There has been a surge in advances in technology powering assistive devices for people with different abilities. Much sought-after among them is an array of websites and applications catering for persons with learning disabilities. But given the varying levels and types of disabilities, the effectiveness of this adaptive technology remains a concern among special educators.
Technological assistance for dyslexia (a learning disability that affects reading and writing skills) may not require specialised applications. “For instance, the use of spell-checks can allow the person with learning difficulties to remain focused on the task of communication,” says R. Subramanium, professor, Rehabilitation Council of India.
There are easy options available for others, he adds, pointing to the commonly used talking calculator that is a boon for persons with dyscalculia, which affects mathematics skills. “The voice output gives feedback to the user, helping him/her identify input errors. Additionally, hearing the answer can provide a check against the transposition of numbers commonly reversed in reading by people with dyslexia or dyscalculia, but few use it here.”
Several indigenously developed products also seek to enhance comprehension of persons with disability. “Dyslexic children are unable to master decoding as it is traditionally taught. The cognitive load is much higher because the brain has to work to translate the language in terms of the image and also try to understand it,” says S.R. Balasundaram, an assistant professor of NIT, Tiruchi.
He and his colleague K. Nandhini suggest a range of summarisation tools that will condense a document into an easily understandable summary, taking into account similar words, ‘trigger words’ (for which they do not have a picture in mind), paragraph length and peculiar words. “A short, clever summary would help them preview, anticipate and know the purpose of reading,” says Prof. Nandhini.
A personalised e-learning environment, which, before the start of the session, assesses, analyses and evaluates students’ interest, concentration levels, and then, dynamically plans the session. Taking the tutor’s schedule as the base can help, says Annie Joyce of C-DAC, Bangalore. Her ‘Smart Tutor’ works at the conscious level by interacting with the child, while at the sub-conscious level, it enhances its own expertise using the age, interests, skills and abilities of the child to plan better for him/her.
“Additionally, word prediction programmes available on all platforms provide most likely word choices based on what has been typed so far. Devices that render phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words may be useful tools for people with dyslexia,” explains Prof. Subramanium.
Speech recognition software that takes the spoken word through a microphone and converts it into a machine-readable format is also recommended, says Amrutha Sarkar, a speech therapy tutor at Maithree, an organisation for special children, in Chennai. But a lot of it needs to be customised too, because many people with learning disabilities have reading problems, and speech recognition is not always an appropriate accommodation.
Experts suggest these technology tools compensate rather than ‘cure’ or remedy, allowing a person with a learning disability to apply his own intelligence and knowledge. Adaptive technology is a made-to-fit implement that requires many sessions of trial to find a set of techniques for an individual, says Mr. Subramanium.
And it is not always necessary that such technology is computer-based, says Gopika Rao, a special educator and professor, Delhi University. “We have observed that even post-it notes, highlighter pens, images and sound mechanisms have helped differently abled people comprehend and express better. Thus, knowing the suitability, reading specialists, education technology specialists and special education teachers need to work to understand, evaluate, and implement technology effectively, combining it appropriately with human intervention.”