The right assistive technology can be integral to a child’s ability to experience the world in the same way as their peers. And for children with learning disabilities, it can make the difference between staying on track in school or falling behind.
There are many types of assistive technologies for children with learning disabilities, with focuses that range from accommodating physical disability to accommodating cognitive ones. What they all have in common is that they allow children to maximize their strengths and function better in and out of the classroom.
The right devices can be a game changer. Assistive technology for children with learning disabilities can address a range of issues, including:
- Dyslexia and other reading and writing difficulties
- Visual difficulties
- Hearing and listening difficulties
- Math, computational, and organizational difficulties
- Physical difficulties
Read on for an overview of some of the existing technology, as well as advice on how to choose the best option for a child you are trying to help succeed.
Reading and Language-Processing
Dyslexia (trouble processing words) and dyscalculia (trouble processing numbers) are two of the most common reading and language processing disorders. In both cases, children have trouble reading what’s on a page and decoding it in their mind.
Children with dyslexia often have difficulty establishing a broad vocabulary due to their limitations with the written word. Audio books are a smart assistive work-around, since they expose dyslexic children to words and concepts they might not otherwise discover, without the barrier of text.
Electronic Math Worksheets
Putting pencil to paper to solve math problems when you have dyscalculia is hard to do. Enter electronic math worksheets — software programs that provide children with a digital outlet for doing math, with added features like audio enhancements that lend additional means of support.
Most people are familiar with proofreading software, which alerts users to errors in their spelling and grammar. But proofreading software for children with learning disabilities goes a step further, with text-to-speech functionalities and targeted assistance based on the mistakes a user makes most often.
Text-to-Speech (Screen Readers)
With text-to-speech, children get the benefit of an audio reading while also exposing themselves to words on a screen. And because this function can be found through both apps and browser extensions, it’s easy to apply text-to-speech to any piece of text a child is engaging with on the computer, including websites, PDFs, and emails. For information not on a screen, optical character recognition scanners can turn printed materials into a digital format that can then be read aloud.
Dysgraphia can present itself in many ways, and often does show up in various modes, including not just problems with spelling but also with organizing words, writing in a clear manner on the page, and using punctuation. Other writing difficulties may present due to mobility limitations.
Adapted Writing Utensils
These utensils provide alternative weights, sizes, shapes, and gripping methods to standard pens and pencils, thus benefiting children with physical disabilities that prevent them from holding writing utensils comfortably or effectively.
Audio recorders can be used to improve schoolwork and cognition. These include dictating homework and other written content into a recorder instead of trying to put thoughts into writing first, as well as recording classes and lectures instead of attempting to take notes.
Portable Word Processors
Many students with dysgraphia find it significantly easier to type than to write by hand. Portable word processors — also called portable keyboards — are lightweight alternative to laptops that a child can bring to school right in their backpack. A small screen lets the child see what they are typing, and typed text can be sent to a computer or to a printer.
Physical Learning Disabilities
Assistive devices that address physical learning disabilities may be used for children with visual impairments and difficulties with mobility.
Braille Translation Software
This software converts on-screen text into braille for blind students. It has become even more useful in the classroom as more materials have moved out of textbooks and onto computers.
Page turners let students with limited motor skills read at their own pace instead of having to ask for assistance flipping from page to page. They are often DIY devices made in the classroom or at home, including something as simple as rubber- or eraser-tipped pencils.
Positioning Aids (Slantboards)
Sometimes writing difficulties stem from physical disabilities and not cognitive ones. In these cases, positioning aids (also called slantboards) can be incredibly useful, as they provide a child with a writing surface that can be angled, raised, or otherwise manipulated to accommodate their needs.
These systems allow children with extreme mobility limitations to navigate a computer with their mouth, tongue, cheek, or chin, much like someone would use their hand to guide a mouse. An on-screen keyboard provides compatibility for typing, and the systems can even be used to control a joystick for learning-based video games.
Beyond traditional sip-and-puff systems, new technologies such as Microsoft’s Eye Control are rapidly expanding accessibility for people with physical disabilities by allowing them to operate computers using only their eyes.
Choosing the Best Assistive Option
There are many more assistive technologies for children with learning disabilities than we’ve been able to cover here, though hopefully this gives you a good idea of what types of devices are out there.
To figure out the technology or technologies that make the most sense for an individual child, start by asking a few key questions:
- What are their limitations?
- What are their strengths?
- What are they trying to achieve?
- What learning activities do they struggle with the most?
Some assistive technologies will make daily classroom life easier for a child. Others will completely alter the way they learn and do their schoolwork. Collaborate with your child’s educators and other care providers to come up with solutions that are best-suited to their needs and their existing skills.