Assistive technology: Helping Children With Additional Needs Access IT



Computers have very much an integral part of classrooms and form the basis for many lessons.

However, for children with additional or different needs, accessing a computer can present a real challenge.

The good news is that these children need not be disadvantaged or excluded from the technological revolution as with the help of some of the devices available on the market; they will be able to use a computer just as well as their peers.

Here is a rundown of just some of the different types of assistive technology that can be found.

Using a keyboard

Many people wouldn't think twice about how to use a computer keyboard but for some, it presents much more of a challenge.

For wheelchair users, simply being able to fit comfortably at a computer desk with all the equipment at the correct height is a rare luxury. However, height adjustable equipment is available which can get around this problem. A trolley which can be moved up or down, even when fully loaded with equipment plus an arm which carries both the screen and the keyboard and can be swung out to the right height are both very useful options.

Youngsters with muscular weakness in their arms can use full arm rests fitted to the edge of the desk to provide them with support whilst they type. Chording keyboards are another option. These are a very different type of keyboard which only has a few keys and produces letters by combining the 'chords'. This can also be useful for individuals with only one arm or a visual impairment.

Using a Dvorak keyboard is also worth considering for children with only one arm. All the common keys are located at the side of the keyboard making it much easier to use.

Individuals who type using just one finger or a tool have lots of different pieces of equipment to make accessing a keyboard much easier. A keyguard fits over the whole keyboard and helps prevent letters being pressed accidentally, whilst an oversized keyboard with much larger keys is also an option.

Sticky Keys helps in situations where two keys need to be pressed simultaneously, allowing one to remain pressed down. It is also possible to change the settings so that the keyboard ignores brief touches, or doesn't repeat letters when keys are held down for longer.

Those with severe impairments who are unable to use a keyboard at all have the option of using a range of switches to gain access to the computer.

Accessing the mouse

Another vital piece of equipment, the mouse, can be difficult to control even for children without special needs. Therefore adaptations to the mouse are commonplace for any youngster with an additional need.

One of the most common changes is to introduce an 'upside down' mouse. This has the rollerball on the top which can then be controlled with various body parts - such as the hand, nose or elbow - in order to navigate around the screen. The rollerball mouse is useful for those who cannot grip a normal mouse, or who do not have control over fine motor movements or have a tremor.

If a rollerball doesn't work, there are several other options available. Firstly, the joystick. This is much easier to use than a regular mouse pointer and can be operated using various body parts, depending on individual preference.

An alternative to the joystick is a graphics tablet. This works by running a stylus pen over a flat tablet surface and whilst will not provide a workable solution for pupils with fine motor problems, it could be ideal for those unable to grip a mouse.

Touchscreens are really useful for those with learning difficulties, as it allows the user to directly interact with what is on the screen. It also provides a different point of access for anyone who has problems holding a mouse. Fine motor control problems might also be easier to overcome when using the touchscreen.

If there is no useful or limited function in the arms or legs, but head control is good - typical in children with spinal injuries for example - using movements of the head to control the mouse can produce excellent results.

It is also possible to change the software settings to make the mouse easier to use for those who can grip it but struggle with control. Slowing down the speed is one option and this could make a mouse much easier to use for individuals who find it difficult to click accurately. Locking one of the buttons will make it easier to click and drag, whilst enlarging the pointing icon will help students with a visual impairment.

Visual problems

It is possible for students with a visual impairment to use general adaptions to help overcome equipment difficulties but there are also many options specifically designed for those with sight problems.

For youngsters with some visual ability, magnifying the screen and changing the colours can make a very big difference. There are specific programmes designed to do this more effectively, such as Lunar and ZoomText. As rudimentary as it may sound, an oversized monitor can also be surprisingly helpful. CCTV video magnifying software is another option; images are placed under the camera and automatically enlarged before being beamed to the monitor.

Extra touches such as high contrast stickers or oversized key lettering can also help the characters to be more visible.

If this isn't an option, synthesised speech is another way to access the content. Several programmes such as JAWS, Hal or Kurzweil 1000 all covert text into speech; the latter will also scan printed documents for conversion.

For Braille users, it is possible to get a device which sits under the keyboard and makes it possible to read the content of the screen using Braille.

Conclusion

Being unable to access a computer in the conventional way is no longer a barrier to making the most of technology. The above are just a few of the types of devices on the market so regardless of the issue, the chances are you will be able to find something to help overcome the problem.

If you are looking for a career in assistive technology and helping children to access IT contact Academics education recruitment who will have a range of vacancies typically available that support this career path.

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