Computers help special needs people become a part of mainstream life

Special needs students enjoy the cause and effect that the computer gives them. (EB FILE)

There was a time when being differently-abled was considered a blight and people with special needs were not sent to schools or included in the workplace.

However, over the years mindsets have changed and now people with different disabilities are being encouraged to become useful members of society. In fact, many technology companies around the world are creating information and communication technology (ICT) to help children and adults with special needs.

Tricia Murphy, former president of Nasen, who was in Dubai recently to attend Gulf Educational Supplies and Solution 2010, told Emirates Business: "ICT benefits those with special needs at all levels and with the majority of special needs and disabilities. It is often best used as a motivational tool for those with an inability or dislike of writing themselves for whatever reason and as a means of access to differing areas of the curriculum."

In the UAE, young adults and people with special needs are increasingly being encouraged to learn the use of computers so that they can participate in the workforce. In fact, the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) certification programme at the ICDL training and testing centre at the General Information Authority in Abu Dhabi was set up specifically for the visually impaired, and is the first of its kind in the UAE to implement the ICDL computer literacy syllabus for the visually impaired.

The ICDL GCC Foundation has also launched an 'IT Skills for All' initiative in the UAE with the aim of making differently-abled people a part of the mainstream. The organisation is urging both the government and private sector to support efforts to increase the number of computer training facilities for people with special needs. Establishing IT facilities free from physical barriers, which might restrict access for the physically-challenged, is an important step that will make learning less difficult for differently-abled individuals and enhance their potential to contribute to social and economic development.

When using ICT with people with physical disability, it is important that there is regular assessment of their needs and the provision of training and support for both them and their helpers. This will ensure that the equipment offered to them is suitable and appropriate for their needs.

Asked how ICT can help children with special needs, Kenny Spence, Founder, Men in Childcare Association, said: "The use of ICT in the early years has the potential to enhance educational opportunities for special needs children. Appropriate ICT can encourage a great deal of purposeful and exploratory play."

Among other things ICT can encourage discussion, creativity, problem solving, risk-taking and flexible thinking. This can all be achieved in a play-centred and responsive environment.

ICT helps motivate children with special needs by giving them a neutral feedback to show instant success, marking of work and appropriate reward, which greatly assists them to keep trying and to move on to the next levels of progress.

Spence said: "Importantly, ICT can help combat social exclusion by motivating children with special needs. Experience is that children with high levels of special needs or communication difficulties have sometimes actually been the best when it comes to using the computer. Where previously their participation in other activities was low, they are often actively sought out by their peers and their self-esteem is boosted by being able to help others. The ability of the computer to repeat the same sequence of events as often as the child desires is often exactly what autistic children require and enjoy."

Ian Campbell, International Business Development Manager, BLi Education, which has a division that caters specifically to people with special needs, said: "The use of ICT in special needs education makes curriculum more accessible. There are different ranges of products being used to educate children with special needs, especially touchscreen laptops and touchscreen tables.

"The motivation among children to use ICT is the same among special needs children as in other children. There is no difference in the motivation levels, they all like to learn through the use of technology, which makes learning easier and personalised. They can learn at their own pace."

The products available for children with special needs include everything from computers, musical keyboards and cash registers to switch-operated and cause and effect toys. The switches on Travel Software are helpful for children who have difficulties with fine motor skills. Cause and effect toys and software are for people with autism and include things that repeat easily and quickly. Plus there is Leaps and Bounds Software for help with hand-eye co-ordinations to promote this in children with global delay.

Spence said: "Some children who have experienced the effects of under stimulation often are very patient in their dealing with the computer. They enjoy the cause and effect that the computer gives them without a need for speech. The children interact with the computer, the computer responds and they are rewarded.

"The most innovative products are sometimes the most simple. I am a particular fan of the Playschool cash register that encourages hand-eye co-ordination and literacy and numeracy.

"Also touchscreens have been extremely beneficial for special needs people. When the new tabletop technology currently used in the corporate world and in museums becomes available, it will be another leap forward."

Campbell added: "ICT allows special needs children to do things that otherwise they may not be able to do. For example, a child who cannot use the keyboard can learn through the use of voice recognition devices.

"Among the most innovative technologies for special needs children, the one I see becoming more popular is touchscreen technology. Touchscreen monitors and related software are powerful tools for students with disabilities and can improve their lives. Touchscreens display graphics that the user can touch to enter commands and make selections. Special software can display the image of a computer keyboard on the screen so that keys or commands can be clicked on."

However, ITC alone is just not enough to aid the special children. The value of human interaction and understanding can never be overemphasized. Murphy said: "The fact remains that ICT is just one ingredient in the very diverse provision needed for those with special needs, which should also include good staff and pupil relationships offered by well-trained staff of both genders, delivering a broad and balanced but relevant personalised curriculum."

No matter how sophisticate and advanced the technology, it does demand that practitioners are well trained and skilled in the appropriate uses of ICT with young children.

Spence concluded: "An essential ingredient for children is often an interested adult. An adult who enjoys ICT and will therefore promote the child's use of it. The adult should be comfortable with the computer and software so that should the child struggle, their frustration does not cause them to quit.

"Involvement of both the father and mother in the learning process, particularly with regards to the use of ICT, is greatly beneficial to the child."

 

 

What is available

 

People with physical disability

- Information and communication technology (ICT) resources can include computer access devices such as switches, adapted mice and keyguards, communication aids and specialised software

 

People with visual impairment

- ICT resources should include talking word processors, screen magnifiers, screen readers, electronic braillers and big pointer utilities

 

People with hearing impairment

- ICT resources should include symbol generating software, word processors, overlay keyboards, word lists, clipart to illustrate writing, spell checkers and grammar checkers

 

People with learning difficulties

- ICT resources can include talking books and other CD-ROMs with good sound and graphics, which are clearly laid out. Also drill and practise programmes, overlay keyboards, word list facilities and talking word processors will support the learning of pupils

 

How ICT helps

 

Physical and sensory difficulties

- Provide switch access to classroom activities such as matching, sorting and word processing

- Translate text into speech and speech into text

- Prepare work that is specially adapted with large fonts, symbols and particular colours

Learning difficulties

- ICT provides students with a clutter-free working environment where features of programmes are linked to their ability

- Enhances the development of activities that are clear, focused and attractive to pupils

- Enables students to practise skills in a different context, allowing numerous repetitions in order to aid learning

- Supports language development activities and offer multi-sensory ways of learning

- Offers a medium for differentiated activities emotional and behavioural

Difficulties

- Offers students a non-threatening or non-judgemental situation

- Allows them to be motivated and offers opportunities for success

- Gives children the opportunity to be responsible for their own

learning

- Allows children to work on tasks that are more manageable and achievable

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