Learning Disabilities and Assistive Technologies Guide
Welcome & Purpose
We are here to Help You! To accomplish that we have developed this wiki:
- As a resource for individuals with Learning Disabilities, family members, service providers, teachers, parents, consumers and their circles of support
- To incorporate an assistive technology evaluation, and information on specific difficulties (i.e, reading, writing, memory organization and math)
- To incorporate are success stories of adolescents and adults using assistive technology to help them live more independently
this web site does not substitute for one-on-one information with an assistive technology provider, whether in the school system or in a rehabilitation setting.
We hope you enjoy this service. Look for continuing updates.
Brent struggles to form each letter of the words on his tablet. Michelle looks at her checkbook to spell her name and address on a job application. After his son falls asleep, Bill slams the third-grade reader shut in frustration because he can’t read it to his child or himself. Susan just received the wrong change at the grocery store, but she cannot tell because she can’t count fast enough. Jack, late again for another job interview, drives around anxiously in search of office building number 215, or is it 251? Mark’s mind drifts away to many other places as he tries again to concentrate on his GED examination.
These conscientious people share one thing in common: learning disabilities. They have the intelligence to accomplish all of these tasks; they have just not found the means to accommodate their needs. But, there are ways for them to reach their goals if they have the appropriate support behind them. Such is the purpose of this guide-- to provide information on assistive technology for individuals with learning disabilities and their providers.
Assistive technology is an important piece of the whole support system individuals with learning disabilities require to achieve success. Exactly what is assistive technology (AT)? AT is any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain or improve the abilities of individuals with disabilities: tools to promote independence across all areas of daily living. These common tools extend from low-tech, low-cost items to high-tech, more expensive devices. Low-tech devices require little or no training; high-tech devices may require extensive training.
Technology can affect the lives of people with learning disabilities in daily living, whether it’s in the classroom, at work, in the home, or in other social settings. Technology provides, in other words, valuable tools for life. The simplicity and ready availability of low-tech devices should not be overlooked. Inexpensive color highlighters, for example, can help individuals with reading difficulties distinguish words that appear the same, like proud, pound, and pond. Providers help the student highlight the troublesome words in different colors and make the reader visually aware of the differences between these words. Such training leads the student to a higher level of awareness of his/her disabilities. High-tech devices, such as an optical character recognition (OCR) system, provides a means of entering text or printed material directly into a computer by use of a scanner. Once the text has been scanned into the computer, it can be read back to the user by means of a speech synthesizer. Another useful accommodation is a speech recognition system. Appropriate for adults with learning disabilities, the system operates in conjunction with specially equipped personal computers. Such programs enable the user to dictate to the computer, converting oral language to written text.
New technological systems and their applications continue to evolve rapidly. In the recent past, technologies now applied to individuals with learning disabilities were originally developed for people with other disabilities. OCR programs, to select one example, appeared at first for individuals with visual impairments or blindness. Only recently were these programs found to be effective in the learning disability community.
Technology in itself is not the answer to all problems faced by people with learning disabilities or for their service providers. Technology does, however, provide valuable tools for life. Those seeking technological assistance should focus not on the device, but on what the device can do for the individual in need. The fit must be right. The biggest or most expensive may not always be the best fit. The key to selecting the most appropriate tool involves many elements: seeking a thorough team evaluation, finding the resources to obtain the technology, customizing the technology to make the best fit, and providing the time as well as the patience for training.
This guide offers individuals with learning disabilities and service providers a look at how AT can accommodate the needs of both. We will examine answers to the following questions: As an instructor what do you need to know about assistive technology? What is the most effective instruction to use for individuals with learning disabilities? How do you match the needs of the individual with the available technology? What is some of the technology out there? What funding is available?
We hope this guide will lead you to a clearer understanding of how technology can help you answer these questions and direct you to selecting the appropriate AT for each individual’s needs. The answers are not always simple but demand attention. As a consumer, an individual with learning disabilities, I can speak from my own personal experience that technology has made a difference not only in my work environment but also in my day-to-day living. For all the Brents, Michelles, Bills, Susans, Jacks, and Marks who seek your help, there are assistive tools to level the field and give them the opportunity to realize their dreams. This guide can lead you to see technology as an emerging way to touch the future.
Understanding Learning Disabilities
Broadly defined, the term learning disability has been used to describe a variety of problems in acquiring, storing, and/or retrieving information. People with learning disabilities have difficulty taking information in through the senses and processing the information with accuracy to the brain. The information becomes scrambled, like a short circuit, a distorted radio signal, or a fuzzy television picture. Learning disabilities occur irrespective of race, culture or class. People with learning disabilities possess average or above average intelligence levels; however, the disability is often confused with other difficulties including slow learning, retardation, emotional and/or behavioral disabilities.
Thought to be a neurologically based nervous system disorder, learning disabilities are not the result of visual, hearing, and/or physical disabilities; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; acquired brain injury; ineffective instruction or lack of motivation to learn; cultural diversity; and/or socio-economic conditions. Learning disabilities can be genetic or acquired and may accompany other disabilities such as deficits in sight and hearing. They may also be the result of birth trauma, low birth weight, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome/effect, and long-term chemical dependence.
The inaccurate sensory transmissions to the brain may often lead to difficulty learning and performing in training and job settings, as well as to emotional instability. The most common manifestations occur in the areas of reading, writing, and/or mathematics, subsequently affecting a broad range of skills and functions. Additionally, manifestations are commonly found in attention, reasoning and processing, memory, oral communication, coordination and motor functions, social competencies, and executive functioning skills such as organizing, problem solving, prioritizing, and self-management.
This condition is the most neglected, most misunderstood disability due to its hidden nature--and there is no cure. However, with appropriate accommodations and training strategies, the person with learning disabilities can learn to take advantage of strengths and minimize weaknesses, and thus enhance the potential of success in training and employment environments.
Without reasonable accommodations, the person with learning disabilities is presented with innumerable barriers. The inability to demonstrate skills adequately results in poor performance evaluations, stress related health problems, and job instability, not to mention the unrealized productivity standards of the employer. Without appropriate education and training, there are few employment opportunities which allow advancement.
What are we looking for in the adult or adolescent learner suspected of having a learning disability? Most individuals with learning disabilities display a number of characteristics at one time or another and in varying degrees. These characteristics are listed under "General Characteristics."
General Characteristics of Learning Disabilities
Most individuals with learning disabilities display a number of characteristics at one time or another and in varying degrees. These characteristics are listed under "General Characteristics" and include:
Auditory and visual deficits
Oral/Verbal Expressive Language
Auditory and visual deficits affect one’s ability to develop and use language effectively; the effects are most apparent in reading, math, writing, and spelling skills. In both instances, the central nervous system is not processing symbols correctly. The individual:
demonstrates variable or unpredictable performance; has difficulty staying on task or using a procedure past the point of its being appropriate; is able to learn information presented in one way, but not in another; experiences severe underachievement in one or more of the basic academic areas (reading, writing, spelling, math); reveals an obviously uneven profile on a battery of tests (showing real strengths and real weaknesses); has generally poor work and organizational habits; seems to lack resourcefulness.
It is important to note that many of these observed learning characteristics and behaviors result from problems that the individual experiences in the areas of visual discrimination and visual memory, as well as auditory discrimination and auditory memory.
Visual discrimination refers to the learner’s ability to retain a full mental image of what s/he has seen. In both instances, the central nervous system is not processing symbols correctly.
Visual memory refers to the learner's ability to store and recall what has been seen.
Auditory discrimination involves the ability to recognize the differences between sounds. The result of an auditory deficit is that the individual fails to hear vowel or soft consonant sounds in spoken words.
Auditory memory refers to the learner’s ability to store and recall what has been heard.
Auditory and visual deficits affect one’s ability to develop and use language effectively; the effects are most apparent in reading, math, writing, and spelling skills.
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Oral/Verbal Expressive Language
omits or uses words inappropriately; has problems explaining things logically; has trouble expressing thoughts concisely (forgetting, confusing, or having difficulty articulating words); has trouble with telephone conversations; frequently misunderstands verbal communications (because of auditory discrimination problems, the person may process the sounds in words out of sequence, e.g., hears “aminal” instead of “animal”); has difficulty expressing herself in group settings; substitutes words incorrectly; has trouble retrieving known words; has problems making generalizations; is hesitant to speak out in class or at work; has difficulty listening; manifests slow verbal information processing; has trouble understanding words or concepts; has difficulty selecting relevant information; has auditory sequencing problems; has problems organizing ideas and expressing ideas in words; misinterprets language subtleties (e.g., tone of voice, sarcasm); has difficulty following complex directions.
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has difficulty with short-term memory (e.g., following simple and/or multi-step instructions, remembering material read and/or information presented orally); cannot remember personal history or data (long-term memory); q has problems repeating information (saying the same thing over and over without
has difficulty synthesizing discussion (time, place, events); has difficulty retaining information without excessive rehearsal, practice, or other memory techniques; has trouble remembering information presented orally; has trouble remembering information read; has trouble with multiple directions; experiences difficulty retaining recently learned material; has problems recalling simple instructions (e.g., how to deposit money in the bank).
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has difficulty absorbing major ideas from oral presentations (instructions, lectures, discussions); makes frequent errors, both verbal and written; needs information to be repeated and reviewed; demonstrates poor decision-making skills; has poor abstract reasoning skills; shows poor cause/effect reasoning; has trouble recognizing and learning from mistakes; cannot recognize mistakes; has trouble moving from one idea to the next one; delays verbal responses; takes longer on reasoning tasks; has difficulty with abstractions; needs concrete demonstration; has trouble following oral information; has difficulty solving problems; is unable to transfer or generalize skills or integrate information; has difficulty drawing conclusions, making inferences, dealing with abstractions, seeing the whole.
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has problems managing the details of daily life; q has trouble organizing; experiences difficulty prioritizing; has problems identifying the next step; manifests inconsistent performance; jumps from topic/idea to topic/idea; shows poor organization of concepts and tasks (including sequencing, prioritizing, grouping or categorizing, generalizing, grasping similarities between items, relating parts to the whole); has difficulty with maps, graphs, and charts; has trouble following multiple directions, especially in a prescribed sequence; complains of getting lost easily/disoriented easily; arrives very early or very late; has difficulty spacing assignment on a page (e.g., crowding math problems on a page); has difficulty telling time; has problems adjusting to change.
How to Use this Guide
Under Case Studies in each of the areas you will find studies presenting descriptive examples of some of the ways in which technology can enable persons with particular learning disabilities to perform tasks, to enhance the quality of their work and life, and to experience success and fulfillment in those aspects of their lives which have frustrated or even defeated them in the past. While these case studies are primarily illustrative of particular difficulties faced by particular individuals, they provide a matrix for moving from identification of a problem to action.
After the narrative describing the setting and the problem, each case presents a crucial step in the progress from thought to action: an analysis of the individual's strengths and weaknesses. Any further action will capitalize on the person's strengths (e.g., strong motivation, good language skills) and accommodate his weaknesses (e.g., poor spelling and writing skills, deficits in nonverbal skills).
The final section presents suggestions for the application of assistive technology to the deficient area or skill drawn from the rapidly expanding array of technological accommodations available to the consumer, his family, and providers.
We provide some suggestions, not the solutions to any given problem. As technology advances in the area of assistive technology as it applies to learning disabilities, the choices will grow and the range of accommodations expand. In any case, these suggestions should not be viewed as a cure all. They are tools of which the usefulness must be evaluated case by case.
The good news is that there are usually other options available if one tool proves ineffective or too expensive or too complicated for the user. (See Chapter IV, Technology and Learning Disabilities, for more information on reading, writing, math, and social skills problems and for strategies to deal with these problems, including descriptions of hardware and software options).
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