The most significant barrier that many students with disabilities face in school is not their disability.
In actuality, the most significant barrier that many students with disabilities face in school is a lack of support from the system toward accomplishing greater things than they ever thought possible.
Sometimes, the system (that includes the teachers, the administration, and the family) just doesn’t have a basic belief that the student has a path to accomplish great things. Sometimes, the belief is there that the student could achieve great things, but there is not adequate support (either in type or quantity) for the student to make it a reality. Both of these situations perpetuate a longstanding myth that students with disabilities are unable to achieve the same curriculum goals that typical students are expected to reach.
This perspective becomes magnified when students are expected to “qualify” somehow, behaviorally or academically, before being given access to the very technology that could unlock a world of learning for them.
If you have a 1:1 program, but you don’t include the kids in a resource room or other placement besides the typical classroom, I’m sorry, but you don’t really have a 1:1 program.
In my work as an instructional technology coach this school year, I have been supporting Felicity-Franklin Local Schools with rolling out Chromebooks to all students, grades 5-12. Some of the students have difficulty (for various reasons) using the Chromebook in its typical setup. Through a variety of accessibility features, students are using their Chromebooks in a variety of ways to accomplish tasks. Here are some of the most useful for us:
- Zoom – Native to Chrome OS (and the Chrome browser) is the Zoom feature. Press [Ctrl] + [=] to zoom in (make things bigger). Press [Ctrl] + [-] to zoom out (make things smaller). And when you get lost playing with that, press [Ctrl] +  to return the browser to the default zoom. [Pro tip: Use [Cmd] instead of [Ctrl] for Chrome on a Mac.]
- Speech-to-text in Google Docs – Google Docs has a built-in speech-to-text tool called “Voice Typing” that lets you talk to your word processor instead of typing! This is a great help for students who struggle with keyboarding speed, and students who struggle with spelling. In a Google Doc, click “Tools” → “Voice Typing” (or use the keyboard shortcut [Ctrl] + [Shift] + [s]). A guide to input by dictation and voice commands is available at https://support.google.com/docs/answer/4492226.
- Text-to-speech with texthelp’s Read&Write – Some students greatly benefit from having on-screen text read aloud as they follow along visually. Far from being a “crutch” that permits students to consume content without developing decoding skill, text-to-speech supports developing readers by highlighting individual words as it “reads”, giving students a multi-modal experience. Get the Read&Write Chrome extension.
- Closed Captions in YouTube – Many typical students prefer video to reading, especially for longer passages of material. For students with hearing loss, video can be a huge barrier. Make sure the videos you provide for your class have accurate captions, or at least an accurate transcript, available. YouTube will try to auto-generate captions for a video that does not have them provided, but these can be woefully inaccurate. [Pro tip: In YouTube, click the “More” (three dots) button below the right edge of the video, then click on “Open transcript”. Click on any line in the transcript, and the video will jump to that timestamp! Great for searching for a particular word or phrase in the video!]
All of these tools, and many more that are used for more specific circumstances, have one great thing in common: they address learner variability by “adding to” rather than “taking away”. Strategies like removing access to technology and reducing academic expectations do more harm than good for students who struggle with typical curriculum (even in electronic formats!).
When a student struggles with the technology we are making available to every student, we must remember that the barrier is not in the student, but in the technology. The first best question we can ask is, “What can we add to this situation to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of this barrier for this student?”