Soldering irons heated up at stations around the classroom. Students were silent as the professor gave a series of final instructions. Moving into their groups, the classroom buzzed. Most were new to soldering. And while the activity was simple – fuse a couple wires together – the purpose behind their work had the power to change a life.
The students were learning to construct a switch. The powerful thing about switches is they allow people with a disability to control their environment. Control can be a beautiful thing for someone whose disability has put him in a position to watch as another person controls his world.
All students in the special education program at the University of Kentucky College of Education take this course (EDS 517: Introduction to Assistive Technology). Most, like Sean Armstrong, plan to become special education teachers.
“I had a very good relationship with one of the special education teachers in the elementary at my old school,” Armstrong said. “He really influenced me and inspired me to become a special education teacher through his words and caring acts towards kids and how well they responded to him. I fell in love with the feeling of changing a child’s life and helping them better themselves with proper knowledge and guidance.”
Dr. Margaret Bausch taught the college’s first assistive technology course. She has been teaching it now for 25 years.
“Special education teachers may work with students who cannot operate devices such as a computer because of limited physical abilities,” Bausch said. “In our profession, we focus on helping individuals become as independent as possible in all aspects of their lives including daily living, communication, education, and sports or leisure activities.”
Dr. A. Edward Blackhurst is responsible for starting the assistive technology program at UK about 30 years ago. Blackhurst wrote many grants to support the use of technology in the college’s special education program and in public schools. In fact, Baush and Blackhurst collaborated on the grant that put the first computers in special education classrooms in Fayette County Public Schools.
“It is after we saw the benefits of technology for students with disabilities that our department began teaching an assistive technology course,” said Bausch.
Switches can be connected directly into battery-operated devices or plugged into a switch interface to operate items that run on household current such as a hairdryer, computer or lamp. In the educational setting, there are switch accessible programs available on computers and tablet devices such as an iPad to teach math and reading skills. Just as important, Bausch said, are switch operated devices that help in social activities, such as one that allows a person to release a bowling ball from a ramp so that she may participate in a game of bowling with her peers.
“Although not all students in the special education program will construct switches in their jobs as teachers, they leave class with a basic understanding of how to repair switches and how to adapt commercially available switches to meet the individual needs of students in their classes,” Bausch said.
In her research in 43 school districts across 10 states, Bausch and colleagues Dr. Melinda Ault and Dr. Ted Hasselbring (now at Vanderbilt University), discovered that special education students use a wide variety of technologies.
Assistive technologies have evolved rapidly as developers have found ways to use new technologies for individuals with disabilities, Bausch said. For example, text-to-speech software has improved the lives of individuals who are blind or have a reading disability; speech-to-text software has helped individuals who are not able to hold a pencil or type; on-screen keyboards and word prediction software have assisted those who cannot use a standard keyboard. In the past, many of these technologies were expensive add-ons to computers but are now built into the operating system or other mainstream software programs. This makes the devices more accessible than ever before.
Since there are close to seven million students identified with a disability in this country, it is critical that every special education teacher knows and understands what assistive technology is and how it should be considered for, and implemented with, each of those students as needed, Bausch said.
Knowing not just how to use the technology, but how to build, adapt and troubleshoot, provides confidence to students like Armstrong who will be going on to careers in schools.
“In this class I will have learned how to prepare myself for any situation if a child was to come into my classroom in the future with a certain disability and need assistance or guidance on how to use their assistive technology device,” Armstrong said. “This class will also prepare me for any circumstance in which a device is broken, being used improperly, or not providing the correct assistance for the individual using it. Dr. Bausch has done a great job teaching us the ins and outs of assistive technology and I have no doubt we will all be fully equipped with all the knowledge we need necessary for our future careers.”