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Conference: Technology is helping to ‘redefine … disability’

Assistive technology can expand opportunities for students with disabilities.

Assistive technology devices enable students with disabilities to express what they know, and rapid advancements in technology are helping to “redefine ability and disability,” says Milton Chen, senior fellow and director emeritus at the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Chen was an opening keynote speaker at the National Center for Technology Innovation’s 2010 Technology Innovators Conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15-16. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and housed at the American Institutes for Research, NCTI advances learning opportunities for students with disabilities by fostering assistive technology innovation.

Chen said he hopes that in the near future, observers will be able to peer into a classroom of students and will not be able to identify students with disabilities.

Assistive technology can help motivate students with disabilities who might otherwise become discouraged when traditional learning methods prove to be large obstacles, said John Kemp of Powers Pyle Sutter and Verville. Kemp has extensive federal law and legislative practice in the areas of disability, rehabilitation, health care, and nonprofit organizations.

Giving students with disabilities more choice in how they would like to learn and which tools they would like to use in their learning process can go a long way in motivating them, Kemp said.

It’s important that teachers who leave teacher preparation programs, as well as current classroom teachers, know what assistive technology is available and how it can help students, said Melody Musgrove, OSEP’s director.

One service that can help in this area is NCTI’s TechMatrix, a website that provides free information about educational and assistive technology products for students with disabilities, as well as English language learners. Earlier this fall, NCTI added science to the categories of products covered in the TechMatrix, which already included reading, math, and writing.

Now, the TechMatrix features information about more than 300 educator-reviewed products, searchable by subject area and grade level, as well as case studies and other implementation guidance.

In addition, a “Tech Expo” at the conference showcased a number of assistive technology products and solutions for students with disabilities.

For example, the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities demonstrated how “ACTIV 2.0: Adapted Captioning Through Interactive Video” can be used to make general academic content available for students with disabilities. ACTIV 2.0 adapts existing video clips with such features as alternative narration; regular, highlighted text; picture/symbol-based captions; verbal/visual cuing; interactive hyperlinks; and built-in quizzes.

TERC and Vcom3D showed how incorporating accessibility software called SigningAvatar into web-based and iPod Touch versions of illustrated 3D science and math dictionaries can help K-12 students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

And the Center for Literacy & Disability Studies demonstrated a new software program called Big Words, which is designed to teach students with disabilities to read polysyllabic words.

To help students with various print disabilities, the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) was created in response to a federal mandate that all textbooks printed after 2006 be available in alternative formats.

NIMAS is a technical standard used by publishers to produce source files in XML that may be used to develop multiple specialized formats, such as Braille or audio books, for students with print disabilities.

A key distinction to evolve from NIMAS is that in earlier years, educators talked about students as the problem or having the problem, said David Rose, chief education officer for the Center for Applied Special Technology. Now, “NIMAS is the beginning of a shift toward what a curriculum should be,” Rose said. “I think our schools have print disabilities. … The more we see our schools as having disabilities, the faster we’ll make progress.”

Assessments also play a role in improving education for all students, including students with disabilities, said Daniel Schwartz, co-director of the LIFE Center and a Stanford University professor.

Technology can help improve assessments by sculpting assessments that better reflect what learning is like outside of school, especially for students with disabilities.

“For kids, ‘smart’ equals performance without help or resources,” Schwartz said. But today’s assessments can lead educators to misinterpret data and tend to be retrospective, he said, because they teach educators about what students already have learned instead of what they will learn and how they are positioned to absorb the material.

Day two of the NCTI conference gave a broader overview of how technology is being incorporated into various aspects of national education policy—policy that can affect learning for students with disabilities or those without them.

Karen Cator, director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology, discussed the release of the new National Educational Technology Plan. (Read “ED releases final version of National Ed-Tech Plan”)

Kumar Garg, policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave an overview of President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign. (Read “U.S. ramps up efforts to improve STEM education”)

A representative from the Defense Department’s Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL) explained the development of the Federal Learning Registry. (Read “Feds to create an Online Learning Registry”)

Dane Linn, director of the education division for the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, discussed the Common Core State Standards. (Read “Final common standards in English, math released”)

And finally, Michael Yudin, deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, described the Race to the Top assessment program. (Read “States given millions for new assessments”)

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