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How We Talk About Inclusive Technology in Education Matters

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A growing discussion amongst students and teachers in special education in the COVID age is how the world is responding to online learning. Some view this as an opportunity to implement a disability-inclusive framework in general education, like the Universal Design for Learning, to create an equal environment for all students. Some believe the resistance against accommodating classes in a digital format in some states highlights ableism in the education system and denies high-risk students their right to learn. Both concepts stem from the same point: we need to be better about how we include and accommodate students with disabilities in the general education classroom.

Within this topic, there is a conversation about helping teachers adapt to technology in ways that can create effective, inclusive classroom-friendly lessons. One factor that often goes overlooked is language. Part of encouraging a disability-inclusive environment involves changing how we talk about technology and its relationship to the classroom. Since the transition to online classes, there have been valid concerns from both educators and parents about the quality and practicality of online learning. From these concerns emerge some widely repeated and generalized ideas: technology is a distraction, it prevents learning, and it makes students antisocial. While this rhetoric is nothing new, the pandemic has made it a popular talking point in both the public and social media.

These general statements do not account for the students who rely on digital tools to function in class. Often, the problem is not the technology itself, but how it is used. Digital learning in inclusive classrooms isn’t about letting students use their phones in class, but rather about embracing tools in ways that make learning engaging and accessible for students of all abilities. This can include specialized technology, like interactive multimedia modules that appeal to different types of learners, or accommodative technology, like speech synthesis and voice-to-text apps that help students read, write, and communicate. The goal is to use technology to encourage interaction and comprehension, not replace it, as is often implied.

Making the presence of technology a little more welcome is a good place to start, as it helps students with disabilities feel welcome too. As a disabled student myself, I know from experience that a classroom that is introduced as having a “ban” on technology creates an awkward and difficult learning environment. Many students have accommodations that require laptops, tablets, smart pens, recording devices, or other essential tools. Stating a ban makes the student a visual exception, announcing their disability to their peers against their will. The fear of standing out might inhibit the student from utilizing an accommodation. For those who have no choice, such as students who struggle with reading or holding a pencil, this can be a source of shame and isolation. There are homebound students who regularly rely on online learning that are having their education degraded by the public. Discrediting the value of digital learning tools can take a toll on those who need them and prevent others from taking their needs seriously.

For those who haven’t had to face challenges like this before, it can be hard to understand the benefits of adapting the classroom attitude as a whole. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.1 million students received special education services in the 2018-19 school year. With that already staggering number in mind, it is important to remember that not all disabilities are visible or, for some, properly diagnosed. For example, learning disabilities like attention disorders, dyslexia, and more often go overlooked or undiscovered.

In 2017, the National Center for Learning Disabilities found that 1 in 5 children had evidence of a learning disorder. The same study revealed that 48% of parents and 33% of educators believed that the conditions were temporary or merely due to laziness. As a result, the dropout rate for these students is almost three times higher than the average student, while only 1 in 4 who go to college will opt to disclose their disability. Tools that make learning easier for everyone help break stigmas and embrace diverse learners. Students led to believe that using an aid is wrong, lazy, or punishable may be less likely to identify or speak up about their challenges, while the resulting social exclusion can lead to decreased self-esteem.

We should be concerned about how the attitude around technology in the classroom might change after months of increased negative language, not to mention the damage it will do to the journey towards inclusive learning. Technology can be a distraction, but it can also be a key tool in minimizing barriers for students with disabilities if its capacity is recognized and practiced effectively. Using interactive multimedia that appeals to the different styles of learning can help ensure that all students are engaged and understanding the content, while eliminating the stigma of accommodations. This will help to unite the classroom, creating a stronger social environment. The relationship is tricky, but it is essential, especially in an age where more students are relying on digital formats. This is the time to learn and change how we talk about the potential for technology in education.

Originally published: October 6, 2020
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