Chelsea Eubank has such severe learning disabilities that her mother resigned herself long ago to the fact that her daughter would never be a reader. In spite of that, Chelsea, 20, is in college, has started her own business, and was recently named a national finalist for the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards

How did she do it? Her mother, Linda Eubank, credits technology. Chelsea started using a laptop in third grade and has since worked with a variety of hardware and software to help her read and write, including optical readers, word-prediction software, spell checkers, and audio books.

Such tech tools are playing a larger and larger role in the world of disabilities, helping some students remediate their learning differences and giving others a way to work around their disability to access the general curriculum.

“Technology is not a silver bullet, says Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, deputy director of the National Center for Technology Innovation. “But it can make or break a child’s ability to keep up with the class and the general curriculum.”

According to Silver-Pacuilla, technology has been particularly successful in helping students who struggle with math, reading, and writing. If a 10-year-old is stuck at a first-grade reading level, for instance, but his classmates are plowing through the Harry Potter books, he is missing out on a whole world. And not just the world of wizards. He’s missing out on new vocabulary, increased background knowledge, and the chance to develop a love of reading. If that child listens to Harry Potter on tape, suddenly he is part of that experience.

A child who struggles with basic math facts is stuck at the starting gate while his classmates go on to learn higher math concepts. But if that child uses a calculator, he can move ahead with his class.

“Technology lets kids do more interesting things,” Silver-Pacuilla says. “Don’t let a lack of fluency hold them back.”

Saved by software?

Laura Close credits a computer reading tutor for changing her son’s life. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade and went through five years of intensive intervention, trying everything from listening and vision therapy to tutors to a series of reading interventions to physical therapy.

“Everything helped a little,” Close says. “But nothing helped enough.”

After those five years, her son’s self-esteem was in the toilet — he was reading at a first-grade level and wanted to quit school. Then Close, an education consultant, learned about a phonics-based software program that systematically takes students through a series of more than 60 lessons that work on decoding, fluency, and comprehension. After using the program for eight months, her son was reading at a grade 7.5 level.

“He’s a completely different person,” she says.

Close thinks the software succeeded where other therapies failed because it is repetitive and does not let her son move to the next lesson until he has mastered the current one. Working with a human teacher introduces variables that can change the experience — the child might fool the tutor into thinking he’s learned something, or the teacher might be having a bad day or make mistakes the child picks up.

A computer running a research-based program can perform constant diagnostic tests on the child as he goes through the lessons, review the material, and target areas of weakness.“Also, in school it’s hard to get the minimum 30 minutes to an hour a day, five days a week, that these kids need,” says Close.“It really has been a miracle for him. My only regret is that we didn’t find it earlier.”

Lifting spirits as well as test scores…

A new opportunities for self-esteem

As most parents of children with learning disabilities can attest, there is more than the learning wall to break through — kids who have tried and failed for years also suffer from low self-esteem. And that, says Silver-Pacuilla, can be just as debilitating as the disability itself.

“If you can’t spell, you don’t want to pick up the pencil, and then you can’t get your thoughts out,” she says.

If a child with a reading disability has the help of word-prediction software (which helps with spelling) and access to audio files along with written text, he may avoid that feeling of failure that stymies so many other kids.

Silver-Pacuilla thinks children should work with technology from the get-go. “Start at age 7 or 8! Get them on the keyboard. Even one year of failure can scar a child,” she says. “School failure starts early and goes deep.”

Chelsea Eubank’s severe learning disabilities could have left her sidelined. But she was lucky to go to a school that made good use of technology, says her mother, and it has made all the difference in the world.

Without technology her daughter would not have been able to get through school, Linda says. To write a paper, Chelsea uses word-prediction software, and then has the computer read back what she wrote so that she can make corrections. Sometimes she also uses voice-recognition software to dictate her papers to the computer.

“As a parent, the technology was a huge relief to me,” says Linda. “It’s so nice to know that she doesn’t need me to be independent — she can get the help she needs from the computer.”

Where do I start?

If you think assistive technology could help your child, the next step is to find some guidance on the what and how. Unfortunately, many school districts are way behind when it comes to AT, according to Silver-Pacuilla.

“Parents can ask for an AT evaluation, but many districts don’t have anyone who is qualified to do one,” she says.

There are AT resource centers around the country where parents can get information, but they tend to be more focused on physical disabilities.

Librarians are often a good resource on technology, says Silver-Pacuilla. “They are turning into the bridge on what’s out there and how it fits into the curriculum.”
Rebecca Albrecht Oling, a librarian at SUNY-Purchase, calls herself the “accidental assistive technologist” at her school.

“I have begun holding workshops in the library and on campus to spread the word about the fact that this technology exists,” she says. “And teaching faculty and staff how they can help make their classes friendlier for students with disabilities.”

In some cases, I’ve taken students from ‘I need Mom to help me and read to me’ to ‘I can do it myself’ in less than a half hour. The sense of independence they gain from this is palpable and inextricably linked to their success in their college years.”


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Updated: April 21, 2015