Inclusion is an important topic of discussion within special education. Within inclusion settings, all students are placed in the same room to learn alongside each other, as opposed to removing students with disabilities to a separate space.
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In recent years, the amount of time that students with disabilities spend in general education classrooms has shown an increase, signaling that inclusive practices are being adopted.
While students with disabilities may be spending more time collaborating with their peers, there is still a long way to go in terms of inclusion in schools. Some obstacles can be assisted with the support of technology. Some Individualized Education Program (IEP) modifications can be provided through the use of a device.
4 Tips for using accessibility features to promote inclusion
However, merely throwing tools at a class is not enough. The following tips provide strategies for using technology to create inclusive learning environments.
Decrease the stigma
Assistive technology, by definition, relates to any equipment that supports a child with a disability and increase or maintain their functioning in different settings. Before devices in the classroom became commonplace, students would often be afforded different specialized tools based on their needs and their IEP.
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However, many technology companies are becoming increasingly aware of how different tools regarded as “assistive technology” could be impactful to everyone. In many cases, companies are developing accessibility features to be built into devices to promote access for all. For example, Chromebooks have their own settings menu with accessibility features, while Apple continues to pave the way with its innovative assistive technology practices.
Although accessibility tools and assistive technology have made their way into all modern devices, studies show that a stigma still exists surrounding these features. Tools like text-to-speech, voice typing, and screen magnifiers, while available to everyone, are often signaled as “just for students with disabilities.” Also, some students who are placed in inclusion settings are reluctant to use their assigned support tools for fear of standing out or being different.
One of the easiest ways to use technology to make classrooms more inclusive is to promote it as a tool for everyone. Instead of singling out specific students to use some of the accessibility features built into their laptop, tablet, or mobile device, offer as an option for every student. Teachers could introduce the tool to the class, explain how to use it, and have everyone practice. Then, all students can decide on their own if the tool will be something that might support them.
Model technology use
Just as it is important to model skills to teach students, the same philosophy can be applied to accessibility features. Simply offering a tool and walking away will not encourage frequent use. Students need to see the tool used to understand how to use it effectively and also help them see how it can be used to support all different kinds of learners.
One recommendation would be for the teacher to model using the tool for the class. By integrating some of the accessibility features into instructional practices, students can see how the tool is beneficial and observe situations where it is used appropriately. For example, a teacher could use speech-to-text to model writing an answer for an assignment or use an on-screen keyboard when demonstrating work.
If a teacher makes the effort to not only introduce the tools in the classroom but also integrate them into instruction, it increases the likelihood that students will adopt these practices. Students begin to realize that these tools are both available and easily integrated into educational experiences.
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The number of schools participating in programs where nearly every student has access to their own device is currently on the rise. Between 1:1 device initiatives and BYOD programs, most students have equal access to technology resources. In these cases, the accessibility features in devices are available and free for anyone to use.
If any student is struggling within the classroom, the teacher should encourage the use of the accessibility features. Making a light suggestion to students to utilize the support systems at their fingertips is a great way to create an inclusive environment, especially if the teacher is making the recommendation to all students in the class and not just the children with disabilities.
There are so many tools available to students, so another helpful idea would be to create a table for students of all their accessibility options. As a student begins to realize that technology might be able to assist with areas where they are struggling, they need to have a single place to refer to see what tools they could use.
Creating a document with a list of all the available accessibility features and their purpose could be helpful for students. It gives them a single place to look to see which tool would be most appropriate for their needs. If this is available for all students, it also increases the likelihood that more students will adopt the use of some tools, making the classroom more accessible and inclusive.
Collaborate with colleagues and family
When students have multiple teachers and hear differing opinions about what tools are considered to be appropriate for classroom use, it can deter them from using the technology in the future. For example, if a few teachers openly allow all students to use accessibility features in their classes but another teacher only allows it for those students with IEPs, it counters usage of the features in class.
Having conversations with colleagues that share students is one way to avoid this obstacle. To increase consistency between classes, teachers should have conversations about the tools being used in their class and their overall philosophies regarding accessibility features. If teachers are all on the same page, students are more likely to embrace the tools and feel comfortable using them throughout their school day.
The same strategy could apply to families. Making parents and guardians aware of the technology tools available to students and encouraging that practice at home can be beneficial. Then, a student can see the full scale of how these tools could be supportive both in their academic and personal lives.
All in all
While built-in accessibility features may not directly increase rates of inclusion, it is one step in a positive direction. Opening these features up to all students normalizes these tools in society and allows all students to understand that technology can be used to assist anyone.