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Volume 10, Number 5
September/October 1994

Assistive Technology for Literacy Produces Impressive Results for the Disabled


Angie is blind. But by using a special Braille-encoding laptop computer to take notes, she is able to participate fully in regular tenth-grade classes. At the end of the day she prints out her work in Braille or standard print in her school's computer lab. "It's my lifeline," she says of her computer. For students like Angie, technology can change lives.

The field of "assistive technology"—tools to help students with disabilities—is booming. More and more products designed to support the integration of these students in regular classrooms are available. Computer tools synthesize speech, merge printed text with audio, and help students with limited motor skills generate text. Keyboards operate by head, foot, mouth, or even the blink of an eye. "Technology," says Judith Zorfass of the Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts, "allows students to engage in developmentally appropriate tasks just like their peers."

The combination of hardware for access and adaptation with multimedia software has produced particularly impressive results in students' ability to read and write. "Print is an exclusionary medium," explains David Rose, a neuropsychologist who heads the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Peabody, Massachusetts. "Print just can't work for some kids: they can't hold a book, or they don't have vision, or they can't decode printed material. For most educators, print literacy is the goal of education. But for us, print isn't the goal—it's just one means to convey information." By combining sound, text, pictures, and animation, multimedia provides an "access route" to literacy for a broader range of children.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.