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Preparing Teachers for the Inclusion Classroom:
understanding assistive technology and its role in education


Terence W. Cavanaugh Ph.D.
University of North Florida
College of Education and Human Services




There exists a current need for teachers to have additional skills and abilities in technology, specifically concerning the special needs student and assistive technology. This need extends to all teachers, not just special education teachers, as all teachers are now likely to have students with disabilities.  The current educational system encourages an inclusionary setting for all special needs students, and this setting is supported by federal laws. This paper provides information concerning laws, definitions, services, levels of assistive technology, and the application of assistive technology in the educational process. An overview is included of current NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) and ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) guidelines as they relate to assistive technology. The current components of education degrees that include or require educational technology and assistive technology are outlined. Federal legislation exists concerning the application of assistive technology in an educational setting. This federal legislation requires that schools consider using assistive technology for all special needs students, and this legislation has implications for teacher preparation, individual education plans, school budget, staffing, and more. This paper proposes a model for addressing and improving the integration of assistive technology and universal design to better prepare teacher candidates and education graduates to meet the needs of students in the inclusion setting. The goal of this model is to enhance teacher performance with assistive technology and students with disabilities, enabling equal access to educational situations and materials in the least restrictive environment.

Preparing Teachers for the Inclusion Classroom:
understanding assistive technology and its role in education


Terence W. Cavanaugh Ph.D.
University of North Florida
College of Education and Human Services


The number of people affected by disabilities is larger than many may imagine. Currently in the United States about 150 million people are impacted by disabilities to some extent either themselves or through association. This number amounts to approximately half the current US population.  According to the HalfthePlanet Foundation (www.halftheplanet.com, 2001) an organization that supports the application of technology, approximately half of the entire planet’s population, which is an estimated 3 billion people, is in some way affected by disabilities.

 Consider these statistics concerning the special needs population (IBM 2001; New York State Council on the Arts, 2001):

  • 750 million people worldwide are challenged by disabilities.
  • Over 8 million Americans have visual impairments.
  • 500,000 visually impaired Americans use Assistive Technology Devices.
  • 13.5 million Americans consider themselves visually impaired to some degree.
  • Nearly 3 million Americans are color-blind.
  • 2.7 million Americans have speech impairments.
  • 22 million Americans are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
  • 4.6 million Americans use Assistive Technology Devices for hearing impairments.
  • 5 % of school children are reported as having a learning disability, but an estimated 15% of students are believed to have some form of learning disability.
  • Dyslexia affects over 40 million Americans.
  • 54 million Americans report some level of disability » 15% of the population.
  • Fewer than 15% of people with disabilities were born with them.
  • Americans with hearing impairments equal the population of California.


Because of the large and increasing number of special needs students with disabilities, assistive educational technology is growing in importance.   Special needs students are also having a greater impact on the general education teacher as, during the past 10 years, the percentage of students with disabilities served in schools and classes with their nondisabled peers has gradually increased. In the 1997-98 school year, US states reported that 97.8 percent of students ages 6 through 11 with disabilities were served in schools with their nondisabled peers, with 94.7 percent of students ages 12 through 17 with disabilities and 87.2 percent of students ages 18 through 21 with disabilities.  These figures represent a large increase when compared to just four years before when in 1993-94 the states were serving 43.4 percent of students with disabilities ages 6-21 in regular classrooms. As the percentage of special needs students served in an inclusive setting along with nondisabled students rises, the number of special education and regular education teachers prepared to provide an inclusive environment must also increase (US Dept. of Education 2000, US Dept. of Education 1996).


Percentage of Students Ages 6 Through 21 in Different Education Environments During 1988-89 Through 1997-98

Source:  U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Data Analysis System (DANS).


Disabilities rights leaders have said that the application of technology will be the equalizer of the 21st century (Flippo, Inge and Barcus, 1995). Through the use of assistive technology (AT) devices, many students can decrease their isolation from a special class and become an important part of a regular classroom, which is considered the least restrictive environment (LRE). Technology access solutions do exist for students who need assistance with content material. Screen readers that read aloud the text on the screen or web page can overcome barriers to accessing electronic information encountered by students who have vision disabilities. Captions built into multimedia programs can overcome barriers for students who have hearing disabilities (RESNA, 2001). Assistive technology then may be a basic tool in the educational process for any individual who experiences a disability. 


Impact on Educators


With the growing focus to address the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, inclusion is a component of school restructuring agendas (McGregor & Vogelsbert, 1998).  The inclusion model has become the current education classroom standard. Consequently all teachers have a need be trained and prepared for the inclusion of special needs students in the general education population.  Lipsky and Gartner (1996) define inclusion as "the provision of services to students with disabilities, including those with severe impairments, in the neighborhood school, in age-appropriate general education classes, with the necessary support services and supplementary aids (for the child or the teacher) both to assure the child's success - academic, behavioral, and social - and to prepare the child to participate as a full and contributing member of the society."  Teachers must be prepared in the instructional setting to adapt instruction for an individual by changing one or more aspects of the material being taught such as:

  • The method by which the instruction is delivered to the student.
  • The amount of content material to be covered
  • The evaluation method or criteria
  • The level of assistance provided in the learning situation
  • The learning environment: and/or
  • The instructional materials that are used by the student. (Beninghof & Singer, 1995)


Legal Aspects


The concept of an inclusion classroom or school is based upon teaching students with disabilities in regular classrooms, rather than in special schools, classrooms or pull-out locations. Supported by court decisions, inclusion has been increasingly defined through lawsuits brought by parents of disabled children around the country. In an exemplifying case, Oberti vs. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon School District, the federal judge who decided the outcome of the case endorsed full inclusion. The judge stated, "Inclusion is a right, not a special privilege for a select few." This judgment, he said, was based his interpretation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which calls for serving children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, and on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees disabled people access to services provided by any entity that receives federal funding. (Education Week, 2001)


The IDEA regulation states: "Each State must establish procedures to assure that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities ... are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special education, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily." 20 U.S.C. 1412(5)(B).


The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 1997 amendments make it a requirement that schools educate children who have disabilities, in general education classrooms whenever possible.  With this charge is also a requirement that all students classified as having any form of disability have an individual education plan (IEP) developed specifically for that student.  The IEP will be developed by a team of people including teachers, administrators, councilors, parents, outside experts (as needed), and even the student for whom the plan is being developed.  As part of the federal IDEA amendments, there are statements that now require assistive technology devices and services to be considered on an individualized basis and become a part of the individual education plan if the child needs the assistive technology or services to benefit from his educational program. The IDEA statements that focus on assistive technology devices and/or services require that the IEP team ask:

  • Will AT enable the student to meet the goals set for the education program that cannot be met because of his/her disability?
  • Does the student need assistive technology to be involved in the general curriculum, including participation in state and district wide assessments?
  • Does the student need assistive technology for augmentative communication?
  • Does the student need to be able to use the device at home or in the community to achieve the goals of the IEP?


If the team finds that any of the answers to the questions is yes, then the IEP team must ensure that the needed AT devices and/or services are made available to the student

(Florida Department of Education, 2000). Based upon the NCATE accreditation requirements and ISTE teacher technology standards, it would be reasonable for a school administrator to expect that an education graduate from an NCATE accredited program would be able to effectively participate on a student’s IEP team. These expectations would presuppose that such an education graduate be able to make effective judgments and recommendations concerning assistive technology.


Assistive Technology


The Technology-Related Assistance for Individual with Disabilities Act of 1998 (PL 100-407) gave the U.S. the first legal definition of assistive technology devices and services. An assistive technology device was defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” An assistive technology service was described as “any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology service.”


Assistive Educational Technology (AET) is the theory and practice of design, development, utilization, management, and evaluation of processes and resources that are used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals, with or without disabilities, for learning (Cavanaugh, 2000).  The distinction between assistive and educational technologies is becoming less clear as the concept of universal design is incorporated into conventional technology.


Assistive Technology Levels and Categories


Assistive technology has the capacity for increasing student independence, increasing participation in classroom activities and simultaneously advancing academic standing for students with special needs, providing them the ability to have equal access to their school environment.  Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA, 2000) has identified twelve different areas where assistive technology can be used; all twelve apply in some way to the educational setting.  Of the twelve, four are areas that would have a major impact in any school situation, including:  Work Site Modifications, Instructional Material Aids, Seating and Positioning Aids, and Sensory Aids.  The other assistive technology application areas are Aids for Daily Living, Communication and Augmentative Communication Tools, Environmental Control Systems, Leisure Time or Recreational Adaptations, Mobility Aids, Prosthetics and Orthotics, and Vehicle Modifications.


In considering assistive technology in the classroom, the environment, the individual, and the characteristics and levels of the technology must be included (Gitlow, 2000). Assistive technology may be classified by technology being high-, middle-, or low-tech. A low-tech assistive technology option is usually easy to use, has low cost (under $200 US), and typically does not require a power source.  Mid-tech assistive devices are also easy to operate but typically require a power source.  The high-tech device is usually complex and programmable, and includes items that require computers, electronics or microchips to perform a function. An example of the application of technology could range from having a voice input word processor (high tech) to a student using an adapted pencil grip (low tech) to assist during writing (ATEN, 2002).


Along with considering the level of the technology, consider the levels of how the assistive technology devices or services could be applied into the classroom environment.  J. Judd-Wall (1999) proposes that levels in applying the assistive technology that are concerned with whether the item is personally, developmentally, or instructionally necessary.  Personally necessary items are assistive technology devices and/or services that are used by an individual student, such as a pair of colorblind glasses to enable a learner to more effectively interact with his/her environment.  Developmentally necessary devices and/or services may be shared among individuals.  These devices and/or services help meet an educational need which may be based on some developmental delay, which in the future would be overcome, eliminating the need for the assistive device or service in an individual’s future.  Lastly, instructionally necessary devices and/or services are those used with a modification of the instructional process in a subject area course or grade level.  Such a modification would not need to accompany user as her or she progresses to the next academic level, and would instead remain at the course or grade level.  As you compare these necessary levels, you will find that the materials used are much more likely to be shared among various students at the developmentally necessary and instructionally necessary levels.


At the personally necessary level, a student must have the technology to be able to function, and the technology is only for them.  An augmentative communication device such as a speaking keyboard would be a good example of a personally necessary item. The developmental level would imply that while the technology is currently necessary for an individual, he or she should through time and assistance progress or develop out of its need. A developmental device and/or service could then be used by any number of individuals who may be experiencing the same developmental lag. Consider a student who is having trouble with vocabulary, possibly due to a learning disability or the fact that English is his or her second language. The student currently uses a talking portable dictionary to look up new words and their listen to pronunciation. As he/she grows more familiar with the new words, he/she no longer looks them up as often, gradually progressing to independence from the talking dictionary.


At the instructionally necessary level, the technologies are needed in order to fulfill the requirements put forth by the class or grade level. A student may be in a science course and needs to manipulate equipment, such as a microscope, but an injury may cause trouble with his/her fine motor skills.  By adding extensions onto the microscope controlling knobs or by using a digital camera microscope, the student can fulfill all the course requirements with accommodations, much as any other student. These material accommodations and adaptations would also be available to any other student in the class interested in using them.  This application to all students becomes a basic component to inclusion education, by allowing any student better access or access in a more appropriate alternative format to the information being taught.


Example Application of Assistive Technology


Consider a sample application of assistive educational technology in the area of augmentative or alternative commutation devices: the use of text-to-speech software.  A text-to-speech software program, is also known as a screen reader or voice output system.  Using such a system will allow a user to have his/her computer read selected text aloud through the computer's sound card or other speech synthesis device.  These programs analyze given text and then using a phonetic algorithm, restructures text to a phonetic system, and then reads the text aloud.  The computer calculates the pronunciation of each word (with certain software and systems working better than others) and then says the word in its context.   As reading and writing are understood to be basic components of an educational program, providing alternative formats, scaffolds and supports for those activities are necessary to be able to reach all students. The use of the screen reader can enable students with disabilities such as poor or no vision to access the information that they need, but it can be applied to all students, with or without disabilities. The educational theory of multiple intelligences suggests that there are a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees, with the implication of the theory being that learning/teaching should focus on the particular intelligences of each person (Gardner, 1983).  Text-to-speech technology provides users an additional avenue for receiving the information.  The presentation of information through multiple avenues accommodates to learning styles, individual differences in abilities and multiple intelligence (e.g., Gardner, Guilford, Sternberg) (TIP Database, 2002).  Through the use of the text-to-speech program, the student has increased chances of "learning" the information. In application to a writing activity, text-to-speech software relates to Miller’s Information Processing Theory in that students can use the software as a tool for editing and self-evaluation of their work as the computer reads back the work to the student.   According to CAST (1998), in order “to reach learners with disparate backgrounds, interests, styles, abilities, disabilities, and levels of expertise,” the educational materials should be flexible and adaptable for all learning styles.  Through the use of assistive technologies, like text-to-speech software programs, teachers can provide tools that assist all students in their endeavors.


Inclusion and Assistive Technology in the Teacher Preparation Program


Teacher education programs are being encouraged to change to include the concepts of inclusion through their accreditation agencies, such as Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) and National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).  In NCATE’s (2002) latest set of unit (college) standards, as part of the vision for professional teachers for the 21st Century qualified teachers should teach every child.  The standards also state that new teacher graduates should be able to “apply effective methods of teaching students who are at different developmental stages, have different learning styles, and come from diverse backgrounds.”  A commitment to technology is also needed to ensure that all teacher candidates are able to use educational technologies to help all students learn.   INTASC states, in its Model Standards for Beginning Teacher Licensing, that teachers should “know about areas of exceptionality in learning--including learning disabilities, visual and perceptual difficulties, and special physical or mental challenges” (1992).  NCATE and INTASC both expect teacher candidates to “understand language acquisition; cultural influences on learning; exceptionalities; diversity of student populations, families, and communities; and inclusion and equity in classrooms and schools.” With exceptionalities defined as a physical, mental, or emotional condition, including gifted/talented abilities, that requires individualized instruction and/or other educational support or services are necessary (NCATE 2002).


Content area professional organizations, including the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), have standards for all teachers and administrators regarding assistive technology (ISTE, 2001).  The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in essence requires that assistive technology be addressed within teacher education programs via the ISTE teacher technology standards which include  (II) Planning and Designing Learning Environments and Experiences and (VI) Social, Ethical, Legal, and Human Issues.  To meet these standards teachers should have the ability to plan and design effective learning environments and experiences supported by technology. Additionally teachers must be able to design developmentally appropriate learning opportunities that apply technology-enhanced instructional strategies to support the diverse needs of learners. Teachers must also understand the social, ethical, legal, and human issues surrounding the use of technology in PreK-12 schools and apply those principles in practice. For this standard, teachers should apply technology resources to enable and empower learners with diverse backgrounds, characteristics, and abilities in order to facilitate equitable access to technology resources for all students (ISTE, 2000).


The guidelines and standards for educational computing and technology leadership programs are even more specific, stating that a graduate of such a program should “demonstrate awareness of resources for adaptive assistive devices for students with special needs.” A graduate should also be able to “identify and classify adaptive assistive hardware and software for students and teachers with special needs and locate sources to assist in procurement and implementation” (NCATE, 2000).  


A review was conducted of instructional technology programs within the colleges of education across a large state university system. The analysis of the published programs of study showed that none of the state colleges of education offered a course specifying assistive technology in its title or available description. A similar limited review was conducted of universities nationwide that offered graduate programs in educational or instructional technology. This survey found that fewer than 20% of the colleges provide courses focusing on assistive technology as part of their educational technology degree.


In an analysis of general education teachers who have been found to be successful with inclusion, resources, time and training were found to be determining factors (McGregor & Vogelsbert, 1998).   Based upon this knowledge general teacher education programs should be designed to include content related to inclusion concepts, including assistive technology.  General inclusion concepts and strategies could be taught throughout the core required and content method classes.  Due to the technology requirements it would be difficult to integrate assistive technology concepts and methodologies into general education courses.  Currently, assistive technology is, for the most part, only discussed as a small component of other technology integration classes, or is thought of as only needing to be part of the “special education” section. There exists the need for the addition of the application of assistive technologies and awareness to a course that is a required part of general teacher education programs.  Many colleges of education now require or encourage their students to take an introductory or survey course in educational technology or computer applications to which the addition of assistive and adaptive devices and assistive technology education concepts would be an excellent match.  This course could present strategies for students who are physically or mentally impaired, and may be in an inclusion or mainstreamed situation. The purpose of the course would extend beyond learning about how use technologies to include information on technology applications to overcome handicaps and improve functionality. Course topics could include: basics of assistive technology; legal/ethical issues associated with assistive technology; assistive technology and the individual education plan (IEP); levels of assistive technology; technology adaptations; Windows and Macintosh built-in accessibility tools; text-to-speech and speech-to-text; universal design and the Internet; and physical and learning disabilities. An additional facet of such a course could be the evaluation of material for universal accessibility, covering such topics as web pages accessibility and choosing content area software that is accommodating for special needs. The course should include active hands-on experiences with assistive technologies.


The Future of Education


As the education of all students occurs more frequently within the standard classroom in the inclusion environment, the concepts of teaching and learning that incorporate assistive technology approaches and accommodations become more important. This change in population will have the impact of changing the learning goals, the teaching methods, and the means of assessment for all students. Assistive technology is a wide-ranging educational tool that is growing in its use and importance, and is required for consideration for all students classified with any form of disability and must be included on that student’s individual education plan (IEP). Current and future teachers then "..need to be focused on classroom-wide and building wide contexts, reflecting an alignment within special education as well as between special and general education"  (McGregor & Vogelsbert, 1998).  General teacher education programs must restructure themselves to include content for those teachers concerning special education methodology and pedagogy along with student modifications, accommodations, and assistive technology.


Assistive technology tools can make a significant difference for students with disabilities (Rose & Meyer, 2000).  Assistive technology tools can allow access to information and activities that otherwise are inaccessible.  An added benefit is that the tools can also make information and resources more available even to those who don’t have a disability or have not yet been identified as having a disability.  The exceptional education teachers are not the only ones who need awareness of assistive technology.  All regular education teachers are likely to encounter mainstreamed special needs students, and the purpose for using the technology ideally is to allow and support the student in the general student population.  From discussions with professionals in the assistive technology community, I found that integrating the concepts into a preservice education course is needed, as it would better prepare the future teachers for the reality of today's classroom.





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