Sheryl Burgstahler

Focus On Technology

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D., University of Washington

in Special Education, Sixth Edition (pp. 58-61) by N. Haring

The computer is one of the most liberating and empowering technologies to come along in a long time for people with a variety of handicaps.
(N. Coombs, a blind professor who teaches deaf students, cited in Wilson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1992, p. A18)

Use of Computer Technology by Teachers and Administrators

Computer-based technology indirectly benefits exceptional students when it is used by others for information access, communication with peers, and classroom management. Examples include computer-assisted management for program planning and scheduling, instructional management, information management, data analysis, student evaluation, and materials preparation. In addition, teachers and administrators can use electronic mail and network resources to collaborate with peers and share research results, intervention strategies, and curricular ideas. Computer-based tools can help teachers and administrators use their time more efficiently, gain access to a wider range of expertise, and manage intervention activities more effectively.

Use of Computer Technology by Exceptional Children

As computers and networks become indispensable in the information age, access to these tools is important for all students. Computer technologies have the potential to help children with disabilities become more fully participating and contributing members of society. They can be used as tools for communicating, accessing information, writing, learning, and performing other tasks. For individuals with disabilities they can help assure equal opportunities in education and facilitate the transition to work and community living. Some examples of how computers can be used by children with disabilities are listed below.

Compensatory Tool

Participation in school activities can be difficult for individuals who cannot write, see, speak, or hear. Besides using computers for the same purposes as non-disabled students, children with disabilities can use them as compensatory tools to overcome functional limitations imposed by their disabilities. Technology can be used to increase sensory input, enhance mobility, perform as a prosthesis, and facilitate receptive and expressive communication. For example, a portable computer equipped with speech output can be used as a “voice” in class discussions for a child who cannot speak. A computer with adaptive technology can be used as a writing or drawing instrument by someone who cannot use his/her hands. In short, computers make it possible for students with disabilities to perform tasks for themselves that they otherwise would be dependent on others to perform. Once satisfactory methods are found to operate computers, new activities are open to disabled students and the amount of time that it takes to complete their work can be reduced. Application of appropriate technology early in life, because it enables children to control their environment, may even help prevent learned helplessness.

Computer Assisted Instruction

Computers allow students with disabilities to more independently participate in learning activities and thereby reduce the impact of their disabilities on acquisition and use of skills and concepts. Drill and practice, tutorial, simulation, word processing, problem-solving, and other software programs give these students learning opportunities that would not be available in other ways. For example, word processing and tutorial software may help students with hearing, learning, and language disabilities develop language and writing skills. Educational software where the computer provides multi-sensory experiences, interaction, positive reinforcement, individualized instruction, and repetition can be useful in skill building for children with specific learning disabilities. Special software can even teach children who are severely and multiply disabled the concept of cause-effect by demonstrating that their actions (e.g., hitting a switch) have an impact on their environment (e.g., a picture is created, music is played, or a toy is activated). Computers offer infinite patience, learner control, immediate feedback, branching capabilities, multi-sensory interaction, and a non-threatening learning environment. Some of their qualities that teachers of exceptional children have found to be particularly powerful include their ability to hold attention, increase motivation, and enhance self-concept.

Access to Information

Computers and networks provide new options for accessing information through on-line library catalogs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, journals, books, newspapers, databases, and other resources. For those with disabilities that make it difficult to visit libraries and/or turn pages of publications, information sources on networks, CD-ROM, and other media provide opportunities to independently read publications on their computer screens. Computer technology can also assist in the process of media conversion. For example, a blind student who has the technology to access newspapers and journals on-line can use adaptive software and hardware to read the materials aloud or print them in Braille. The expansion of networking services around the world gives disabled students equipped with appropriate technology access to a wealth of resources without assistance and reduces the necessity to move about.

Electronic Communication

Telecommunications is a powerful mode of communication. Those with hearing and speech impairments who have a personal computer, modem and appropriate software can communicate with others on electronic networks. When teachers use computer-mediated communications for classroom discussions, they allow deaf and speech-impaired students to communicate on an equal level with other students. By stimulating and enhancing interactions with peers, electronic communication can also facilitate social and language development.

Adaptive Technology that Provides Computer Access

Some students with disabilities face barriers to providing computer input, interpreting output, and reading documentation. Thousands of commercially-available adaptive hardware and software products have been developed to provide functional alternatives to standard operations. Some computer devices assist individuals with a variety of disabilities. For example, equipment which provides flexibility in the positioning of monitors, keyboards, and table tops is useful for many disabled users. Adjustable copy holders can also ease accessibility. Similarly, the availability of portable computers can assist students with in note taking and communication in classes. Some approaches to removing input, output, and documentation barriers for children with specific disabilities are described below.

Children with Orthopedic Impairments

Plugging all computer components into power outlet strips with accessible on/off switches can make it possible for disabled students to turn equipment on and off independently. Adaptive hardware and software can enhance standard keyboard use by children with orthopedic impairments that allow little or no use of the hands. Individuals who have use of one finger, a mouth- or head-stick, or some other pointing device, can control the computer by pressing keys with the pointing device. Hardware switching devices can be used to lock the SHIFT and CONTROL keys to allow sequential keystrokes to input commands that normally require two or more keys to be pressed simultaneously. Software utilities can also create “sticky keys” that electronically latch the shift, control, and other keys and allow those who are typing with single fingers or pointing devices to press keys sequentially rather than concurrently. The key repeat function can be disabled for those who cannot release a key quickly enough to avoid multiple selections. Keyboard guards (solid templates with holes over each key to assist precise selection) can be used by those who lack fine motor control. Sometimes repositioning the keyboard and monitor can enhance accessibility. For example, mounting keyboards perpendicular to tables or wheelchair trays and at head-height can assist children with limited mobility who use pointing devices to press keys.

Some hardware modifications completely replace the keyboard and/or mouse for individuals who cannot operate these standard devices. Expanded keyboards (larger keys, spaced far apart) can replace standard keyboards for those who lack fine motor control. Mini-keyboards provide access to those who have fine motor control but lack a range of motion great enough to use a standard keyboard. Keyboards can be modified to have fewer key options to simplify input to special software for severely and multiply disabled children. Track balls and specialized input devices can replace mice.

For children with more severe orthopedic impairments keyboard emulation is available, including scanning and Morse code input. In each case, special switches make use of at least one muscle over which the individual has voluntary control (e.g., head, finger, knee, mouth). In scanning input, lights or cursors scan letters and symbols displayed on computer screens or external devices. To make selections, individuals use switches activated by movement of the head, finger, foot, breath, etc. Hundreds of switches tailor input devices to individual needs. In Morse code input, users input Morse code by activating switches (e.g., a sip-and-puff switch registers dot with a sip and dash with a puff). Special adaptive hardware and software translate Morse code into a form that computers understand so that standard software can be used.

Voice input provides another option for children with disabilities. Speech recognition systems allow students to control computers by speaking words and letters. A particular system is “trained” to recognize specific voices.

Special software can further aid children with mobility impairments. Abbreviation expansion (macro) and word prediction software can reduce input demands for commonly-used text and keyboard commands. For example, word prediction software that anticipates entire words after several keystrokes can increase input speed.

Screen output is often preferred to printed output for children with orthopedic impairments who cannot manipulate objects.

Standard documentation is difficult to use for those who cannot use their hands. On-screen help can provide efficient access to user guides for children who are unable to turn pages in books.

Children with Visual Impairments

Most individuals who are visually impaired can use standard keyboards, however Braille input devices are available as well. Large print or Braille key labels can assist with keyboard use.

Special equipment for visually impaired children can modify display and printer output. Computer-generated symbols, both text and graphics, can be enlarged on the monitor or printer, thereby allowing individuals with low vision to use standard word processing, spreadsheet, electronic mail, and other software applications. For individuals with some visual impairments, the ability to adjust the color of the monitor or change the foreground and background colors is also of value. For example, special software can reverse the screen from black on white to white on black for people who are light sensitive. Anti-glare screens can also make screens easier to read.

Voice output can be used to read screen text to blind children. Special software programs “read” computer screens and speech synthesizers “speak” the text. Refreshable Braille displays allow line-by-line translation of the screen into Braille on a display area where vertical pins move into Braille configurations as screen text is scanned. Braille printers provide more permanent output for blind users.

Scanners with optical character recognition connected to computers can be used to read printed material and store it electronically on computers, where it can be read using voice synthesis or printed with Braille translation software and Braille printers. Such systems can provide independent access to journals, texts, and homework assignments for blind students. Some hardware and software vendors also provide Braille, large print and electronic versions of their documentation to support visually impaired users.

Children with Hearing, and/or Speech Impairments

Students with hearing and/or speech disabilities generally do not have special problems inputting information with a standard keyboard and mouse.

Although most hearing impaired students can use computer applications without special adaptive technology, alternatives to audio output can assist the hearing-impaired computer user. For example, some computer software provides the option of giving visual output whenever audio output is normally used.

Students with hearing and/or speech impairments typically do not have difficulty using standard written or on-screen documentation.

Children with Specific Learning Disabilities

Software that aids in efficient and accurate input can assist some learning disabled students. Children can compensate for high rates of input errors by using spell checkers, thesauruses, and grammar checkers. In addition, word prediction programs (software that predicts whole words from fragments) have been used successfully by students with learning disabilities. Macro software which expands abbreviations can reduce the necessity to memorize keyboard commands and can ease the entry of commonly-used text.

Some learning disabled children find adaptive devices designed for individuals with visual impairments useful. In particular, large print displays, alternative colors on the computer screen, and voice output can compensate for some visual and reading problems. People who have difficulty interpreting visual material can improve comprehension and the ability to identify and correct errors when words are printed in large fonts or spoken.

Computer documentation provided in electronic forms can be used by enlarged character and voice synthesis devices to make it accessible to those with reading difficulties.


Students with disabilities face barriers to educational opportunities and careers. However, computers are helping to remove some of these barriers. As word processors replace typewriters, electronic spreadsheets replace handwritten books, and on-line services replace telephone and written communication, disabled students and employees who have computer access become capable of handling a wider range of activities independently.

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last updated: Feb 4, 1998