3 Assistive technology by disability type: understanding users' needs

Accessible ICTs hold the potential to enable persons with disabilities to receive an education and become productive employees. Applied to education systems, accessible ICTs can provide equitable learning opportunities by enabling communication with teachers and fellow students, providing access to learning materials and by establishing a venue to complete course work, assignments and examinations. There are a wide variety of accessible ICTs currently available that can help overcome reduced functional capacity and enable communication, cognition and access to computers. Students with disabilities also require educational texts and online resources that are available in accessible formats.

Categories of assistive technologies (ATs) include stand-alone devices that aid mobility (e.g. wheelchairs) and communication (e.g. hearing aids). They also include hardware and software that enable access to a computer (e.g. an adaptive keyboard or screen reader). This section deals primarily with ATs that relate directly to a person’s ability to access a computer and participate effectively in an inclusive learning environment. Other concerns, such as accessibility of the building or computer workstations are also addressed.

A catalogue of ATs for ICT compiled for this module is a superset of the ISO/IEC FDIS 24751 Individualized Adaptability and Accessibility in e-Learning, Education and Training standard, which was created to facilitate the matching of individual user needs and preferences with educational digital resources that meet those needs and preferences.

Identifying the best assistive technology solution often requires an in-depth needs assessment to understand how a difficulty or impairment impacts computer use and/or access to an educational resource. The need for centers of expertise in AT is dealt with Section 4.

Ability as a spectrum

To begin to understand the complex variety of functional limitations that persons with disabilities experience, it is necessary to first appreciate the changing nature of human capability. No two people, whether with or without a disability, have exactly the same capabilities. Moreover, an individual’s ability to carry out a task can change according to a number of factors, including physical and mental fatigue, their environment and context of use. Consider, for example, a person with average eyesight trying to read a computer screen in an environment where very bright sunlight is reflected off the screen. It may be difficult or even impossible for that person to read the screen. A person may also experience reduced cognitive ability if working while fatigued or in a noisy or distracting environment. So it is important to view personal abilities to use ICTs as a spectrum that changes according to a wide range of factors.65 Thus, we can say the following:

  • A disability may occur during a person’s lifetime or may be present from birth;
  • Categories of impairment include, but are not limited to, physical, sensory, cognitive and developmental;
  • A disability may be permanent or temporary in nature;
  • Disability may be the result of a combination of factors, including:

o Functional limitations resulting from physical, psychiatric or psychological conditions;
o Limitations in the design of an environment, product or ICT, and
o Barriers associated with the attitudes of people and society; and

  • As people get older, the prevalence of age-related disabilities increases.

Educational Needs of children with disabilities

The special educational requirements of children with disabilities caused by a functional limitation are often called special educational needs (SENs), and they are both diverse and varied. UNESCO groups the roles that ICTs can play into three main categories:

  • Compensation uses – Technical assistance that enables active participation in traditional educational activities, such as reading or writing.
  • Didactic uses – The general process of using ICTs to transform approaches to education. Many ICTs can be used as a didactical tool to enable a more inclusive learning environment
  • Communication uses – Technologies that can enable communication – often referred to as alternative and augmentative communication devices and strategies.66

The following sections discuss the main categories of physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities and refer to best practices for ensuring that accessible ICTs enable learning in an inclusive school environment.

65 http://www.who.int/classifications/icf/en/ International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) ICF describes how people live with their health condition. ICF is a classification of health and health related domains that describe body functions and structures, activities and participation. Since an individual's functioning and disability occurs in a context, ICF also includes a list of environmental factors.

66UNESCO IITE ICTs in Eudcation for People with Special Needs. http://www.iite.ru/pics/publications/files/3214644.pdf