Assistive Technology in the classroom
For students with physical, sensory, intellectual and other special needs Assistive Technology can provide the tools to enable participation in the educational program, in the school and playground generally, and in the student’s life outside the school. If a student is not making the expected progress in an area or a number of activities, supports such as Assistive Technology or Inclusive Technologies may assist and include to maximise the opportunities for learning, active engagement and participation.
Where to start?
The SETT Framework by Joy Zabala is well known and highly regarded as a practical tool to “guide assistive technology selection” and to “guide decisions about a much broader range of educational services….. that foster the educational success of students with disabilities”. SETT is an acronym for Student, Environments, Tasks and Tools. “When the needs, abilities, and interests of the Student, the details of the Environment, and the specific Tasks required of students in those environments are fully explored, teams are able to consider what needs to be included in a system of tools that is Student-centred, Environmentally useful and Tasks-focused.”. (Zabala, J. 2005)
We strongly recommend reading about the SETT framework and all related documents to make a start using a methodical student-focused strategy. This averts the temptation of the “bright shiny new devices” or to follow trends without a sound rationale. Another strategy often discussed is a 'whole-school’ implementation of Assistive Technology solutions. Where students require individualised supports it is rare for “one size to fit all”. A 'whole-schoool' approach should ensure that individual students are not excluded by their specific requirements.
Here we will consider an “example” student we will call Jenna. The full SETT framework is beyond the scope of this section, so this is a summary starting with an outline of the student's school day.
Jenna is a student who is seated in her wheelchair most of the day. Most activities and tools are presented on her wheelchair tray. Her hand function makes it difficult for her to use pencil and paper, or to hold any object. She can reach out and tends to repeatedly bang on an object with her whole hand. Her speech consists of some approximations to a few words, “mum”, “Jenna” and “more”. Other vocalisations indicate upset, anger, contentment or happiness. She has had symbol communication boards at various times through her years at school. She demonstrates understanding of simple instructions or questions for example, “stop”, “more?”, “your turn” and also greetings and other contextual language. Jenna is interested in pop music, especially One Direction, looking at magazines with someone else, and socialising. Her educational goals broadly include participating in the curriculum as much as possible. She is generally included in activities. being asked questions, provided with items to manipulate and observing activities in which she is physically unable to perform..
What Assistive Technology to use?
The first question to address is “how will the student operate the technology?” This relates to the method of access. For a student like Jenna her hand control has been identified as limiting her participation. In schools there may be resources available such as switches, however it will be important to enlist the advice of an Occupational Therapist to evaluate the most suitable movement/s and corresponding access method/s. If we proceed with switch use without the advice of an Occupational Therapist, this is what we are likely to see: a popular and commonly available switch such as the Jelly Bean switch is placed in front of her on her wheelchair tray with the aim that she will use her hand to activate it. Jenna reaches out to touch the switch, which she repeatedly bangs (as is her preferred way to explore any object) or she rests her hand on it and seems to have difficulty releasing the switch. We have set Jenna up to fail! She may repeatedly “bang” the switch to gain sensory information from the object she is exploring. She may rest on the switch because she finds it difficult to move against gravity to release the switch. So what would an OT do? An OT would first check Jenna’s seating and positioning for the activity. An OT would gain an understanding of Jenna’s sensory, perceptual and motor abilities and movement patterns to work out what method of access will be most suitable. If a switch is determined to be the best access method for Jenna, the positioning of the switch will be individual and specific to match the identified movement/s. The switch set-up will ideally be independent, non-fatiguing and reliable. For Jenna it was found that she could use extend her fingers in a controlled manner to activate a switch if she stablized the heel of her hand on the surface of her wheelchair tray. The Cling mount arm was used to position a Mini Beamer wireless proximity switch vertically. Jenna simply extends her fingers so the pads make contact with the vertical surface of the Mini Beamer. The Mini Beamer transmits wirelessly to activate the PowerLink 4, so she can operate appliances and participate in various activities.
A range of switches and switch mounts are available from Zyteq.
Switches are available in a wide range of shapes, and sizes, with a variety of methods of operation with specifications including force required to activate. An Occupational Therapist would be the most knowledgable person to match the person;s movement and switch site to the most suitable switch. To view the range of switches available from Zyteq please go to our SWITCHES section on the website.
Switches are just one form of alternative access. Switches ca be used to operate a qide range of devices including household appliances, computers, iPads and toys.
Other types of access such as head-tracking, eye gaze control and trackballs are used to operate computers.
To position the switch in the required position for the student, a range of commercially available product are available. The switch should be positioned safely and securely at the site where the student can access it when required.
Mounting a switch may involve Velcro or dual-lock, a switch positioning wedge or more sophisticated mount designed for the purpose.
Commercial switch mounts are available from Zyteq include:
Once a switch is set-up for Jenna, it can be used in numerous activities. She may however, need to learn how to use the switch before combining this new skill with other goals. Switch training may be an important part of Jenna’s program to develop the motor patterns and reliable use before adding the complexity of additional goals. The Occupational Therapist should be able to assist with suggestions of fun and engaging activities towards this goal. Support staff will need to learn how to set up the switch and mount (if required) to ensure the positioning is consistent and correct.
Assistive Technology Available For Switch Access
Once a student is set up with a suitable switch a wide range of activities can be used for education, games and play, communication and controlling appliances (environment control).
These areas of control can be combined in creative ways for example,
ACTIVITY 1: a lamp (or two lamps) can be controlled using a switch for a game where the student provides STOP (red light) and GO (green light) commands in a game of "statues".
ACTIVITY 2: a single message device can be activated reading a repeated line of a story.
Many activities are detailed in the Ablenet Webinar recorded for viewing at any time. (go to webinar sign in page). This webinar uses the powerLink 4 as a key tool for achieving active engagement.
Ablenet also provides "how to" work sheets to set up actvitivities at their Remarkable Ideas web page.
The PowerLink 4 adapts standard electric appliances to switch accessible operation.
The switch operation can be adjusted in a number or ways through the PowerLink 4. One or two appliances can be connected. Most switches can be connected.
Students can operate the PowerLink 4 using any of the wired switches. The PowerLink 4 has a receiver in-built to permit wireless connection using a transmitter such as :
Jelly Beamer Twist Transmitter, Big Beamer transmitter.
The transmitters are operated with their in-built switch surface. If the transmitters do not provide the type of switches the student requires, an external wired switch can be connected to the transmitter. This may be necessary for activation by head, chin, foot and so on, where a specific switch can be positioned for the student.
The BigJack can also be set-up to operate household appliances, and single switch activations replace commands from standard remote controls. So a switch can be linked to a command for MUTE or Channel UP, or SKIP track or other command. These controls can be used as part of a game or activity or for personal control of TV, music, DVD player and so on.
Switch Operated Toys
Toys which are adapted for switch activation can be used to act out a story, for racing or other activities. Switches can be connected directly to the toy’s switch jack, or a wireless connection can be created using:
SLAT (Wireless Switch Latch and Timer Receiver)
Mini beamer transmitter and receiver
To operate a computer using a switch, suitable switch software is required and a switch interface - a cable to connect the switch to the computer.
Zyteq offers the joycable as a switch ointerface.
A wireless switch connection ca be achieved using
Radio Switch Adapter by Sensory Software
Alternative access can also be achieved through a modified trackball or joystick for example:
Alternative & Augmentative Communication AAC
Students with Complex Communication Needs (CCN) can “speak” messages, questions, comments, responses etc, ”sing” lines of songs, “read” lines from a book and participate more fully in any part of the school day by using a communication aid. Devices which speak out a message are called Speech Generating Devices (SGD), and have also been called Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs), Electronic Communication Devices (ECDs), and high tech communication systems.
AAC may include signing, gesture, low tech communication books or boards and high tech systems and most often will include a combination of these strategies. A Speech Pathologist is the most appropriate professional to assist in assessing the individual’s needs for AAC. Often a student may be issued a personal system for his or her ongoing use. This system may be incorporated into the daily classroom activities and playground.
AAC systems may be used for expressive communication and to assist with language comprehension. Using a low tech communication board or book to model almost everything spoken by the teacher in the classroom is acknowledged as an important “input” strategy to assist with development of the “visual language” skills required of AAC users. High tech systems can also be used for modelling. The aim is to use consistent symbols and systems so that the student learns the structure of the language, the association of the symbol with its referent and the location of the vocabulary. The Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD) is a highly regarded system which uses modelling, smart partner and vocabulary organisation for both input and output of communication within a language learning environment. Other strategies are also available such as those based on “core vocabulary” or XXXX. Creating an AAC environment may be relevant to a classroom where one or more students with Complex Communication Needs.
Simple communication devices may be useful throughout the school day either as individual devices or as a shared resource.
- Big Step-by-Step
- Little Step-by-Step
- Quicktalker S
- Talking Brix
Eye gaze at an entry level for early learning is the newest application of eye gaze access. Up until recently various activities such as computer games, switch operated toys, switch adapted appliances, e.g. blender to make a smoothie, have been used to provide opportunities for individuals to learn cause and effect. These activities also involve the physical component of activating a switch or touchscreen, which may be an additional skill (motor movement or pattern) to be learned. Eye gaze offers an access method for early learning, which removes some of the physical elements. Vision, interest in the screen content and other factors remain important considerations..
If a student has been using a switch for many years for a single selection there are only a few avenues for further development.
- The student can move onto scanning - waiting for a cursor or light to move sequentially through the options and activating the switch to select. To advance further the student will need to learn scanning which may be a cognitive leap and very challenging for some students.
- A second switch may be introduced for 2-switch scanning so that the timing element is eliminated. In this method one switch MOVES the cursor and the second switch CHOOSES the item.
Eye Gaze offers the possibility of moving forward with an in increased number of options available without significantly increasing the cognitive load.
A separate section is devoted to eye gaze and the various forms of use. Please go to out Eye Gaze Selection Guide.
At the entry level the key peices of equipment would be:
- MyGaze eye tracker
- Look to Learn software
- Look to learn: Scenes and Sounds expansion pack
- a suitable computer and mount
An iPad can be adapted to adapt the use for simple access and switch access.
To understand the alternative access options please refer to our Selection Guide: iPads as Assistive Technology.
Specific products that can be added to an iPad are:
Please check our iOS Switch Interface Guide for additional details.
Suggested School Assistive Technology kits:
Switch access kit:
- PowerLink 4
- Beamers - Mini beamer or Jelly beamer
- Modhose mount
- Cling mount kit
Eye gaze kit:
- Mount for eye gaze
- Look to learn
- Look to Learn: scenes and sounds
- The Grid 2
- MyGaze camera
- exisitng computer or mainstream tablet e.g. Windows Surface pro 3
- Single selection devices
- iPad accessories & Apps
- AVAZ app
- GridPlayer app