SEE THE ABILITY, NOT THE DISABILITY: Computers and people with a learning disability

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Regardless of one’s physical, sensory or mental ability, computers can make a difference to all learners. The computer provides a multisensory approach, can give visual cues through colour graphics and animation, and auditory cues through voice, music and sound prompts, and tactile cues through the keyboard or a touch-screen. Software provides special teaching strategies to model and demonstrate, drill and practice, problem-solve and generalise. Additionally, a computer program can detect a learner’s areas of difficulty and provide additional problem-solving cues. Typing on a computer keyboard may require less motor coordination than writing, for individuals who have difficulty using pencil and paper.

The immediate feedback provided by the computer helps the learner to measure progress and encourages a successful learning experience. Some people with a learning disability may benefit from seeing and/or hearing the information displayed on the computer; this can be accomplished by using screen-reading software and speech synthesiser devices.

The computer can be considered as an impartial tutor, providing a risk-free learning environment, as well as a reactive environment for creative and independent living. Learners can adjust and manipulate their own use of the computer; they can control the method of input (touch or voice), the type of output (text, graphics, audio), and the pace of instructions.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is the term used to describe devices that are used by individuals to compensate for functional limitations, to enhance and increase learning, independence, mobility, communication, environmental control or choice. The term also refers to direct services which assist individuals to select, acquire and use such devices.

Technology can help people with a learning disability to overcome barriers to independence and inclusion. There is a growing use of assistive technology with infants and young children, particularly with communication devices introduced to facilitate early language development. Technology is also being developed to address the needs of people as they age, to help them continue to live independently.

How people with a learning disability can use assistive technology

Communication. For a person who cannot communicate with his/her voice, technology can substitute as a voice for the user, through a vocal output called an augmentative communication device.

Environmental control. Assistive technology can allow a person with limited cognitive abilities to control electrical appliances and audio/video equipment, or to lock and unlock doors, etc.

Mobility. Simple or sophisticated computer-controlled wheelchairs and mobility aids are available.

Education. The computer can become a tool to improve literacy, language development, mathematical, organisational and social-skill development. Students with severe and multiple disabilities use technology in all aspects of the classroom learning environment, from academic software to communication. Alternative ways to access computers are available for students who cannot operate a keyboard. Software can be regulated to run at a slower pace if a student needs this modification for better learning.

Daily-living activities. Everyday tasks of self-care can be assisted by automated devices to help individuals to eat more independently. Devices can be used to assist a person with memory difficulties to follow the sequence of steps in order to complete a task, such as making a bed or taking medicine. Various devices can regulate and control aspects of the living environment. Auditory cues can help individuals to perform tasks—perhaps a reminder to turn off the cooker, or to unplug the iron, etc. Directional guidance systems have been developed to help a person travel independently, to help them shop, pay a bill or use the telephone.

Employment. Technology can help the workplace become more cognitively accessible. Some employees may require worksite modifications, such as an audiotape which can be used to prompt the worker to complete each task involved in their job.

Recreation. Computerised games can be adapted for users with physical or learning disabilities. Games can be slowed down for the user who cannot react quickly to game moves or decision-making. Specially-adapted sports equipment is available to compensate for functional limitations, to allow an individual to participate more fully, for example specially designed ball ramps for bowling.

Barriers still remaining

Assistive technology professionals (computer scientists and rehabilitation engineers) may have limited experience in the application of technology assistance to users with learning disabilities. They may be unfamiliar with appropriate system designs, training and skill development strategies which would encourage successful technology use by such individuals. Individuals with physical or sensory limitations present challenges which can be addressed through specific and generic problem-solving—modifying a computer for one person who is blind will also make it accessible to many others with the same disability. However, because individuals with a learning disability may have a range of learning and processing abilities, it is more difficult to develop generic assistive technology solutions which will be equally appropriate for others.

Designers and manufacturers in the computing field must take a broad variety of human abilities into account in the design process. The goal is Design for All—the concept of creating products, services and systems which will be usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities in the widest possible range of situations. In most cases, it is possible, with careful design, to create products which are simultaneously accessible to people with different impairments. But often initial attempts at accessible design are done piecemeal, with accessible features added on, rather than as a result of looking at the product’s overall accessibility from the first design stage. The result can be a design which is only partly accessible, partly usable.

The TASC Project

Mencap Northern Ireland is involved in a European research project to develop a system called TASC (which stands for Telematics Applications Supporting Cognition), which aims to support people with cognitive disabilities through various aspects of life. The design-for-all approach has been assisted by the assistance of a User Advisory Group which includes individuals with a learning disability, dementia or brain injury, technicians, professionals and carers. Because the project involves people in several European countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Dublin), important cultural/local differences have also been incorporated into the TASC product.

The TASC system offers several service modules:

Prompter module. This guides the user through the steps of an activity, reminds them of activities, offers various output modalities (text, sound, speech), and supports task such as cooking, laundry and personal hygiene.

Information provider module. This module allows the user to retrieve miscellaneous information items such as bus schedules, weather forecasts, events-guides and shopping information, in an easily understandable form.

Personal communicator module. This enables a user to compose and retrieve messages and transfer them over various types of communication services. It also supports telephone use, email and fax-messaging, with a built-in telecom service..

Supervisor module. This module processes information from various sensors, provides a security alarm facility and can be used for controlling home electronics.

Planner module. The planner module supports time and frequency-based tasks and guides the user through the steps involved in tasks.

The aims of TASC are to provide individuals with information, to support choice and strengthen decision-making capabilities, with the twin benefits of increasing both independence and self-esteem.

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