Assistive (or adaptive) technology does not "cure" a specific learning disability. These technology tools compensate rather than remedy, allowing a person with a learning disability to demonstrate and apply his intelligence and knowledge. Adaptive technology for the person with a learning disability is a made-to-fit implementation. Trial and error may be required to find a set of appropriate tools and techniques for a specific individual. Ideally, a person with a learning disability plays a key role in selecting her technology. She should help to determine what works and what does not. Once basic tools and strategies are selected, they can be "test-driven," discarded, adapted, and/or refined.
Following are descriptions of some computing tools that have been used effectively by individuals with specific learning disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and should not limit the person with a learning disability or the adaptive technology practitioner from trying something new. Today's experimental tinkering could lead to tomorrow's commonly used tool.
Computer-based accommodations for Dyslexia, a learning disability that affects skills in reading and writing, may not require specialized hardware or software. For example, a person with Dyslexia can benefit from regularly using built-in word processor features such as the following:
- Spelling checking
- Grammar checking
- Font size and color changes
These built-in features are relatively low-priced tools that, when used together, provide an alternative to handwritten expression. The use of spelling checkers can allow the person with learning difficulties to remain focused on the task of communication rather than getting bogged down in the process of trying unsuccessfully to identify and correct spelling errors. Many word-processing programs also include tools for outlining thoughts and provide alternative visual formats that may compensate for difficulty with organizing words and ideas. Additionally, color-coded text options and outline capabilities present in many word-processing programs are useful tools for those with difficulty sorting and sequencing thoughts and ideas.
A word processor can also be used as a compensatory tool for a person with Dysgraphia, which affects the ability to write. Use of a keyboard may be a viable alternative for an individual who has difficulty expressing his thoughts via handwriting.
An individual who can take in information through listening much better than by reading may benefit from using a reading system. These systems allow text on screen (document, web page, or email) to be read aloud through the computer's sound card. A scanner and optical character recognition software (e.g., Freedom Scientific's WYNN ™ or Kurzweil Educational Systems' Kurzweil 3000 ™) add the feature of reading printed text. Hard-copy text is placed on the scanner, where it is converted into a digital image. This image is then converted to a text file, making the characters recognizable by the computer. The computer can then read the words back using a speech synthesizer and simultaneously present the words on screen.
Reading systems include options such as highlighting a word, sentence, or paragraph in a contrasting color. If desired, the reader may elect to have only one word at a time appear on the screen to improve her grasp of the material. Increasing the size of the text displayed on the screen and/or changing text color can increase reading comprehension for some people with specific learning disabilities.
Some individuals have difficulty organizing and integrating thoughts and ideas while writing. Concept-mapping software allows for visual representation of ideas and concepts. These representations are presented in a physical manner and can be connected with arrows to show the relationship between ideas. These graphically represented ideas can be linked, rearranged, color-coded, and matched with a variety of icons to suit the needs of the user. Concept-mapping software can be used as a structure for starting and organizing such diverse writing projects as poetry, term papers, résumés, schedules, or even computer programs.
People with Dyslexia often spell phonetically, making use of word prediction or spelling-checking software less useful. Devices that render phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words may be useful tools.
Spelling words correctly while typing can be a challenge for some people with Dyslexia. Word prediction programs prompt the user with a list of most likely word choices based on what has been typed so far. Rather than experiencing the frustration of remembering the spelling of a word, he can refer to the predictive list, choose the desired word, and continue with the expression of thoughts and ideas.
Speech recognition products provide appropriate tools for individuals with a wide range of learning disabilities. Speech recognition software takes the spoken word via a microphone and converts it to machine-readable format. The user speaks into a microphone either with pauses between words (discrete speech) or in a normal talking manner (continuous speech). The discrete product, although slower, is often the better choice for those with learning disabilities, because identifying errors can be done as they occur. Making corrections after the fact using continuous speech requires good reading skills. Because many people with learning disabilities have reading problems, speech recognition is not always an appropriate accommodation.
Organizational Software/Personal Information Managers (PIMs)
Organizing schedules and information is difficult for some people with Dyslexia and/or nonverbal learning disorders. Personal Information Managers (PIMs) or organizational software, such as Microsoft Outlook ™ or IBM Lotus Organizer ®, can accommodate these disabilities. Such tools can be helpful to those with learning disabilities by providing a centralized and portable means of organizing schedules and information. The cues provided by these tools can assist with keeping on task and may help provide visual alternatives to represent what work needs to be done and what has been accomplished. However, they may also put early learners at a disadvantage by requiring yet another program and interface to learn and remember to use. Individuals may lack the discipline/attention skills to regularly check the application/device.
A talking calculator is an appropriate tool for people with Dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects mathematics skills. The synthesized voice output of a talking calculator provides feedback to the user that helps them identify any input errors. Additionally, hearing the calculated answer can provide a check against the transposition of numbers commonly reversed in reading by people with Dyslexia or Dyscalculia.
Low-Tech Tools (Post-It Notes, Highlighters)
Not all assistive technology for people with learning disabilities is computer-based. Common office supplies such as Post-It Notes ™ and highlighter pens provide elegantly simple means of sorting and prioritizing thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Often, tools of one's own making provide the most effective and comfortable accommodations for learning difficulties.
For more information on technology and resources for individuals with learning disabilities, consult Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities or view the video by the same title. Additional resources on electronic and information technology and universal design can be found by consulting Accessible Technology.