Helping All Learners Succeed: Special Ed Success Stories

Carol S. Holzberg, Ph.D

The following article appeared in the January 1998, issue of the Technology & Learning. Reprinted with permission.

With help from technology, good teachers, and the will to learn, students with disabilities are wowing their peers and themselves.


From Ponds to Multimedia

Deborah Baker works as a special education teacher in a sixth-grade blended program at Wayland-Cohocton Middle School in Wayland, New York. She shares teaching responsibilities for about 40 children with two regular education teammates, Ann Boss and John Crossett. Nearly one-third of the youngsters the three teachers work with have classified disabilities. One child is blind. Others have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or receptive-expressive speech impairments. "We don't run any pull-out programs," explains Baker. "We try to provide student services directly in the regular classroom." All students participate in activities involving technology. The computer serves as the perfect venue for challenging simulations and problem-solving. For example, with the Tom Snyder Production program, Decisions, Decisions: Environment, youngsters at all ability levels work together to solve the problem of pond pollution. "The technology provides a visual stimulus and a storyline that they can follow," says Baker, "and motivates the students to think critically about the issues while providing opportunity for decision-making." The simulation fits perfectly with the team's science unit on pond life but it doesn't stop there. Baker says that teachers also use it during English class because it gets the students excited about "writing persuasive pieces to congressmen and local agencies on the importance of preserving the environment." The benefits of using technology to supplement and extend the learning process are many and varied, suggests Baker. This is evident in computer-based projects students have completed using Roger Wagner's multimedia authoring package, HyperStudio. The students work individually or in teams to create "cards," which are then assembled into a larger project. In a recent example, each student was given a common noun related to geography. He or she had to come up with a definition, sentence, and picture to illustrate the noun. The resulting pages were incorporated into a HyperStudio "stack" on geography terms. It's not, explains Baker, that the students all produce "absolutely wonderful pieces of work. That's what I expected at first, but in all honesty, it's not always what happens. The technology is most helpful as a stimulus. It motivates them to solve problems and make decisions in ways that would not have been possible in a regular classroom." At Wayland-Cohocton, technology and inclusion afford an important opportunity for social interaction. When working on a multimedia HyperStudio project, disabled students sit side by side with regular students at the computers. Baker notes that they sometimes figure out how the software works or how to program a button before the regular education students sitting next to them. These successes boost their self-confidence, as does access to tools such as spelling checkers, grammar checkers, and thesauruses that students are typically reluctant to use in printed form. For students with disabilities the best thing about technology, says Baker, is that it equalizes the playing field. "It can help them so that they are not constantly reminded of the disabilities. They can be like all the other kids." 

Working–and Laughing–Together at the Computer

Terry Lankutis taught special education in public schools for 12 years, then worked as an education technology consultant for Apple Computer before starting disABILITY RESOURCES, an assistive technology consulting firm. Now, she regularly contracts with K-12 schools to work in the classrooms and help teachers with technology integration. Sometimes she assists special education teachers and staff. She also works with regular education teachers who have special education students in their classrooms. Her objective remains the same in both venues–to support special needs students so that it is easier for them to do their academic work. In many instances, success depends upon choosing the right technology. Many learning disabled children are unable to produce quality written work, explains Landutis. "Either they can't spell very well or they have difficulty taking the thoughts in their head and getting them down on paper. The writing process is often very frustrating for them." With Don Johnston's CO: Writer talking word processor, they have both the motivation to get the job done and instant feedback on their work. According to Lankutis, a talking word processor facilitates editing because it provides audio feedback as they visually track what they've typed. "All they do is type in a word and press the spacebar. The computer reads aloud what they've written and they immediately know whether it's right or wrong." For children who function at a normal cognitive level, but have physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy or the loss of use in one hand, Lankutis recommends technology to help them complete academic assignments. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding a program that facilitates faster typing. She may gravitate toward an application that lets her rearrange the keyboard with the most frequently used keys on one side so that the child doesn't have to keep reaching over. "We might go with [IntelliTools'] IntelliKeys, a special keyboard that I can customize to their physical needs," says Lankutis. She particularly likes the fact that IntelliKeys allows teachers to adjust the rate at which it responds. Lankutis believes that educators frequently underestimate their special needs students. She recently worked with multi-handicapped deaf-blind children in a self-contained classroom. All students were in wheelchairs. They had limited communication skills due to their vision loss and deafness. Initially, the speech specialist and classroom teacher enlisted the support of tape recorders to get the blind students to make communication choices. The youngsters would listen to a series of choices that played repeatedly on a loop tape. When they heard the choice they wanted, they hit a switch. Now, with help from a computer and IntelliTools' IntelliPics software, these same students can do much more–and they can do it together. Every child works at the computer with a switch or other special input device mounted within reach. Lankutis describes a typical activity: 'The teacher might say, "Joanie, tell us about your day.' The computer will begin to go through the choices. The child will listen or watch it scan the choices, then she'll hit the switch when the screen choice describes what her day was like. Sometimes they have the students telling jokes. The teachers program in both the joke and the punch line. One student 'tells' the joke and the other kid 'says' the punch line. The kids laugh and love it. For some of them, this is their first chance to experience turn taking and group activity." 


Lyricists may croon "gee, but it's lonely at the top," but the social isolation and personal frustration of college students struggling to overcome mobility, hearing, vision, or speech disabilities can be particularly intense. DO-IT (short for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, Technology) seeks to help these young adults overcome their solitude. DO-IT began in 1992 as a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Designed to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, its initial goal was to increase participation in the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics by people with disabilities. Project coordinator believed that they could help people with disabilities become more independent, productive, and socially engaged through the use of computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet. DO-IT personnel work primarily with high school students (and in some cases middle school students) to facilitate their successful transition to college and ultimately to careers. "Sometimes we work with the students themselves," says Sheryl Burgstahler, director of the program. "Other times we work with the special education staff and regular education teachers at the student's school." DO-IT publicizes the program by sending out a newsletter to about 4,000 people across the country. Many newsletter recipients run organizations catering to students with disabilities. The DO-IT Web site ( provides important information about the program. Visitors can find out about adaptive technology and learn how to design World Wide Web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities. There are also important site links for students with disabilities who want to use technology, go on to college, or pursue careers. Nearly 100 high school students have participated in DO-IT's Scholar program over the years. Every fall, the DO-IT board recruits 20 students (typically sophomores). Although students come from all over the country, they share much in common. They are all in high school, they all have disabilities, and they are all very interested in going to college. The selection process ends in the winter time. Then DO-IT works with the winners to provide and install the computer technology they need to access the Internet. Burgstahler elaborated, "If, for example, we have a blind student in Pennsylvania, DO-IT buys the equipment this student needs, then sends out a technology person to set it up, connect to the Internet, and train the student in how to access the Internet from home." DO-IT Scholars become part of a very rich and active electronic community, consisting of the current group of scholars, plus students who have participated in previous years. "We also have about 80 practicing engineers and scientists with disabilities, mentoring these young people via the Internet," adds Burgstahler. Over time, the new batch of scholars begins to feel comfortable communicating and using the Internet to access information resources. In August, DO-IT Scholars participate in a two-week summer program held on campus at the University of Washington in Seattle. They live in the dorms, get to know one another, and learn about campus life first hand. After camp, they return home and continue to communicate via the Internet year round. To date, 59 DO-IT Scholars have graduated from high school, 45 of them have enrolled in college, and 10 are working in computer-related fields. Seven others have taken some college courses and plan to return to campus, or they've taken a year off and expect to go to college once their year is up. In their second year, DO-IT participants return for another August summer session to meet the new first-year scholars. Their community continues to grow as they learn about science and engineering opportunities, as well as accommodations for colleges and careers. During the third summer, DO-IT provides them with opportunities for work experience. They can return as program interns. When they finally go on to college, DO-IT Scholars become DO-IT Ambassadors, sharing experiences with others in the program via electronic mail. Thanks to their electronic community, they now have a very strong support network. 

Technology Spells Success

Sharon Keller, Colonial School District technology coordinator and special education teacher in New Castle, Delaware, assists student who have a variety of disabilities and learning needs. At the district's John G. Leach School, 85 students range in age from three to 21. All are disabled in some way, most severely, requiring augmentative communication devices for speech. Keller adapts school curriculum for use with technology. Frequently, she digitizes learning material into HyperStudio so it can work with a single switch input device. "This multimedia authoring program gives you lots of access options," says Keller. "I put each learning option on a scanning button. Students choose their answers by hitting a switch when the button highlights. Sometimes the hardest thing is to come up with a student's best and most accurate switch site." Keller frequently works with a computer to develop learning materials that teachers can use for particular classroom units. For instance, when one teacher in the district did a unit on body parts, Keller used IntelliPics to create a series of body part pictures for children to identify. Then she used HyperStudio to develop a slightly more challenging program where children had to move various body parts to their correct position on a face. Sometimes the work she does is more student-specific. For instance, she assists a significantly challenged young man at the high school by adapting technology to his needs. "Although his listening comprehension is wonderful," Keller explains, "he is severely dyslexic and cannot read or write. So I taught him to scan his materials into the computer. Write: OutLoud then reads everything to him." Using another Don Johnston program, a word prediction program called Co: Writer, he is able to respond and complete his assignments. Prior to the introduction of this technology, the student did little or no academic work. He was failing most of his subjects, says Keller. Now he can participate successfully in a blended environment at one of the largest high schools in Delaware. The technology, combined with support services from a special education teacher, makes it possible for him to be integrated in a mainstream class. Keller assists another student–a 7 year-old with multiple disabilities–by enlarging the print size of her reading materials. The student's most reliable mode of responding to questions is through "eye gaze." Keller explains, "You place three choices in an eye gaze frame, then ask questions about the material. The student uses her eyes to gaze to her choices. When her gaze settles on one, you read the choice to determine her response." When the reading materials were too small for the student to see, Keller typed them in a larger size then she printed them. "It's simple but very useful," she suggests. "Without technology we would have no idea that she has the skills that she does. She is reading and doing some simple mathematics problems. She also uses a single switch to control a power chair so that eventually she will be able to negotiate her environment pretty much independently." In the long run, it costs much less to offer all this technology-assisted instruction, suggests Keller. "If you don't provide a free and appropriate education as regulations require, parents can sue the school district for not meeting a student's needs. Inevitably, legal proceedings are far more costly than buying the student equipment. And, if a student meets with success, graduates from high school, and turns out to be employable, then he won't be on the welfare rolls." One of the best things about using technology to instruct students with special needs is seeing the looks on their faces when they realize they can do something they had previously been unable to do, says Keller. The technology also raises teacher expectations. "When teachers have higher expectations, children tend to achieve more." 

Pioneers on the Cutting Edge

Eastgate Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri, is a suburban facility with over 900 students in grades six, seven and eight. Forty percent of the youngsters qualify for free or reduced lunch. About ten percent have special education needs. To accommodate the students with special needs, Lisa Prososki, Elizabeth Hack, and Diane Lasco–three of Eastgate's eighth-grade teachers–joined forces on the "Pioneers" team. In this, the fourth year of the Pioneer program, about 20 of their 60 students have individual educational plans (IEP's). Prososki, an English and social studies teacher, says that creating mixed groups provided the IEP student with strong role models. "Many times when IEP students are in a resource class by themselves, they don't develop effective peer relationships with students who encourage them to achieve academically." Pioneer students frequently pick partners and pair up. According to Prososki, they generally try to choose someone who can help them. "We've seen a lot of neat relationships form between kids who really struggle with writing and kids who are good writers," she continues. Combining IEP and non-IEP students has had a positive outcome in another way, adds Lasco. "Non-IEP students have stronger motivation to perform. They understand that the writing comes more easily to them and they have fewer excuses not to achieve." In addition to observing increased student interaction, Pioneer team teachers can measure the benefits of teaching with technology through state assessments. Writing samples are taken and evaluated by the state in late September or early October and then again in April or May. Pioneer students in the lowest quartile (i.e., the ones who really struggle with writing) show a remarkable gain in ability. Says Prososki, "As a team we had almost an 11 percent gain in writing scores on state assessed tests." Technology plays a major role in team efforts to educate these eighth-graders. It's used every day to present instructional materials. Teachers also require the student to complete at least one major project in the technology lab every month. One popular project with the eighth-grade Pioneers team involves designing a game. The first year the teachers introduced the project, students created game boards and pieces by hand. The second year, they worked with computers. The computer-designed games looked more professional. "There was a lot of pride and self-esteem, because what they produced looked so much better than the games of the previous year," says Lasco, the team's math and science teacher. Students could download pictures and graphic from the Internet. The used the shaped in Microsoft Office's graphing program to create special spaces on their game boards and wrote captions for their pictures and text for their games using Microsoft Word. With a video camera, they digitized still images from movies. They also used scanners and Apple's QuickTake digital camera. Prososki says that each computer project probably requires about 10 class instruction hours in the lab before the students feel comfortable enough to navigate and produce what they want without having to ask a lot of questions." This time is well spent, say the teachers. When youngsters sit next to each other in the lab, the ones who are good writers help those who struggle. Prososki explains: "Some kids spell in a way that eludes the spelling checker. The partner will ask, 'What do you mean, what are you trying to say?' Technology fosters relationships, and it also helps kids that struggle feel like they are producing high caliber work. With technology, the task seems less difficult. The thinking process probably isn't any easier, but they believe it is. They don't have to worry that a peer who may be doing the editing can't read their handwriting." Elizabeth Hack, the special education teacher, agrees, "When students first come to us, the IEP youngsters have a lot of anxiety about whether or not they will be able to keep up. They are afraid they are going to fail because that has been their experience in other classrooms. By the end of the year, however, they find they can keep up with the pace. They've also developed a strong sense of self-reliance and they are more trusting of students who learn differently." 

Carol S. Holzberg, Ph.D., is an anthropologist, computer journalist, and consultant in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. She serves as technology coordinator at three schools in Western Massachusetts (Shutesbury Elementary, Swift River Elementary in New Salem, and Yeshiva Academy in Springfield). Contact her via e-mail at: