Inclusivity is a keyword in today’s education. The ideal classroom is a place where students who face unique challenges in their learning process are not segregated, but welcomed among their peers and given the same level of education. This dream often ends up clashing with reality: insufficient staff or budget can often make it impossible for a school to give disadvantaged students the attention they require.
The use of specialized assistive technology can ease the strain on the teaching staff and increase the level of independence of students with physical or intellectual difficulties, bringing the classroom one step closer to being truly inclusive.
Different technologies for different needs
When we think of an inclusive classroom, the first category that comes to mind is students with disabilities; compensating for a physical or intellectual impairment, however, is only a part of what makes an environment inclusive. A child who has trouble reading and writing might be dyslexic, but might also be struggling because the material is in their second language, because they have poor eyesight, or because an extremely low-income family situation has affected their education and they are reading far below their grade level. One apparent problem, many potential causes, not all of which are disabilities.
Text-to-speech can help in case the problem lies in the physical act of reading; access to a dictionary that provides the definition of unfamiliar words at a click might be a better solution for students who are struggling with their vocabulary. When it comes to composing a response, again, not all students have the same issues: some may benefit more from typing instead of writing by hand or giving dictation to a computer in case they struggle with both, while others can write just fine, but need a more extensive use of spelling and grammar aids than most before they can produce a piece that does justice to their understanding of the topic.
And these are only a few examples of how technology can help fulfil different needs in different ways. In truly effective education, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and if this holds true for students with no particular challenges, it goes double for those with unique disadvantages.
Special education teachers are ideally equipped to deal handle the challenges posed by these students, but that does not relieve regular teachers of the responsibility to do their part, and their role is not just to give special needs students a piece of assistive technology and expect them to cope: even outside of individualised solutions, the material should be accessible to everyone to begin with.
From keeping any eyesight or reading struggles in mind when choosing fonts and colours for their presentations, to offering multiple options for students to demonstrate their progress in the way they are most comfortable with, a clever use of the basic technologies a classroom is already equipped with can go a long way towards inclusivity even before specialised tools come into play.
Making the race to knowledge fair
Another important responsibility a teacher has in a truly inclusive classroom is to listen. Listen, first and foremost, to the disadvantaged students themselves, because ultimately, they know what is best for them. Get to know them and the unique way their special needs manifest, help them overcome any communication barriers preventing them from stating their difficulties, and come up with solutions together if one is not already in place.
Listen to any grievances their peers might have and correct any misconceptions about an inclusive classroom. Does anyone feel they are being held back in their education by the presence of special needs classmates? Does anyone perceive assistive technologies and other compensation strategies as an unfair advantage rather than a tool designed to put everyone on the same level?
These are natural reactions, but they can affect the social success and quality of life of special needs students if they are not kept in check. The trick to having assistive technologies in the classroom is not just to let students with unique difficulties use them, but to help everyone understand their true purpose as an equaliser that places everyone at the same starting point and gives them a fair chance at the finish line.