Computers and Assistive Technology: What’s out there for students?

As a whole, my alternative practicum was an invaluable learning experience, and in my opinion, the sheer variety of assistive technology available to students, and the efforts being made by major companies to make the support systems as universally accessible as possible is unbelievable. I will admit: I used to be incredibly intimidated by the thought of using technology in the classroom, simply because I was unsure of how to do so. However, this practicum has helped me to discover a number of the ways that I can go about using assistive technology to truly make the lives of my students easier. The following is a summary of some of the assistive apps,  programs, and built-in tools being offered by Microsoft and Apple’s products.

Assistive Technology Tools Built-in to your Mac

Text-to-Speech and Dictation Software: Mac computers come with the option to have words and text passages read aloud to you as you work. For students who are auditory learners, this tool is incredibly helpful. Mac users are able to select the voice and talking speed of their preference, and can listen to the text at their own pace. Text-to-speech software is convenient, simple to use, and can make the reading, writing, research, and editing processes much more manageable.

What does dictation software do? By using the “Dictation and Speech” icon on your System Preferences, you are able to speak into your computer and have your ideas transferred to text, word-for-word. For individuals who find written output difficult, or who thrive when they are able to express themselves verbally, this tool is invaluable, and it is available simply by making a few minor adjustments to your Mac settings.

Safari Reader view: With the amount of information, data, and visual content that is available on most webpages, it can be very easy for students to become overwhelmed. Again, with a few small changes however, your Mac computer can effectively solve this problem. Safari Reader significantly decreases the amount of Internet clutter that you see on your monitor, making it easier and faster to access the content that you want or need. This is done by eliminating all advertisements, buttons,  unnecessary icons, and navigation bars, and simply presenting your information in a clear and organized way. Safari Reader is also compatible with Text-to-speech software.

Word Prediction, Autocorrection, and Spelling and Grammar Technology: These assistive technology tools are great because they take all of the guess work out of the writing process. Every Mac computer has a “Spelling and Grammar” option in the “Edit” tab that allows students to check their work, and through word predictors and autocorrection technology, students who experience difficulty with spelling, grammar, and/or punctuation can eliminate much of their frustration when completing written assignments.

In addition, when they are struggling to spell a more difficult word, students have the option of hitting the Escape key on their keyboard to turn on their built-in word completion/prediction software. All students need to do is type the first few letters, hit Escape, and the Mac will then generate a list of suggested words to choose from, and automatically complete it. Autocorrection is another option, and it instantly catches a large number of spelling mistakes, fixing them as soon as they’re made.

Dictionary and Summarizing apps: Every new Mac computer now features a built-in dictionary app whose function is very straightforward—simply type in a word, and Dictionary will provide you with a comprehensive definition. This app is a wonderful homework helper, and it can assist in decreasing a great deal of frustration while reading. Additionally, the Dictionary app is unique because unlike similar products, it can be accessed any time, anywhere, even without an Internet connection.

Mac’s Summarize app is another unique assistive technology feature, and it can be extremely beneficial for students who struggle with reading comprehension and students with ADHD. This is because Summarize (which can be found/accessed through both TextEdit and Pages) works by taking a long passage of text, and reducing it to a more concise, easy-to-understand version. The app can condense longer readings into a single paragraph, or even down to a single sentence, and it is an excellent study tool because it takes the confusion out of summarizing and allows students to focus only on the most important/key concepts.

Some Math-related tools: Mac computers also offer assistance for students with dyscalculia and anyone else who finds Math challenging. For example, the computers’ Calculator app has a feature that allows users to have each separate keystroke spoken out loud to them, as well has the option of having the final result of a calculation being read out loud. For older students, Mac computers come with an app called “Grapher,” which provides a visual representation of a graph for any algebraic equation. Both of these tools can help students to improve their focus/concentration, and can make long, multi-step calculations more manageable. Teachers can also record Math lessons using a Voice Memo app, and make these recordings available for their students to download to their computer, allowing them to listen to them on their own time and at their own speed.


Windows Computers and Assistive Technology

Speech recognition: The Microsoft equivalent of voice dictation software, this tool allows you to control your computer using nothing other than your voice. Once the settings are put in place, all you need to do is talk into your computer’s laptop, and it will dictate your thoughts for you. Again, speech recognition is a great tool for students who learn best in an auditory way, or for whom writing is a more challenging task.

On-Screen Keyboard: This accessibility feature makes it possible for students to type on their computer without ever using the keyboard. Instead, a standard keyboard with all of the necessary keys will appear on the monitor, and individuals can type text using either their mouse, or another similar pointing device. This tool can be helpful for a variety of learners, especially for those with fine motor difficulties or any other difficulty that makes it harder for them to type.

Screen Reader/Narrator: Like a Mac’s text-to-speech option, the Windows Screen Reader (usually called “Narrator”) makes it possible to have any word, phrase, or text passage read aloud to you. This is a fantastic tool for individuals with dyslexia or any other reading challenges, because it allows them to tap into their strengths in auditory processing and takes away the frustration that can come with trying to read long or difficult pieces of writing.

High Screen Contrast: If you ever struggle with passages because the text itself is visually straining and hard to read, Windows will give you the option of changing your computer’s settings so that the level of contrast between the colour of the text and the colour of the background of the screen is higher. Activating this feature will make information easier and less frustrating to read, and it can be beneficial for a variety of learners with special needs, including students with dyslexia or other reading disabilities, lower vision levels, attentional difficulties, or any other challenges with visual perception.

Visual Notifications: This assistive technology tool applies to users with a Windows 7 computer. It can help with attentional and focus-related issues, and is a wonderful tool for students with any form of hearing loss. Why? The feature allows you to replace the sound-based notifications that you receive from your computer with a visual cue, such as a flash on the screen, a pop-up icon or another noticeable type of alert that doesn’t rely on audio cues.


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