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Students with Disabilities and Computer Technology

Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities


Working Together: Students with Disabilities and Computer Technology

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.


Students with disabilities meet barriers of all types. However, technology is helping to lower many of these barriers. By using computing technology for tasks such as reading and writing documents, communicating with others, and searching for information on the Internet, students with disabilities are capable of handling a wider range of activities independently. Still, people with disabilities face a variety of barriers to computer use. These barriers can be grouped into three functional categories: barriers to providing computer input, interpreting output, and reading supporting documentation. Hardware and software tools (known as adaptive or assistive technologies) have been developed to provide functional alternatives to these standard operations. Specific products, and approaches to using them, are described below.

Mobility Impairments
Some wheelchairs may not fit under standard height computer tables and some computer users do not have enough use of their hands and arms to operate a standard keyboard or mouse.

Equipment which provides flexibility in the positioning of monitors, keyboards, documentation, and tabletops is useful for many individuals with disabilities. Plugging all computer components into power outlet strips with accessible on/off switches makes it possible for some individuals to turn equipment on and off independently.

Some technology assists individuals with little or no use of their hands in using a standard keyboard. Individuals who have use of one finger, or have access to a mouth- or head-stick or some other pointing device, can control the computer by pressing keys with the pointing device. Software utilities can create "sticky keys" that electronically latch the SHIFT, CONTROL, and other keys to allow sequential keystrokes to input commands that normally require two or more keys to be pressed simultaneously. The key repeat function can be disabled for those who cannot release a key quickly enough to avoid multiple selections. Keyboard guards (solid templates with holes over each key to assist precise selection) can be used by those with limited fine motor control.

Sometimes repositioning the keyboard and monitor can enhance accessibility. For example, mounting keyboards perpendicular to tables or wheelchair trays at head-height can assist individuals with limited mobility who use pointing devices to press keys. Other simple hardware modifications can assist individuals with mobility impairments. For instance, disk guides can assist with inserting and removing diskettes; a dedicated hard disk and/or computer network access can eliminate or reduce the necessity to do so.

For individuals who need to operate the computer with one hand, left- and right-handed keyboards are available. They provide more efficient key arrangements than standard keyboards designed for two-handed users.

Some hardware modifications completely replace the keyboard and/or mouse for individuals who cannot operate these standard devices. Expanded keyboards (larger keys spaced far apart) can replace standard keyboards for those with limited fine motor control. Mini-keyboards provide access to those who have fine motor control but lack a range of motion great enough to use a standard keyboard. Track balls and specialized input devices can replace mice.

For those with more severe mobility impairments keyboard emulation is available, including scanning and Morse code input. In each case, special switches make use of at least one muscle over which the individual has voluntary control (e.g., head, finger, knee, mouth). In scanning input, lights or cursors scan letters and symbols displayed on computer screens or external devices. To make selections, individuals use switches activated by movement of the head, finger, foot, breath, etc. Hundreds of switches tailor input devices to individual needs. In Morse code input, users input Morse code by activating switches (e.g., a sip-and-puff switch registers dot with a sip and dash with a puff). Special adaptive hardware and software translate Morse code into a form that computers understand so that standard software can be used.

Speech input provides another option for individuals with disabilities. Speech recognition systems allow users to control computers by speaking words and letters. A particular system is "trained" to recognize specific voices.

Special software can further aid those with mobility impairments. Abbreviation expansion (macro) and word prediction software can reduce input demands for commonly used text and keyboard commands. For example, word prediction software anticipates entire words after several keystrokes and increases input speed.

Screen output does not present a challenge, but individuals with mobility impairments who have difficulty obtaining output from printers may need assistance from others.

On-screen help can provide efficient access to user guides for individuals who are unable to turn pages in books.

For more details on mobility impairments and computer technology, and a list of available commercial products, visit

Individuals who are blind cannot access visual material presented on the computer screen or in printed materials.

Most individuals who are blind use standard keyboards, however, Braille input devices are available. Braille key labels can assist with keyboard use.

Speech output systems can be used to read screen text to blind computer users. Special software programs (called screen readers) "read" computer screens and speech synthesizers "speak" the text. The availability of earphones for individuals using speech output systems can reduce the distractions for others nearby.

Refreshable Braille displays allow line-by-line translation of screen text into Braille on a display area where vertical pins move into Braille configurations as screen text is scanned. Braille displays can be read quickly by those with advanced Braille skills, are good for detailed editing (e.g., programming and final editing of papers), and do not disrupt others in work areas because they are quiet. Braille printers provide "hard copy" output for blind users.

Scanners with optical character recognition can read printed material and store it electronically on computers, where it can be read using speech synthesis or printed using Braille translation software and Braille printers. Such systems provide independent access to journals, syllabi, and homework assignments for blind students. Some hardware and software vendors also provide Braille or ASCII versions of their documentation to support computer users who are blind.

Low Vision
For some people with visual impairments the standard size of letters on the screen or printed in documents are too small for them to read. Some people cannot distinguish one color from another.

Most individuals who have visual impairments can use standard keyboards, but large print keytop labels are sometimes useful.

Special equipment for individuals who are visually impaired can modify display or printer output. Computer-generated symbols, both text and graphics, can be enlarged on the monitor or printer, thereby allowing individuals with low vision to use standard word processing, spreadsheet, electronic mail, and other software applications. For individuals with some visual impairments, the ability to adjust the color of the monitor or change the foreground and background colors is also of value. For example, special software can reverse the screen from black on white to white on black for people who are light sensitive. Anti-glare screens can make screens easier to read. Voice output systems are also used by people with low vision.

Scanners with optical character recognition can read printed material and store it electronically on computers, where it can be read using speech synthesis or printed in large print. Some hardware and software vendors also provide large print or ASCII versions of their documentation.

For more details on visual impairments and computer technology, and a list of available commercial products, visit

Hearing and/or Speech Impairments
Speech and hearing disorders alone do not generally interfere with computer use. However, advanced speech synthesizers are close enough to human quality to act as substitute voices and thus provide a compensatory tool for students who cannot communicate verbally. Students with portable systems can participate in class discussions once adapted computers provide them with intelligible speaking voices. Word processing and educational software may also help hearing impaired students develop writing skills.

Students with hearing and/or speech impairments typically use a standard keyboard and mouse.

Alternatives to audio output can assist the hearing-impaired computer user. For example, if the sound volume is turned to zero, a computer may flash the menu bar when audio output is normally used.

Individuals with hearing and/or speech impairments typically do not have difficulty using standard written or on-screen documentation.

Specific Learning Disabilities
Educational software where the computer provides multisensory experiences, interaction, positive reinforcement, individualized instruction, and repetition can be useful in skill building. Some students with learning disabilities who have difficulty processing written information can also benefit from completing writing assignments, tutorial lessons, and drill-and-practice work with the aid of computers. For example, a standard word processor can be a valuable tool for individuals with dysgraphia, an inability to produce handwriting reliably.

Quiet work areas and ear protectors may make computer input easier for individuals with learning disabilities who are hypersensitive to background noise.

Software that aids in efficient and accurate input can also assist. Some people can compensate for high rates of input errors by using spell checkers, thesauruses, and grammar checkers. In addition, word prediction programs (software that predicts whole words from fragments) have been used successfully by students with learning disabilities. Similarly, macro software which expands abbreviations can reduce the necessity to memorize keyboard commands and can ease the entry of commonly used text.

Some learning disabled individuals find adaptive devices designed for those with visual impairments useful. In particular, large print displays, alternative colors on the computer screen, and voice output can compensate for some reading problems. People who have difficulty interpreting visual material can improve comprehension and the ability to identify and correct errors when words are spoken or printed in large fonts.

Some individuals with learning disabilities find it difficult to read. Computer documentation provided in electronic forms can be used by enlarged character and voice synthesis devices to make it accessible to those with reading difficulties.

For more details on learning disabilities and computer technology, and a list of available commercial products, visit

Next Steps
Continue your exploration of computer technology for students with disabilities by:

· Buying the directory and/or attending the conference of Closing the Gap. To request information, write to P.O. Box 68, Henderson, MN 56044 or call 612-248-3294. Visit their Web site at

· Contacting technology assistance centers in your state or region

· Contacting the Special Education Technology Center (Washington State Public Schools)  

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Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities

By Gail Ivanco

The following is an overview of products that are currently available to help students with learning disabilities and other exceptionalities to access the curriculum. It is not meant to be a product endorsement or recommendation, but is information that may help the teacher or other professional who is seeking technology for students. Please visit the web sites listed for additional information. If you are aware of another product or supplier that is not listed here, please contact :

Writing Problems

Voice-to-Text Programs

For the student in grade five or above who is able to formulate ideas and express well verbally, but who cannot write well because of fine motor difficulty and/or extreme spelling problems due to Learning Disability.

With voice to text such a student can:

      • write by speaking
      • do tests by listening to the questions and dictating the answers
      • organize thoughts on screen
      • complete writing tasks without a scribe

There are several programs on the market that will convert spoken words to written text. Many of the older continuous or “naturally speaking” programs are not particularly effective. They require a powerful computer with more than 128 MB of RAM to work well. The edition Naturally Speaking for Teens should be avoided. The latest editions can work very well with the right computer and sound card.

Regardless of which program is used:

      • the student must speak clearly. Word endings are important.
      • a voice file needs to be trained and enhanced before it is completely effective.
      • the training process can take staff time and effort to complete.
      • the program will only be used on the computer where the voice file resides.
      • a scaffolding system for writing needs to be introduced for compositions.
      • both programs will read back what has been written, though there is no control of the speed for reading back.
      • it can be used in conjunction with other programs, such as Inspiration

Dragon Dictate Power Edition (formerly Dragon Dictate Classic)

Minimum 486/66MHz - Pentium recommended, Windows95, 24MB of RAM. Industry standard 16 bit sound card or built-in audio system such as Creative Labs Sound Blaster16. CD-ROM for installation. Shipped with a high quality microphone headset.)

The student can speak into a microphone, one word at a time (discrete speech) and the words will appear within a word processed document on the screen.


      • will operate on most school computers
      • can be trained one word at a time - an advantage for students who do not read
      • works well for the student who does not produce writing quickly
      • corrections can be made as you go
      • preferred program for younger students (age 10 and above, not recommended for any younger))
      • can be used completely hands free if that is required



      • it is slow, as words must be separated
      • corrections must be made to improve the accuracy of the voice file
      • students need support from staff to complete the training phase


Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred, V5 or 6

Minimum requirement: Windows98, 2000 or Millennium. 266MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, 150MB free disk space, CD ROM for installation.

Please note that it is much better with a minimum of 128MB RAM, especially when working in conjunction with WordPerfect.


      • student can speak in natural phrases
      • the program will record the speaker's voice for checking accuracy when making corrections.


      • student needs to have some reading ability (grade 2-3) to recognize errors
      • training is done in sentences, which can challenge non-readers
      • cannot be installed on school computers at this time due to hardware demands.

Word Prediction Programs


Requirements: Pentium 133 or faster processor, at least 64 MB RAM, 128MB RAM is suggested. CD-ROM drive and sound card with headset or speakers.

WordQ is writing aid software used along with standard word processing software. It suggests words for you to use and provides spoken feedback. WordQ continuously presents a list of correctly spelled words as you type. When you see the word you want to use, you can choose it with a single keystroke or with the mouse. You can also display a word with its different word endings. If you need help deciding which word to use, each word can be read aloud before you make a selection. WordQ has an underlying dictionary of 60,000 words and contains a Canadian dictionary. Word groups can be created called topics such as a favourite sport or general math concepts. When you write about one of your topics, tid words are more likely to be suggested. A text reading mode helps you proofread.

This program is great for younger students who struggle with forming letters, spelling and knowing what word to use next. Reasonably priced, especially in lab packs.

Text Help Read and Write

Pentium 120 or above. Windows 95/98/ME/2000/NT.Soundcard and speakers. 80MB of free disk space. 32MB of RAM. CD-ROM, sound card and headset or speakers.

Award winning Read & Write works with any Windows based application. It can be used with word processors, spreadsheets, databases, email and Internet. It is a simple to use toolbar that “floats” on top of any open application waiting to provide assistance when called upon.

FEATURES include:

      • Speech - It reads out loud as you type or reads any document. It also provides full screen reading of text, menus and icons.
      • Spell Checking - An advanced phonetic spell checker can automatically notify you when a mistake is made and can correct the most complex errors.
      • Homophones Support - Homophones are colour coded to help to proof and correct text. Descriptions of like sounding words are provided to ensure the correct word is selected.
      • Word Prediction - Phonetic and grammar based word prediction will offer suggestions as you type and will also learn your individual writing style.
      • Thesaurus - Provides synonyms for words with descriptions and sample sentences to aid understanding.
      • Word Wizard - Is a step-by-step process linking the word you know, to the word you are searching for.

Portable Keyboards

Alphasmart or Quickpad

Portable keyboards that are lightweight and easily portable can enable a student to use a wordprocessor wherever they work. Text is transferred to a computer application such as Word Perfect. These are an excellent tool for the student who has keyboarding skills and for whom spelling is not a major issue. These compact keyboards can be very useful for the student with fine motor problems, especially at younger grades.

Writing Process/Planning


486 processor or higher, Windows 95/98/2000/NT4.0/ME, 8MB RAM, 20MB available, CD-ROM drive

Inspiration® is a powerful visual learning tool that inspires students, grades 4-12, to develop ideas and organize thinking. Inspiration's integrated diagramming and outlining environments work together to help students comprehend concepts and information. Inspiration is ideal for use in language arts, science, social studies and anytime students need to structure research or other thought processes. Inspiration assists you and your students in: Brainstorming, Planning, Organizing, Outlining, Prewriting, Diagramming, Concept Mapping, Webbing. Teacher guides are also available for using the software in the classroom.

There is also a primary version - Kidspiration

Reading Problems

Reading Pen

This handy gadget is great for the student who has problems decoding some words and needs clarification. The “pen” scans the word (or an entire line of text) and reads it through a small speaker or earphone. It also contains a dictionary to assist with meaning, and will break words into syllables if required.

Kurzweil 3000

Minimum requirements: Windows 95/98/NT/2000/ME (Windows NT, 2000 or ME do not support voice commands. They read the Web only with Internet Explorer version 4.0 or higher). 200MHz or higher Pentium processor, 128 MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, Sound Blaster sound card, 16 bit, 32 bit or 64 bit, microphone. One of the following scanners: Epson 1200U (USB connection), Epson 1200S (SCSI connection), Hewlett Packard 5200 (USB and parallel connections), Hewlett Packard 6200 (USB and SCSI connections), Hewlett Packard 6300 (USB and SCSI connections).

L&H™ Kurzweil 3000 reads scanned or electronic text aloud using human sounding synthetic speech (L&H™ RealSpeak™). Words are highlighted in contrast as they are spoken. This patented auditory and visual presentation of information helps increase reading accuracy, speed and comprehension for struggling readers.

With Kurzweil 3000 you can:

      • scan any text for reading
      • hear text spoken as it is highlighted on screen
      • choose the speed and highlighting colours you like
      • type your own documents, hearing characters and words spoken out loud
      • use tools like spell checking and word prediction to help you express your ideas
      • highlight, take notes, add bookmarks in document
      • hear Web sites read out loud
      • fill in blanks on tests or forms

There is also a “read only” version that can do all of the above except scan documents. These programs can be used simultaneously with Dragon Dictate or Dragon Naturally Speaking.


There are many vendors of the above mentioned products. Please search the net to locate them and compare prices. DDSB has used the following sources recently:

Microcomputer Science Centre Inc.
5288 General Road, Unit 5
Mississauga, Ontario
L4W 1Z8
Fax: 905-629-2321

Media Nexus
508 Guelph Street,
Norval, ON L0P1K0
Tel 888-686-6626
Fax: 905-877-5793
(for reading pen and Quickpad)


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