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Special education technology for students with disabilities

David Horsell
Special Education Resource Unit (SERU)

This paper will focus on current practice and future directions in special education technology for students with disabilities in South Australia. It will highlight classroom application of adaptive and multimedia technology that assists these students to fully utilise their abilities to gain access to a broader and more balanced curriculum.

In discussion relating to special education technology I feel that it is useful to define technology as the process by which we change, control and enrich our environment through the use of objects or material aids. Therefore emphasis is placed on how we use a device such as a computer rather than on the device itself. We need to focus initially on the needs of those students identified as requiring special education provision to ensure that we develop effective strategies that incorporate appropriate access to relevant information through information technology for these students.

Students with disabilities

The Education Department of South Australia's policy "Students with Disabilities" prescribes that special education provision should target students with physical disabilities, students with intellectual disabilities, students with sensory impairments (ie. hearing and visual impairments) and students with disabilities in language and communication. In dealing with the application of technology to the needs of students with disabilities we must remember that all students are individuals and have their own individual set of needs. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I will risk generalising and summarise factors affecting the needs of students with disabilities as follows:

Students with physical disabilities may:

Students with intellectual disabilities may: Students with hearing impairments may: Students with visual impairments may: Students with disabilities in communication and language may: While it is important to be aware of the problems faced by students with disabilities the benefits of special education technology are maximised when we focus on the abilities of these students. We need to focus on what they can do rather than what they cannot do. The availability of computer technology that addresses the needs of students with disabilities supports the inclusivity of the curriculum for them and offers the opportunity for success that they may not otherwise experience.

Matching technology to student needs

In order for special educators to maximise the benefits of using computers to support learning programs for students with disabilities they need to be aware of available hardware/ software options and to develop strategies that ensure the most appropriate match between student needs and these options.

The most appropriate computer based support for some students may be hardware related. They may need to utilise adaptive hardware that provides an alternative input or output mode in order to access a broad range of programs. Other students may require an application that utilises specialised software. They may, for example, require non-text based software that incorporates speech output or symbolic screen presentation. Generally computer based support for students with disabilities is both software and hardware related (ie. the combination of an alternative input or output device with a specialised software package)


Access to computer based technology via adaptive hardware may incorporate the use of the following alternative input and output options:

Input options

Output options

Computers are able to provide students with visual, auditory or tactile information. Computer systems may also communicate with each other providing information via electronic communications. Visual information accessed via the computer monitor may be presented as text, programmed graphics or digitised images (still or video). Printers may also provide access to visual information from the computer in printed form.

Auditory information may be provided as synthesised (programmed) or digitised ("recorded") sound effects, speech or music. Tactile information may be accessed via a brailling or tactile imaging device.


Software that effectively meets the educational needs of students with disabilities in the classroom context is characterised by the flexibility and adaptability to meet the changing needs of individual students as they develop and to meet the range of student needs and learning styles found within groups of students. It should provide user (ie. student/ teacher/parent) control over a variety of program features such as the level of difficulty, speed related to user response requirements and program presentation (eg. volume of sound output, text size, background colour etc.). Above all we must remember that effective use of computer hardware is reliant on the availability of software that is flexible, adaptable, appropriate, relevant, user friendly and motivational.

The increased flexibility and adaptability of non-specialised software is providing the special educator with a growing range of options that may be utilised to meet the needs of students with disabilities. For example, the availability of digitised speech output to accompany on screen text in mainstream software, particularly on CD-ROM, may provide the only means of access to program information for students who are unable to read. Although software manufacturers may not consider the needs of students with disabilities as part of their program development process, these students still benefit as a result of such improved program presentation flexibility. We need to be creative in our use of software to meet the needs of students with disabilities and not to rely only on specialists to provide specialised software.

However, students with disabilities may need to use of specialised software that provides for alternative or assistive user access (ie. input/output). Specialised software may be designed as "standalone" software or as "transparent" software that adapts input and output associated with other non-specialised software. As the description implies, "standalone" specialised software provides both the application (eg. word processing, simulation etc.) and input/output adaptation. "Transparent" specialised software is active while other non-specialised software is running and adapts the associated input and output to meet the user needs without interfering with the normal operation of the non-specialised software. Examples of specialised software are:

Combining specialised software with adaptive hardware

The following is a list that summarises a range of computer based options that combine specialised software and adaptive hardware and may be used to meet the educational needs of students. Computing for students with physical disabilities may involve: Computing for students with intellectual disabilities may involve: Computing for students with hearing impairments may involve: Computing for students with visual impairments may involve: Computing for students with disabilities in communication and language may involve:

Interactive multimedia for students with disabilities

Computers are able to present an infinite variety of visual/auditory stimuli and responses. They also have the flexibility to accept a range of input types and methods. These characteristics are significant factors in the success of computers in addressing individual student needs and interests. Software developed to meet the needs of students with disabilities can provide a range of methodologies and input options There are some excellent examples of such software available commercially. The use of these "off the rack" software packages has resulted in a reliance on the ability of programmers to address the needs of students with disabilities appropriately and effectively.

However non-programmers are now able to develop "tailor made" software through use of multimedia technology in combination with suitable authorware (eg. Hypercard (Apple), Magpie (Acorn), Linkway (IBM)). The term multimedia refers to the combination of information from a variety of sources (eg. video camera, scanner, microphone) into one system that is controlled by the computer. The presentation of this information then combines a multitude of media (eg. animation, motion video, audio, graphics, text etc.). Hence the term multimedia.

The relevance of this development (multimedia) in computer technology to the education of students with disabilities can be seen in many areas. The use of multimedia technology in basic "cause and effect" applications will, for example, benefit these students with intellectual disabilities who generally have difficulty understanding the two dimensionality of traditional computer graphics and pictorial symbols. These images may be replaced by scanned photographs or video segment drawn from the student's own real life experience (eg. family members, home/ class/ school activities, etc.) and accompanied by more relevant sound (eg. speech, music) linked to these images. Communication software can focus on recognition skills (ie. the "real thing" on screen) rather than association skills (ie. representational block graphics, symbols, etc). Software aimed at language and reading development can be designed to reinforce an experiential approach. Computer assisted development of living skills can be made more effective and efficient because program content can be specific to the environment of each individual student. This, for example, avoids problems associated with using living skills software produced overseas.

Therefore program content can be individualised to meet the specific needs and interests of students with disabilities and improved learning outcomes for these students will result from the benefits related to improved:

Multimedia technology could be seen as the photocopier of the future and as such technology becomes more accessible it will result in the production of more teacher generated software. I feel that once special educators have developed the skills to utilise multimedia technology they will feel empowered and therefore more confident in there use of computers. Multimedia techniques will make computing more relevant to the individual needs of students with disabilities.

Multimedia for students with severe multiple disabilities

The Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) has recently been allocated funding from the School's Technology Education Program (STEP) for a project entitled "Multimedia for Students with Severe Multiple Disabilities". This project will involve the development of interactive multimedia applications for secondary aged students with severe multiple disabilities. The software development process will involve students with disabilities and teachers from a number of schools in developing interactive multimedia applications that incorporate auditory and visual content specific to the real life experiences of these students. SERU will provide a centralised point for teachers and their students to access multimedia technology with accompanying technical and curriculum support. They will be able to use their own images and sound by incorporating them into interactive multimedia applications providing student access via alternative input devices. These applications will be developed using authoring software on a range of platforms to ensure maximum flexibility and adaptability of project outcomes across the state.

Student interest will determine the content of the software developed - thus involving these students in the planning and design process in a manner that is relevant to their needs and abilities. Student feed back will provide the basis for software adaptation and evaluation. The development of these multimedia applications will provide these students with an effective and exciting vehicle for creative expression and communication. They will participate in an ability appropriate problem solving activity involving choice making regarding program content that is relevant to their lives. The project will provide the flexibility for extensive student involvement in the design, production and evaluation of a motivational, relevant and educational valid product that will enable greater participation in the curriculum for students who contend with extreme educational disadvantage.

We hope that positive project outcomes translate to improved learning outcomes for all students with disabilities and other educationally disadvantaged students.

Selecting appropriate technology for students with disabilities

The process of selecting a computer appropriate to the educational needs of students with disabilities should involve the consideration of a range of questions including: Therefore we need to focus on student needs, software, access, teaching strategies, support/ networking and cost.

The role of the computing focus at the Special Education Resource Unit (SERU) is to provide state wide (South Australia) support for teachers and parents in their use of computer technology to address the educational needs of students with disabilities. SERU assists in providing answers to those questions related to the selection process by providing access to relevant resources and information regarding what hardware/software is available, where it is available and how it can be used.


Adaptive and assistive technology and interactive multimedia applications provide the special educator with a powerful tools that can facilitate a more inclusive curriculum. However the power of these tools will only be harnessed effectively if we focus on the educational needs of student with disabilities first and subsequently the application of such technology to enabling improved access to the curriculum for these students.


Education Department of South Australia (1991). Students with Disabilities.

Education Department of South Australia and South Australian Health Commission (1991). Collaborative Action Plan for students with severe multiple disabilities.

Education Department of South Australia (1988). Partners in Learning,

Education Department of South Australia (1991). Skills for Information Literacy.

Kennedy, G. (Ed) (1992). Computer Related Technologies and Special Needs. Australian Journal of Remedial Education, 24(4).

Pryce-Davies, P. (1993). Gaining the Edge: The Macintosh and Special Needs.

Pryce-Davies, P. (1987). Teaching Learning and Technology in Special Needs Classrooms: A National Information Statement.

Wood, R. (Ed) (1993). Special Needs IT. Northwest SEMERC.

Author: David Horsell, Focus teacher in technology, Special Education Resource Unit (SERU). SERU is a state wide (South Australia) School Education service providing support to teachers and parents of students with disabilities.

Please cite as: Horsell, D. (1994). Special education technology for students with disabilities. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 106-111. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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