Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities

Providing access to technology

A specific learning disability (LD) is in most situations a "hidden disability." Because there are no outward signs of a disability such as a white cane or wheelchair, people with an LD are often neglected when considering assistive computer technology. However, many people with learning disabilities can benefit from mainstream and specialized hardware and software to operate a computer and further their academic and career goals.

Definitions and Terminology

A specific learning disability is unique to the individual and can appear in a variety of ways. It may be difficult to diagnose, to determine impact, and to accommodate.

Generally speaking, someone may be diagnosed with a learning disability if he or she is of average or above-average intelligence and there is a lack of achievement at age and ability level, or a large discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.

An untrained observer may conclude that a person with a learning disability is "lazy" or "just not trying hard enough." He may have a difficult time understanding the large discrepancy between reading comprehension and proficiency in verbal ability. The observer sees only the input and output, not the processing of the information. Deficiencies in the processing of information make learning and expressing ideas difficult or impossible tasks. Learning disabilities usually fall within four broad categories:

  • Spoken language - listening and speaking
  • Written language - reading, writing, and spelling
  • Arithmetic - calculation and concepts
  • Reasoning - organization and integration of ideas and thoughts

A person with a learning disability may have discrepancies in one or all of these categories. The effects of an LD are manifested differently for different individuals and range from mild to severe. Learning disabilities may also be present along with other disabilities such as mobility or sensory impairments. Often people with attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADD/ADHD) also have learning disabilities. Specific types of learning disabilities include:

  • Dysgraphia - An individual with dysgraphia has a difficult time with the physical task of forming letters and words using a pen and paper and has difficulty producing legible handwriting.
  • Dyscalculia - A person with dyscalculia has difficulty understanding and using math concepts and symbols.
  • Dyspraxia - Language comprehension of a person with dyspraxia does not match language production. She may mix up words and sentences while talking.
  • Non-verbal Learning Disorder - A non-verbal learning disorder is demonstrated by below-average motor coordination, visual-spatial organization, and social skills.
  • Dyslexia - An individual with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and words within sentences while reading. He may also have difficulty spelling words correctly while writing; letter reversals are common. Some individuals with dyslexia may also have a difficult time with navigating and route finding using right/left and/or compass directions.

Accommodations

Assistive and adaptive technology does not "cure" a specific learning disability. These tools compensate rather than remedy, allowing a person with an LD to demonstrate their intelligence and knowledge. Adaptive technology for the person with an LD is a made-to-fit implementation. Trial and error may be required to find a set of appropriate tools and techniques for a specific individual. Ideally, a person with an LD plays a key role in selecting her technology. She should help to determine what works and what does not. Once basic tools and strategies are selected, they can be "test driven," discarded, adapted, and/or refined.

Following are descriptions of some computing tools that have been used effectively by individuals with specific learning disabilities. This list is not exhaustive and should not limit the person with an LD or the assistive technology practitioner from trying something new. Today's experimental tinkering could lead to tomorrow's commonly used tool.

Word Processors 

Computer-based accommodations for Dyslexia may not require specialized hardware or software. For example, a person with dyslexia can benefit from regularly using built-in word processor features such as:

  • Spell checking
  • Grammar checking
  • Font size and color changes

Reading Systems 

An individual who can take in information through listening much better than by reading may benefit from using a reading system. These systems allow text on screen (document, web page, or email) to be read aloud through the computer's sound card. A scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software (e.g., Freedom Scientific's WYNN or Kurzweil 3000) adds the feature of reading printed text. Hard copy text is placed on the scanner where it is converted into a digital image. This image is then converted to a text file, making the characters recognizable by the computer. The computer can then read the words back using a speech synthesizer and simultaneously present the words on screen.

Concept Mapping 

Some individuals have difficulty organizing and integrating thoughts and ideas while writing. Concept mapping software allows for visual representation of ideas and concepts. These representations are presented in a physical manner and can be connected with arrows to show the relationship between ideas. These graphically represented ideas can be linked, rearranged, color coded, and matched with a variety of icons to suit the need of the user. Concept mapping software can be used as a structure for starting and organizing such diverse writing projects as poetry, term papers, resumes, schedules, or even computer programs.

Phonetic Spelling

People with dyslexia often spell phonetically, making use of word prediction or spell checking software less useful. Devices (e.g., Franklin Electronic Dictionary) or software (ClaroRead) that renders phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words may be useful tools.

Word Prediction 

Spelling words correctly while typing can be a challenge for some people with Dyslexia. Word prediction programs prompt the user with a list of most likely word choices based upon what has been typed so far. Rather than experiencing the frustration of remembering the spelling of a word, he can refer to the predictive list, choose the desired word and continue with the expression of thoughts and ideas.

Speech Recognition 

Speech recognition products provide appropriate tools for individuals with a wide range of learning disabilities. Speech recognition software takes the spoken word via a microphone and converts it to machine-readable format. The user speaks into a microphone either with pauses between words (discrete speech) or in a normal talking manner (continuous speech). The discrete product, although slower, is often the better choice for those with LDs because errors can be identified as they occur. Making corrections after the fact using continuous speech requires proficient reading skills. Speech recognition technology requires that the user have moderately good reading comprehension to correct the program's text output. Because many people with LDs have reading problems, speech recognition is not always an appropriate accommodation.

Organizational Software/Personal Information Managers (PIMs) 

Organizing schedules and information is difficult for some people with dyslexia or a non-verbal learning disorder. Personal Information Managers (PIMs) such as a Palm Pilot or Casio or organizational software such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Organizer can accommodate these disabilities. Such tools can be helpful to those with LDs by providing a centralized and portable means of organizing schedules and information. The cues provided by these tools can assist keeping on task and may help provide visual alternatives to represent what work needs to be done and what has been accomplished. However, they may also put early learners at a disadvantage by requiring yet another program and interface to learn and remember to use. Individuals may lack the discipline/attention skills to regularly check the application/device.

Talking Calculators 

A talking calculator is an appropriate tool for people with Dyscalculia. The synthesized voice output of a talking calculator provides feedback to the user that helps them identify any input errors. Additionally, hearing the calculated answer can provide a check against the transposition of numbers commonly reversed in reading by people with Dyslexia or Dyscalculia.

Low Tech Tools (Post-It Notes, Highlighters) 

Not all assistive technology for people with LDs is computer-based. The use of common office supplies such as Post-It Notes™ and highlighter pens provide elegantly simple means of sorting and prioritizing thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Often, tools of one's own making provide the most effective and comfortable accommodations for learning difficulties.

Video

A twelve-minute video, Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities, available at www.uw/doit/Video/wt_learn.html, demonstrates key points summarized in this handout. A DVD may be purchased from DO-IT. Permission is granted to reproduce DO-IT videos for educational, non-commercial purposes as long as the source is acknowledged.

Additional Resources

For more information about learning disabilities and possible accommodations, consider the following websites.

Useful information about products that can assist an individual with an LD can be found at the following websites.

Additional publications regarding the use of information technology by people with disabilities can be found at www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology. Select "Disability-Related Resources on the Internet" for a comprehensive list of discussion lists and websites.

To locate technical assistance centers in your state or region, consult www.resnaprojects.org/allcontacts/statewidecontacts.html or www.adata.org/Static/ContactUs.html, respectively.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

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Acknowledgment

This publication is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #9800324. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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