Computers and other assistive technology tools can be incredibly empowering for students with disabilities. Computers have been called “electronic curb cuts,” meaning that they provide access to what non-disabled students take for granted – typical classroom activities and the general education curriculum. This access to the curriculum can contribute to the successful inclusion of students with disabilities in their neighborhood schools. It can contribute to the successful participation of students with disabilities in colleges and universities. Computers can enable students with disabilities to demonstrate their understanding of academic subjects even if they cannot write legibly or speak intelligibly. Technology can decrease students’ reliance on other people by increasing their independent completion of academic tasks. The list goes on. But . . .
But what? Our 18 years of exploring new assistive technology products and teaching teachers, parents, and students how to use them has taught us one very important lesson. Technology alone is not enough. The technology is exciting (and fun), no question about it, but a computer alone will not increase a student’s success in school. Buying an expensive site license for a software program will not result in student gains. Providing students who have disabilities with the latest, most dazzling devices in the world will not make a difference in their lives – unless the equation includes:
The first two necessities – training and technical support – need to be provided by schools and colleges consistently and in a timely manner. Imagine being asked to give a concert after only one piano lesson or being told to ride a two-wheeler without training wheels after one lesson. This is what students are often asked to do with new technology tools – become successful and independent users after only one quick training session and no technical support. And what happens? Many don’t use the new tool; they give up.
The second two necessities – practice and persistence – fall into the realm of student responsibility. It is the student him/herself who must make a point of practicing a new technology tool until s/he is comfortable with using it, and who must persist through technical problems and the typical frustrations of learning a new skill.
The three feature articles in this issue of TECH-NJ highlight the experiences of students with disabilities who succeeded in making assistive technology tools work for them. The profile of the Adaptive Technology Lab at Middlesex County College describes an exemplary program that provides quality training and support. The profiles of Serena Cucco, a sophomore at Manhattanville College who is blind, and Megan McTigue, a graduate of Ramapo College who cannot use her arms, demonstrate the critical roles practice and personal persistence play in getting technology to live up to its potential. Megan explains that it took her three to five months to feel comfortable using speech recognition technology and an entire year before she completely mastered it. LeDerick Horne’s poem on page 7 captures this essential mind-set:
and ain't NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING
standing in my way