Back to School Bonus: How Computers Can Change the Face of School for PWDs

Hi readers,

Since it’s been only six days since my last post, I’m going to consider this one a bonus. As the title indicates, it’s about the benefits PWDs can reap from computers, especially at school. Some of those benefits, I know from firsthand experience. For example, in kindergarten nobody knew my CP kept me from writing by hand. After all, most kindergartners can form certain letters better than others, and their handwriting tends to be less than perfect. But by the end of kindergarten and beginning of first grade, the teachers and I had all caught on. I could only form some pairs of letters. Some, I could only write in uppercase and some only in lowercase. (If you’re curious, it depends on how much the letter in question uses straight lines or simple circles). A’s, M’s, L’s, O’s, C’s…no problem. Uppercase B’s, D’s, and R’s, or S’s in either case–not gonna happen.) Anyway, the point is, without a typewriter and computer I would not have a way to write and would be considered half-literate.

Because of my own experience I’m passionate about PWDs learning to use assistive technology like talking machines, picture boards, and so forth. Yet I’m even more passionate about these people learning to use technology to further their educations. Most schools agree that this can be done, but within every school there are still a few poor unfortunate souls who are skeptical. They say things like, “We’ve never used technology for this,” “It’s too hard/expensive,” “This student is too severely disabled to benefit.”

Baloney.

I’m going to dedicate this post to explaining some of my favorite school- and educationally-based uses for technology, as well as how they can benefit students with disabilities. Here we go:

Computer Games

I started here because no matter their age or educational level, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like games. Computer games are some of the best examples because they don’t make the same competitive or physical demands as sports, which takes the pressure off people with orthopedic disabilities, physical disorders, or other problems that influence athletic ability. Yet they do encourage, even force, the player to think. The best ones take skill, ingenuity, and even a little speed.

Some of my favorites are hidden object games like Pearl’s Peril (found on Facebook) or Hidden Chronicles (formerly of FB, since closed, but still fun). The best hidden object games have an intriguing story–maybe you’re the heir to a rich uncle who was murdered and you have to figure out who did it. But they’re also beneficial for people like me who have visual issues such as lack of peripheral vision, lack of depth perception, or low vision. Every scene within a game asks you to find about 12 hidden objects in various combinations every time you play. The more times you see the scene, the better you get at memorizing where the objects are.

For PWDs who can see just fine, certain games still carry plenty of benefits. For example, Lumosity has a game called Word Bubbles where you’re challenged to come up with as many words as you can that begin with three specific letters (bal, con, and so forth). This can enhance reading, spelling, and short-term memory for students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, limited literacy, and other issues. If you’ve got a student who hates math, set them up with games where they are rewarded for completing math tasks. My third grade classroom used to have one where you built circus clown faces based on completion of multiplication tables.

Typing Practice.

This may not sound as fun as computer games, but timed typing tests or set goals work well for students who like to compete with themselves. For example, maybe you’re a teacher with a student who has naturally tight hand and finger muscles. Typing practice can help if done the right way. As in, don’t make everything a prewritten goal or talk incessantly about the therapeutic benefits. Lead in with something like, “Wow, D.J., you’re up to 40 words a minute. I bet if you tried it this way, you could get up to 60.” Some programs, like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, use premade drills and games to facilitate this. If you have a student who’s already gifted at English, combine that with necessary skills. Ask him or her to help you catch mistakes in papers or prewritten grammar activities.

Music and Video Files, Including–Yes–YouTube

Obviously, if you’re a teacher or parent, you’ll want to supervise young kids using YouTube, iTunes, and similar programs. School rules may ban these activities for young students and have strict rules for older ones–abide by those. However, music and video are both engaging mediums that cause information to stick in students’ heads and entertain them at the same time. Students with visual or hearing disabilities can benefit, as can TAB students. For example, challenge your class by turning the sound off and asking them to follow the words on a video captioned for deaf students. Ask how well they kept up. For an added learning opportunity, invite deaf or hard-of-hearing students who sign, to teach some crucial signs to the class. (Remember not all these students sign, so don’t assume).

Beyond visual and auditory enrichment, music and video can be calming for students with ADHD, autism, and emotional disabilities. Students with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism can be encouraged to use technological aids in presentations about their specific interests, or to craft such a presentation around their favorite parts of a unit. For example, your student with Asperger’s may not care much about chemistry as a whole. Yet maybe she is fascinated with some aspect of medicine, like how white blood cells work. Videos and interactive diagrams can work wonders for her presentation, grades, and self-confidence.

Audiobooks/E-Readers

I personally love paperbacks and will probably be old school until I die, but I definitely agree with the benefits of e-readers. Using an e-reader rather than heavy textbooks can, again, make a basic school task easier for a student with a physical disability. Audiobooks, as mentioned, are often used as a modification for students with dyslexia or blindness/visual issues. Beyond that, e-readers carry benefits for students with speech-related disabilities. If these students would prefer to speak rather than use a technological device, by all means, encourage that. Perhaps they can read back what they hear on an audiobook or read aloud from one of their favorite books via e-reader. Speech therapists and pathologists: be careful not to over-correct if students do these activities with you. Instead of, “No, Peter, it’s pronounced THIS way,” say something like, “Let’s play that back/read that again.” Also, remember that some different speech patterns may never go away. That’s okay–that’s the natural way that student speaks. The goal should be understandability and enjoyment, not perfection.

Additionally, as with most or all of these other tools, e-readers and audiobooks can help build confidence and encourage calmness. Students with selective mutism or other emotional disabilities may hate to speak in front of a class, but may be just fine reading aloud to a trusted person or even an animal. (Some schools have programs where students can read aloud to dogs, cats, or other class pets. If your school doesn’t, may I recommend investigating it)? Over time, such practice can build the student up to feeling ready for a short speech or presentation in front of the class.

Clip Art/Word Art.

Again, these are kind of old school, but they did something special for me when I was in school–they gave me an outlet to draw and design. You see, my hands preclude drawing–at least, drawing so you can tell what the heck that thing’s supposed to be. A lot of kids and teachers assumed I could just draw on the computer using Paint and other programs, but that wasn’t true because manipulating the mouse, plus dealing with visual problems, just would not produce drawings. However, the premade designs and drawings of ClipArt and WordArt made the visual aspects of projects fun. Use them to feed the budding artist in your students or kids. These programs can also help kids who have trouble distinguishing color or shape, and enhance reading ability (recognizing a picture is sometimes easier than recognizing a word).

Online Courses/NovaNet

Increasing numbers of students with and without disabilities are relying increasingly on online classes or online school. Personally, I’m thrilled about this–it allows students to work at their own pace, set their own schedule, and meet new people through video courses, among other advantages. Yet, a student need not go to online school to reap the benefits. For example, specially designed online courses can give students with intellectual disabilities information of real educational value, while not coddling them or pushing them too hard. Interactive diagrams or audio can help visually oriented students succeed in highly verbal classes like English, and it works the other way, too. Specifically designed online courses or modules can bring a verbal or written component to students who are strong in those areas but struggle with visual or kinesthetic activities. A lot of teachers now use other versions of these applications such as Moodle to create their own games, interactive quizzes, and more.

Technologically Enhanced Phys Ed

What can we say–some kids just plain hate traditional gym class. As you know (or could probably guess) I was one of those kids. News flash, gym teachers. Take it from somebody who knows: no kid wants to be sent out in the hall to hit a ball off a cone while her classmates play real games. (Nor does that kid want to wonder, what are her classmates saying about her while she’s in the hall)? Some schools have traditional alternatives, such as letting kids with disabilities use the gym equipment or machines that are best for them. But some schools don’t have full gyms or fitness centers nearby. If this describes your school, your students might benefit from Wii activities, Just Dance, and other forms of technologically-enhanced PE. (Note: get permission and screen exercise videos first, as many show people in revealing outfits. In fact, don’t use traditional exercise videos with elementary or middle school kids at all unless they are “G-rated.” For high-schoolers, don’t make it a co-ed thing). Students should be encouraged to compete with themselves and set their own physical goals, with guidance (i.e., pedometer steps taken, distance covered, calories burned). A final note: never use students’ weight as an incentive or a disciplinary measure, or say things like, “Your CP wouldn’t affect you if you’d lose weight.” The purpose of gym is to build energy and confidence and maintain overall health, not turn boys into musclemen or girls into Barbie dolls.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. If you’ve got students with disabilities in your family or school, get technological this year. The computer is your friend!

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