Overcoming Technology Barriers in Special Education

Students using tablet computers in class

For students with special needs, technology can play a critical role in providing expanded access to the curriculum and improving student assessment outcomes. However, the proliferation of technology in the United States and around the world has also created new barriers for special needs students that haven’t existed before, especially with the onset of the pandemic and its impact on students. 

When considering special education technology it is also important to ensure that students have equitable access both at home and at school. By ensuring equitable access and providing educators with adequate training on how to use technology effectively with special education students, schools and districts can improve test scores and learning for students with special needs. 

A Global Snapshot

Depending on where a student is located, the services and special education technologies available to them may look vastly different. In the United States, there is an enormous amount of money each year spent on technology resources in schools, with over 2.2 billion dollars in venture capital being raised in 2020 alone. In addition, the United States also requires public schools to admit and educate all students as appropriate to their needs, regardless of their special education status. 

Although many other nations do provide services for students with special needs, this is not true across the board. Some countries may have different definitions of special education altogether, with only students receiving services for those with physical disabilities, while others may cover a larger range of students. However, regardless of location worldwide, there are special education technology advancements that can benefit all special education students. 

Generally speaking, there are a few ways that technology may benefit students with special needs including:

  • Enhanced speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities – allow students that may struggle with typing or handwriting responses to record responses more quickly. It also allows students who have vision impairments to seamlessly access reading materials online. 
  • Increased customization in lesson planning – technology platforms give teachers the ability to use Universal Design principles to better assess and reach all students at their level and increase student engagement.  
  • Developing social-emotional skills – many students with special needs struggle to act appropriately in traditional school settings, technology can help these students to show what they know without using traditional paper and pencil testing. 

What are the Technical Barriers in Special Education?

Although there have been great strides in improving the technology available to students and improving the educational experience of special needs students, there are additional barriers that arise out of technology itself. Some of the barriers to technology in special education include

  • Students having internet access at home – for many students, home internet access is not reliable or simply doesn’t exist. This is true for special education students as well. In practice, this may mean that tools that the student can use at school cannot be used at home which limits their ability to complete homework or assignments outside of class. 
  • Sub-standard accessibility – EdTech platforms that are do not take into account the different accessibility concerns of diverse users can significantly alienate users with special needs. 
  • Lack of staff or teacher training on the technology – if a student is using assistive technologies in class, it is unlikely that their classroom teacher is an expert in using this technology. This means that if the student gets stuck or the tech isn’t working, then they cannot move forward at the same pace as their peers. 

Working Toward an Equitable Future for Learning

These issues may be caused by the implementation of new special education technology in the classroom, however, technology can also be utilized as a solution to these problems as well. The key in all of this is that teachers and special education providers need to be thinking about problems that could arise and how to solve them before they happen. 

For example, students without internet access at home can be given assignments that have a portion of the work completed using their technology tools during the school day, and the other portion, not requiring technology could be completed at home. Many internet companies have also expanded access for students in need of connection to the web in the United States. 

In terms of teaching staff and students how to use the technology itself, special education teachers could create how-to videos and generate lessons to ensure that students and their teachers know how to use the tech effectively and efficiently before ever asking them to use it for an assignment. Students could then access lessons and navigate platforms easily, and complete their lessons. 

Technology has become the great equalizer in education and this is especially true for students with special needs. By implementing high-quality lessons and integrating technology throughout the lesson teachers enable students with special needs to engage with material that is at their level and meets their unique learning needs. Aside from simple content, there is also high-quality assistive technology that gives students the ability to respond to questions and demonstrate learning in ways that they haven’t been able to before. 

Platforms such as Open Assessment Technologies that are built on WCAG accessibility standards allow teachers to plan digital lessons designed to meet the needs of all learners, including special education students. To learn more about how digital learning can improve the learning experience for your special education students click here.