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OP ED: Assistive technology is a needed tool in the city’s resource-starved schools

March 24, 2015 – by Maura McInerney (ELC Senior Staff Attorney), published in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook – Imagine having no speech or hearing, only limited sight and no way of communicating with those around you. This was the isolated world of one of the Education Law Center’s clients, 9-year-old Billy (not his real name).

Billy is a child with multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy, physical impairments, and an intellectual disability. His school days were long and lonely. Teachers and classmates did not understand or interact with him, and he could not communicate even his most basic needs.

But that’s not Billy’s world today. Now, when the Philadelphia student enters his classroom, he easily touches a picture that speaks instantly, enabling Billy to greet and be understood by his classmates. For example, he can touch a picture of a smiley face to say, “I am happy today.”

Touch-to-speak technology, a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) that supplements or replaces existing speech, is not new. In fact, it is decades old. But the intelligibility, capabilities, and cost of this critical resource have improved dramatically in recent years, and so has our knowledge of when and how to use it.

Today’s devices incorporate an individual’s full communication abilities – integrating existing speech or vocalizations, gestures, manual signs, and aided communication. They also allow children to create their own stories. Once viewed as a last resort after all attempts at natural speech had failed (for fear of hindering natural speech development), AAC, we now know, can supplement existing speech and be part of language intervention strategies that develop speech and language skills and expand vocabulary. Years ago, touch-to-speak technology cost around $8,000, but now some apps are available that can be downloaded for as little as $50.

Many children can benefit from AAC, including children with autism, apraxia, and Down syndrome. Decisions about which technology is right for an individual child need the input of trained professionals. The use of AAC requires teacher training on how the technology can be used to best support students in the classroom.

But too often, AAC resources are not considered or made available in underresourced schools. The result is that children like Billy with severe communication impairments languish alone in classrooms, isolated from their peers – or are forced into more restrictive, segregated settings.

Beginning in 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated that assistive technology devices and services be considered for each child with a disability as part of the core process for ensuring access to the general curriculum.

Other federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also support the use of assistive technology to assure equal access or remove barriers to programs and services.

The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, passed in 1988 and reauthorized in 2010, provides funding to develop statewide, consumer-responsive information and training programs designed to identify appropriate technologies and meet the assistive technology needs of individuals with disabilities of all ages. However, school districts are not necessarily obligated to provide the technology unless it is needed to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

It is well-documented that high-needs schools lack access to technology and the teacher training to support it.

Yet these are the schools that need assistive technology resources the most as they struggle to support larger numbers of students with disabilities and other at-risk student populations.

The truly revolutionary advancements in assistive technology, including touch-to-speak devices that have changed the world for children like Billy, must be available to all our children in all our schools.