How to Decide If Your Tech is Accessible to Students with Special Needs

The use of traditional educational tools like textbooks and pencils hasn’t done much for the nearly 13% of the K-12 student population who have special needs. In fact, in many cases, the accommodations and modifications teachers use with these students involves chunking text, using different texts, and modifying the delivery of lessons to include text and instruction at a different reading level. In addition, students with motor issues may need assistance gripping pencils, making writing on paper difficult. 

Adaptive technology has long been used in special education programs. And it’s no wonder. Students with special needs require specialized tools to access the curriculum in fair and appropriate ways. Students who are hard of hearing or deaf may use specialized mic and receiver systems or may require ASL translators. Visually impaired students may require Braille texts or audio-based lessons. Students with motor impairments may use specialized wheelchairs. All of these examples of tech have made instruction more accessible.

You probably already use some edtech programs and apps with students with specials needs. After all, edtech programs are multi-modal—most include visual and auditory components that can be used a wide range of students. But those components aren’t really enough to make all edtech software considered “accessible.” Let’s take a look at the questions you should ask about the edtech you use with your students with special needs.

How does it differentiate?

Some online curriculum requires teachers to set up an administrator account. When you set this up, you select the grade level or subject area for your students. If all students assigned to your class receive the same instruction based on grade level, this should raise a red flag. If your students with special needs have trouble accessing a grade-level curriculum in person with your support, it’s unlikely they’ll be successful using an online program without a lot of assistance. If you can adjust student levels individually, that’s promising. If the program offers a diagnostic and adjusts instruction up and down based on student performance—even better!

Which accessibility features are standard?

More and more curriculum programs feature a read-aloud component. This allows students to listen to the text on screen as well as to the alt-text tags that describe visuals. However, if there’s content that is read or spoken without transcripts, deaf students can’t use the program successfully. In addition, students with colorblindness or certain visual processing issue may have trouble discerning certain colors and text on screen.

Can all learning elements be accessed by all students?

A software’s lessons and curriculum may be read aloud, written in accessible font and colors, and provide transcripts, but if not all elements of the program can be used by all students, you may want to rethink it. This is most common when discussion boards are used to further student understanding. Usually, the discussion board technology doesn’t include read-aloud content because it is a real-time feature and not asynchronous like the planned and written content. Students who have trouble accessing grade-level text or who are visually impaired cannot use a feature like a discussion board. The same may be true for drawing components for students with motor impairments. 

Can students access the same information repeatedly?

It is common for students with learning disabilities to need content chunked and to see or hear the same concepts in several ways. If lessons cannot be paused, students with special needs may get overwhelmed. The same goes for lessons that don’t rewind or lessons that you can’t access after completion. Look for software that lets students control the pace of instruction and access after the fact.

Can expectations be modified?

While some programs may require students to solve twenty problems correctly to move to the next level or lesson, students with special needs often have modifications in their IEPS that allow them to show mastery with fewer examples. If your edtech program doesn’t allow for this kind of accommodation, you may want to reconsider it.

This list of questions barely scratches the surface of what you need to know about online accessibility for your special needs students, but it’s a start. Your best source of information might be your students themselves. Ask for their feedback about software and apps that you use in class. Listen to their concerns and find ways to help them feel more successful. This might require you to make a few adjustments on your teacher account or it might require finding a new app altogether. Whatever the outcome, you’ll know you considered your students’ needs when picking technology.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.

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