+ Assistive Technology for the Learning Disabled

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This information is taken from Lisa Guernsey’s article in the “Education Life” supplement to the New York Times.

Guernsey quotes Brent Parker, director of learning and innovation technology for the Calgary Board of Education in Canada, “These technologies help level the playing field for individuals who would not be able to demonstrate their capabilities as learners.”

In Parker’s district, at least 90 public schools are using Dragon Dictate, a voice recognition program that does the typing for you.

Michael Riccioli realized his teenage son couldn’t comprehend the novel he was reading for class, so he

transformed the file into an MP3 file using software called GhostReader, which scans texts and reads them aloud.  His son listened to the file on his iPod while reading along.  “All went well with his test on the book.”

Riccioli teaches at University of Paris-Dauphine.  He uses the technology himself to write and plan projects for his students.

This is an example of “universal design for learning,”  which is a set of principles for designing technology intended for ALL people, not simply for those who are learning disabled.

Michael L Kamil is a consulting professor at the Stanford School of Education as well as an expert of adolescent literacy and technology.  He says there is great variation in learning disabilities, so the utility of any technology will depend on the severity of the disability.  

As Guernsey states it

One student may have such bad dyslexia that reading is virtually impossible while another has only a mild case.  A text-to-speech processor might actually slow down that latter student because reading text silently is much faster than hearing it read aloud.

So Mr. Kamil advises that parents consult with a professional who has evaluated the student before rushing out to spend $100 for a smart pen, or $1500 for the color version of the Kurzweil 3000.

Below is Guernsey’s sampling of the most popular assistive technologies on today’s market.


For students with severe reading disabilities, there are computer programs that can scan words and then “read” them aloud via synthesized voices, some of which sound recognizably human. 

Intel Reader is a device that plugs into a laptop for reading on-screen texts; it also takes a snapshot of (for example) a newspaper page to be read aloud.

ReadingPen Advanced is a pen-shaped scanner that glides over printed words and pronounces them through a built-in speaker.

The granddaddy of text-to-speech is the Kurzweil Reader.  Designed by inventor Ray Kurzweil for the blind, the latest version is a software package called the Kurzweil 3000.  It is stocked with features like word-by-word highlighting and foreign-language dictionaries.

In addition, check out GhostReader for the Mac; TextHelp Read and Write; and free programs and plug-ins like TypeIt ReadIt and Click,Speak.  While the Macintosh OS X comes with a free built-in reader, it doesn’t include multiple language.


For students who have trouble getting thoughts down on paper by pen or typing, there is voice-recognition software that allows them to talk into a microphone and immediately see their words on screen.

The Dragon line of products are the industry leaders.  Dragon Dictate (for Mac) and Dragon NaturallySpeaking (for the PC) get high marks for accurate translation, writes Guernsey.  There is an iPhone version, allowing portability.

Beware, she says, of the gee-whiz factor.  Depending on the disability and the student’s needs, a technology might slow down a student who has to spend extra time correcting errors and remembering punctuation commands.


Organizing thoughts, improving writing skills, keeping track of tasks: can software help with all this?  Well, there are a few programs that have visual prompts and templates, and they are promising.

Inspiration is a product using colored graphics such as thought bubbles and hub and spoke diagrams. It can help students as they brainstorm and develop outlines for writing.  Kurzweil 3000 offers similar writing software; it also give users the ability to add virtual sticky notes and audio recordings to on-screen texts.

Skoach is an online calendar and planning tool; it provides visual feedback to warn you if your schedule is becoming overloaded.

But lots of visual cues can be too much of a good thing, warns Mr. Kamil, depending on the individual’s specific type of disability.  “It might even be more disruptive in that there might actually be too much information on the screen.”

There are also pen-based devices designed to help organize notes.  The LiveScribe Pulse SmartPen is one that makes an audio recording simultaneously with pen marks on paper.  A student could go back to a specific scribbled word in his notebook, touch the pen to that spot and hear a full recording of what the speaker was saying when the mark was made.  Of this “pen” Michael Nieckoski, director of educational technology at Landmark College, “You can put down concepts and words and you don’t miss a thing.”


Assistive Technology: A Parent’s Guide,” by Marshall H Raskind and Kristin Stanberry.  A downloadable PDF with worksheet to help parents match technologies to their child’s needs.  http://www.tinyurl.com/y5kc7yh

CALL Scotland, a unit within the University of Edinburgh’s education school.  CALL stands for Communication, Access, Literacy and Learning. A Web site with studies and books on assistive technologies: http://www.callscotland.org.uk

National Center on Universal Design for Learning.  A group advocating for products and services useful to all people, including those with disabilities: http://www.udlcenter.org

Digital Text Notes.  A blog from Landmark College with regular updates on news about how technology can help people with learning disabilities.  http://www.digitaltext.wordpress.com

sole source: Lisa Guernsey’s chart “High-Tech Help” in the NY Times supplement Education Life; 1/9/11.  Guernsey is director of Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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