Category Archives: inclusion

The Most Significant Barrier

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.

Chrome logo with accessibility symbolIn 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] + [0] 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?”

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Try Eyegaze on Windows!

Have you ever wanted to type on your Windows computer without using your hands or your voice?  A growing number of people are controlling the computer using little more than small head movements.  This technology, commonly referred to as “Eyegaze,” benefits users with motor issues that prevent them from operating a computer in ways that are considered basic to many people.  Such users may include those with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Cerebral Palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy.

In its early days, eyegaze technology was incredibly expensive.  The only way most people who could most benefit from this technology could acquire it was by participating in medical or therapeutic studies where the cost of the technology was covered.

Now, you can download an eyegaze interface program to your Windows computer for free.  Actually, Camera Mouse is nearing its 10th anniversary as a freely available program, thanks to the people at Boston College.  When paired with on-screen keyboard software, everything that you could do with the keyboard and mouse can be done with your computer’s webcam, just by moving your head.

So, where can you get on-screen keyboard software?  In Windows, you already have it.  The one that comes with Windows is perfectly adequate.  In fact, the on-screen keyboard built-in to Windows 10 includes word prediction capability.  This can make eyegaze typing significantly faster.  Eyegaze typing typically works by registering a “click” after the mouse cursor stays in the same space for a set period of time (“dwell time”).

Simpler on-screen keyboard software is also available.  Two programs that are designed to work well with Camera Mouse and incorporate a text-to-speech option are Midas Touch and Staggered Speech.

I am typing this sentence using eyegaze and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard.

Yes, it’s slow.  That sentence took me over one minute to type.  But for a person who cannot use a standard keyboard or speech-to-text technology, typing a sentence in 60 seconds is a gateway to a fundamental communication option that opens up meaningful participation in the world.  Once a user gets more practice with eyegaze technology, they generally will want the “dwell time” reduced from one or two seconds to a half-second or less.  If I were to practice, and tweak the software settings, I could soon get to a point where I can reproduce that sentence in under a minute.

And, thanks to the technology, if I store a commonly-used sentence in a memory bank, I can reproduce the sentence in far less time than it would take me to type it conventionally, with my 55wpm fingers.

So, why would you want to use Camera Mouse and the Windows on-screen keyboard?  Here are three great reasons!

  1. The Lure of the Gadget – Some people avoid unfamiliar technology because of a fear of it not doing what is expected.  Some people, on the other hand, just can’t resist trying a technology just to see what it does.  If you’re the type who has a natural curiosity for technological wizardry, eyegaze is a super-cool interface to try out!  Camera Mouse doesn’t disable your built-in keyboard and mouse, so any time you need to bail out and shut off the eyegaze tracker, you can do so easily.
  2. Contribute to advancement – Eyegaze technology – and other assistive technologies – continue to get better because of the feedback developers get from users who try their software and give them feedback.  Most advancements in software design and capability started with a user who said, “Y’know, it would be great if this could….”
  3. Build Empathy – If you ever encounter a person who relies on such technology, you will have first-hand experience with what they deal with – both the struggle and the possibilities.  Also, should you happen to work with an individual who has difficulty using typical computer interface controls (e.g., keyboard and mouse), you can more effectively introduce and support the use of eyegaze technology for that individual.  Supplementary or alternative interfaces such as eyegaze give people with significant motor impairments a way to use computers to do many things that typical people take for granted.

For the college course I am teaching, I plan to have each of my students take a turn at using Camera Mouse and an on-screen keyboard to type a sentence.  I will not be grading them on how fast they type the sentence.  I will not be grading them on how few mistakes there are.  I don’t even care (much) if they remember the name of the program we will use or if they practice and get better at it.  My goal is for them to build empathy for the kids they will one day work with who either rely on eyegaze technology to effectively communicate, or who could significantly benefit from such technology.  When the rest of the group is in a typing class, there is no good reason why a student who does not have the physical capacity to type on a standard keyboard should be given some alternate activity that has nothing to do with typing.

But, making that a reality in our schools will require the efforts of educators who demand equity and excellence for every student, regardless of any disability label they’ve been given.

 

Supreme Court Renders Decision in Special Education Case

The current eight-member Supreme Court has handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v Douglas County (Colorado) School District.  The decision vacated the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling.  The Tenth Circuit had decided in favor of the school district,  ruling that “the child received some educational benefit while in the District’s care and that is enough to satisfy the District’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education.”

As the case was argued before the Supreme Court, that standard of “some educational benefit” was a central issue.  Had the district in fact done enough to provide Endrew the legally-mandated free and appropriate public education (FAPE)?  If not, the parents would be able to recoup the cost of tuition for the private school Endrew began attending.

The Supreme Court’s opinion establishes that merely providing “some educational benefit” for a student does not meet the district’s obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My thoughts…

  • How on earth did every lower court rule in favor of the school district?  This fact shows me that we still face a great number of people, in and out of the education world, who believe “every kid deserves a good education… well, but not THOSE kids.  They can’t handle it.”
  • Even in ruling for the student in this case, the Court left plenty of indication that it’s perfectly acceptable to settle for a lesser level of achievement for students who have a disability solely on that basis.  This is flat wrong.  If the student’s label were one of race, religion, or socio-economic status, there would be outrage about low expectations for the student.  Presence of a disability should be no different.
  • In its opinion, the Court holds that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  That last phrase will be taken as permission to greatly reduce expectations for students with disabilities, but doing so violates the first part of the statement.  Defining “appropriate” progress is the core of any IEP meeting for any student with a disability.  But, wholly discarding the state’s regular academic standards is not required for developing an IEP.  In fact, the IEP should outline the steps that will be taken to permit the student to reach those standards, not what the student will do instead of them.
  • Even the NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the student, against the district.  Bravo, NEA.  In a case where many typically-vocal proponents of high-quality public education have remained strangely silent, the NEA stood for the student over the system.  I appreciate the political volatility of speaking up in this case (either speaking against a public school district, or speaking in favor of low academic expectations), but silence cannot improve this struggle.
  • The Supreme Court’s opinion in Rowley was that students with disabilities must be offered educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” and that standard has not been changed.

The conclusion of the opinion of the Court states, “At that point, a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”  And because the Court didn’t (and shouldn’t) define appropriate progress, it is imperative that every parent and every educator strongly advocate for appropriate progress towards the same standard every student is expected to achieve, and not a barely-more-than-minimum substitute.

The Power of Stories to Share Hope

On March 1, 2017, I saw a whole lot of awesome.

My daughter, Amelia, was invited to attend a private “Launch Party” for a brand new booklet, published by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s (CCHMC) Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (DDBP).  The booklet is titled “Sharing Hope: The Stories of our Patients and Families”, and it will be distributed free of charge to families of individuals who are referred to DDBP for various reasons.  The booklet contains brief articles written by individuals who have previously been referred to DDBP, and their family members.

[Download the booklet, PDF (6MB)]

sharing-hope-amelia
Amelia’s page in “Sharing Hope”.  By the way, that stone wall behind her is Chateau LaRoche, the Loveland Castle!

Amelia’s story is one of 26 articles featured in the booklet.  The article is a summation of the contents of my “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know” Ignite-style presentation.

I had an opportunity to meet some of the other honored guests there, and I feel very privileged to have met such wonderful people!  Reading some of their stories after meeting them just makes it even more powerful to me.  Families of people like Lily, Vineet, Patrick, Andrew, and so many more, have willingly told their stories with the intent of conveying encouragement and hope to others who are just learning what a diagnosis of “autism” or “down syndrome” or “spina bifida” will mean for their lives.

The impact of a powerful network of caring professionals is what keeps CCHMC near the very top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of best children’s hospitals.  But, there is something extra to be gained from hearing the experiences of others at a time when most families find themselves starting a journey nobody they know has gone through.

Alongside the best medical treatment available, there is something soothing about a voice that can tell you honestly, “I know how you feel.”  That’s something no medicine can provide.  And, it has a lot to do with why these families chose to own their story and tell it, rather than try to hide the diagnosis that, quite honestly, changed their lives forever.

Amelia’s diagnosis is a challenge, but it is not a shame.  She rises to meet that challenge every day.  That message of love, belief, and hope is conveyed throughout the pages of this booklet, and I am proud to be dad to such an inspiring young lady.

 

Ready to SOAR

Anyone who works with people who have been diagnosed with Autism knows that they are all unique individuals.  However, there are some general characteristics that are recognizable in many such individuals.

My daughter, Amelia, does best in situations where there is a familiar routine, and transitions are anticipated and done calmly and smoothly.

soar-groupIf you have ever flown on a commercial airplane, you know that the process of getting checked in, getting through security, and actually boarding the plane can be filled with frustration, waiting, sudden changes, more waiting, occasional loud noises, and more waiting.  Some typical people, even frequent flyers, have difficulty dealing with this situation using socially-appropriate behaviors.  Imagine how much more difficult this can be for people with Autism.

Many families have imagined that scenario, and decided that the prospect of flying in an airplane is something they don’t even want to attempt.

Enter the SOAR program.

SOAR stands for “Starting Our Adventure Right”.  The SOAR program at Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is a collaboration of The Kelly O’Leary Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, The Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, Delta Airlines, and CVG.  The SOAR program permits individuals with Autism and their families to get a supported experience of every part of an airline trip – except actually taking off and landing.

For this program, I had to attend a two-hour orientation session at the airport.  This was a very valuable experience!  I met other parents who were there for the same program, and got a lot of information about what we would experience.  They also gave us some excellent visual support materials for what would happen on the actual day of the SOAR event.  These materials included visual schedules for each part of the process, a “First… Then…” board, and some “Wait” cards.  This allowed us some opportunities to familiarize Amelia with the schedules and the process long before the day of the actual trip to the airport.

My biggest takeaways from the event:

  • The cooperation of all the individuals from all the different organizations involved in this event was top-notch.  The TSA agents knew we were coming, and that made a huge difference when we got to the x-ray scanners and metal detectors.  If you are taking an actual flight, it is worth the time and effort to review TSA’s guidelines for flyers with disabilities and medical conditions before you even plan your trip.  Once you know you will be flying, print and fill out the TSA Disability Notification Card to take with you to the airport.  Also, call the number listed on the card three days before your travel dates (ALL departures AND returns) to request the assistance of a Passenger Support Specialist, who will assist you through every part of the security screening where you need it.  These preparations can help avoid lots of frustrations at the screening location.
  • No liquids may be taken through screening.  But, you can take an empty bottle, sippy cup, or other favorite drinking vessel.  Once you’re through security, there will be lots of bodega-style storefronts where you can get (for a price) a drink to put in that cup.
  • All blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, and electronic devices will be expected to go through the x-ray machine.  If someone is very attached to one of those items, prepare them for the time they will be separated from it as it goes through the x-ray machine.  If this includes a communication device, note that as part of the information on the blue TSA card mentioned above, indicating that the individual’s ability to communicate is low to none while the AAC device is going through the x-ray machine.
  • If a stroller or other apparatus can help with keeping the person calm, helping them move from place to place, or assisting with waiting, it is probably worth the extra hassle of taking it and checking it planeside.
  • My daughter, Amelia, had no hesitancy at all with getting on the plane.  Her older brother, though, did.  He complained at home that morning about his stomach hurting (nerves), and that he didn’t want to go.  We used the checklist and other materials that had been sent home with us for Amelia to let Quenton know exactly what he could expect to happen on this adventure.  He read all the rules, and we made sure he understood them.  He went through each step of the processes, and looked closely at the pictures to see if there was anything in them that made him nervous.  In the end, he felt well-prepared not only to go through the process, but to help his little sister make it through this brand new experience, too.  That part of the experience was gold.
Amelia and the pilot for her SOAR adventure.
My daughter, Amelia, and her new friend, “Captain Bob”.

If your preferred airport does not have a SOAR program, or something like it, to acclimate potential passengers with Autism Spectrum Disorder to the rules and routines of commercial flight, ask them about starting one.  The program at CVG would serve as a great model for anyone wanting to bring the program elsewhere.

If you live in the Greater Cincinnati area (I live almost 2 hours away, and it was well worth it), you have a family member who has a diagnosis of Autism, and you even just want to find out whether flying is something that will need more support and practice, I highly recommend the SOAR program.  It is free for families to participate, and the experience is absolutely phenomenal.

 

 

 

“When Adaptive Technology and Powerful Messages Collide”

“I attended my first IEP meeting when I was nineteen,” begins Jordyn Zimmerman’s keynote address at the 2016 Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, MA.  It was a pivotal moment in her education, and her life.

Jordyn is an amazing young woman.  She has plans to become a teacher, and I can safely say I dream about my kids having teachers like her.  Sadly, the system did not always provide the support and resources to make that dream seem possible.  Jordyn’s address includes five crucial mindsets for anyone who wants education to be world-changing.

  1. Students want to learn
  2. Don’t assume how your students feel or what they think.
  3. Have high expectations for all students.
  4. Always be kind.
  5. Please know, in one way or another, you will be part of your students’ lives forever.

Watch Jordyn’s keynote (Big thanks to @BrianJMull for Periscoping the talk for me!):

Follow Jordyn on Twitter.

Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know

Ohio’s State Professional Development Grant (SPDG) provides resources for select districts to participate in important work around changing outcomes and improving achievement for diverse learners.

I was honored to be asked to speak at a state-level meeting of SPDG district representatives at the Battelle for Kids “Connect for Success” conference.

My presentation was titled “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know”.  Big thanks to my friend Patti Porto for getting video of the presentation for me!

The slides are available at goo.gl/8YisM1.