“New Access To Education” By Keith Landry

2001 September(This was originally published on September / October 2001)

America’s classrooms are filled with students again as another school year builds momentum. This 2001 school year reminds us of the new millennium and all the potential for the future in education. The latest technology is bringing those hopes home now to students with disabilities and special needs. America’s teachers are slowly but surely taking their lessons and assistive technology online. In the process, they are giving many students new access to education and greater potential to succeed than they might have had in the past.

The Center For Assistive Technology at the University of Buffalo is leading the way. Its new Assistive Technology Training Online (ATTO) program offers free, online training in assistive technology solutions to help students with disabilities. The ATTO website gives parents, teachers, professors, and assistive technology specialists help with designing lessons to teach young students with disabilities. The ATTO program can be found at http://at-training.com on the Internet.

Assistive technology plays a crucial role in learning for many students with  disabilities. Special keyboards, switches, pointing systems, and  text-to-speech software are some of the modern tools giving students more  access to education. The ATTO website is a place where parents and teachers can learn how to put all that assistive technology to better use and to design teaching lessons that maximize those tools.

Sue Mistrett is director of the ATTO program. She says parents and teachers marvel at what a difference assistive technology can make for young students as they learn. “They are often amazed at what a child CAN do when given the tools. Unfortunately, training programs are few in number. The need for professional AT certification is becoming more evident. AT works to build a child’s self esteem by focusing on what he can accomplish.”

Parents and teachers, who turn to ATTO for help, are finding it in virtual workshops. They are set up mostly for students in grades kindergarten  through fifth grade, but some who use them say the techniques also apply to older students. Mistrett says these virtual workshops offer maximum  flexibility for users. “They can be accessed at any time of the day or night  from anyplace in the world that is connected to the Internet. Information  can be found, examined, compared, anytime. Tutorials are also available and hundreds of related AT resources that can answer most questions on assistive technology. We’ve tried to make the information relevant and concise with illustrations and examples of effective use for the lessons.”

The ATTO program is designed to offer learning solutions in reading, writing and math in a way that will help students with a variety of disabilities. A student who is not reading up to grade level can visit the Reading Module. He or she can find out about talking word processors. They read aloud each line as it is typed. The student can have a story read aloud to him or her by the computer, repeating sections as often as they like to master that material. Students with visual impairments can also benefit from talking word processors. The Reading Module also lists websites, which list classical and popular literature that is already formatted to be read aloud to the students. Other modules for other topics on the site function in similar ways.

For almost twenty years, Mistrett has witnessed the powerful influence  assistive technology can have on the learning and overall development of  children. She ran a neighborhood preschool program in Western New York in the mid-80’s. She and a friend came up with a project to use computers to “mainstream” special needs children with the other children, using computers to create a level playing field as the children played. The Special Friends and Computers Project made her a believer. “I became convinced of the power of technology. With this successful experience under their belt at four years old- every one of those eight children with significant disabilities enrolled in their local elementary school that fall- a rarity in those days when they would have most likely attended a separate school.”

The staff at the Center for Assistive Technology also saw the potential of AT to facilitate learning. They noticed in 1997 that online courses were  starting to be offered at universities, and they began to examine how these
courses were structured. More schools and classrooms were being wired all the time for Internet access. Mistrett adds, “When information is available on the Internet, it can be accessed by everyone- by either reading it on the screen, enlarging the size, using a screen reader program or just printing it out to use later. We saw Internet training as a new, more cost effective method of providing access to an ever expanding knowledge base on assistive technologies, and technical training on the use of AT in the classroom.”

Offering assistive technology to help a student learn is one thing, but making sure everyone knows how to use it the right way makes all the difference in the world in how a young person learns. An assistive technology device itself will not make a difference. It has to be matched to the abilities and preferences of the person using it. The ATTO program is making sure teachers and parents learn to get the most out of it all. The greatest challenge has been designing the site to meet a wide variety of learning preferences and learning curves.

The ATTO staff continues to plan for the new program’s future. A panel of  assistive technology experts from across America helped design the website. The staff hopes to have an “Ask the Expert” section up and running by the beginning of next year. The QIAT list serv can offer some answers in the mean time at QIAT@LSV.UKY.EDU.

Mistrett and the Center for Assistive Technology plan to keep pushing forward in other areas too. “We have found several groups across the country who see the value of the Internet in moving assistive technology information out to those who can use it. I hope to coordinate a group of websites- a webring perhaps- to coordinate the location of information in ways professionals will use it. Some folks simply want to quickly locate information- others want graduate course credit and more in depth information. Programs are available and they need to be coordinated.” That coordinated effort to make assistive technology more available, will give students even greater access to education, and then to success, in the years to come.

Contact Sue Mistrett at mistrett@at-training.com

Assistive Technology Training Online (ATTO)

The University At Buffalo

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