    Low-Tech Solutions

    There are a number of currently availabletechnology-based tools that hold promise forassisting students with mild disabilities in thewriting process. When looking at students whohave difficulty with the mechanical process ofwriting, many low-tech solutions are available.Generally, low-tech solutions include devices