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Schools, universities, and libraries are struggling with tight budgets. How can we justify spending a lot of money to buy assistive technologies that might only be used by a small number of people?

Hurdles 101: Special Education Funding in the 21st Century

These days most of us must justify our spending habits. Whether you are a government official or an individual citizen, economic hardship requires moderation, even sacrifice. Yet, it is difficult to decide what must be relinquished and what must be retained. During times like these, school districts must also defend their spending habits. Unfortunately, educators know too well that economic hardship usually means doing more with less. However, there are some budgets that cannot be downsized and one of those is funding for special education. It’s true that special education serves a small percentage of the population but that cannot be a deciding factor. As Ann Rand once said, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).” Special education students must be valued by all, no matter the cost. Our role as educators is to ensure that others realize this too. In order to accomplish this, educators often have overcome many hurdles. One in particular is the justification of special education funding.

Here are some key arguments that educators may use to build a case for special education funding:

1)      legal obligations must be fulfilled;
2)      numerous benefits have already been identified;
3)      adopt a new motto: access for all.

It’s the Law!

Legally speaking, the federal government has already provided justification for special education funding, including access to assistive technology. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that outlines the rights and regulations for students with disabilities in the United States. Under this law, all children with disabilities are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). (Mauro, 2012) Furthermore, in 1997 and again in 2004, the federal government amended the IDEA by mandating that assistive technology devices and services must be considered for any child in special education. (“What is assistive technology and how is it used in schools?” n.d.)  “This means that for any child receiving special education services, the educational team must ask if there is a device that will increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of that child. If the answer is yes, the school district must provide certain services:

  • a qualified evaluator must complete an assistive technology evaluation;
  • if the evaluator recommends a device, it must be acquired;
  • and if you, your child or the staff in your child’s school need training to use the device, that training must be provided too.” (“Assistive technology: PBS Parents,” n.d.)

Further to that, “rather than being perceived as just a rehabilitative or remedial tool, assistive technology is reflected in the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) as a method for general curriculum access.” (“What is assistive technology and how is it used in schools?” n.d.) What is made clear here is that special education students often utilize assistive technology in order to gain access to the curriculum that the school offers. More importantly it must be realized that without assistive technology, many special education students would not even be able to access even a general curriculum.

As educators, whether we teach special education students or not, we must be aware of our students’ legal rights. It is up to us to ensure these obligations are preserved.

Known Benefits of Assistive Technology

Assistive technology helps students with disabilities on many different levels. It can help them accomplish tasks like:

  • Master grade-level content. Technology presents the material in different forms (visually, auditorially, etc.) allowing better understanding of content.
  • Improve writing and organizational skills. Technology can enable students to develop a concept map for a research paper and write using grade-level vocabulary or words they otherwise wouldn’t use without a computer due to poor spelling skills.
  • Work towards grade-level reading skills. The computer either reads the text digitally or presents it at a lower grade level for students with reading disabilities or visual impairments.
  • Improve note-taking skills. Many students with disabilities have difficulty taking notes in longhand because of poor spelling, writing, and/or eye-hand coordination skills.
  • Master educational concepts that would otherwise have been beyond their reach. Students can experience abstract concepts such as the growth of a flower through 3-D simulations. (“What is assistive technology and how is it used in schools?” n.d.)

Furthermore, some post-secondary educators have noted that “assistive technology helps people with and without disabilities perform tasks more efficiently, giving them independence and enriching their lives.” (“Benefits of assistive technology extend to everyone,” 2008) For example, at UW-Madison’s 17 general-access computing labs, they found “students with hearing, visual, physical, psychiatric, learning or other disabilities can use screen magnifiers, and other assistive technologies to help them be successful academically. A growing number of other students are also using those tools to learn more effectively.”  (“Benefits of assistive technology extend to everyone,” 2008)

Students themselves have also recognized the benefits of assistive technologies as noted in a three year study (of CODE projects) conducted by Trillium Lakelands School District in Ontario:

  • “It helps me be more independent – I can do it myself.”
  • “… it helps me work better and it keeps me working longer.”
  • ·         “… people know what I am writing and they understand what I am writing.” (Moore & Pattison, 2008)

Observations shared by principals in their surveys also established the benefits of assistive technology:

“Students were more eager to learn; assistive technology helped students become more independent; students were able to express knowledge more easily; students were excited about completing assignments and attending classes; there were fewer discipline problems and parents were pleased with the increased successes of their children.” (Moore & Pattison, 2008)

The school district also learned some other important lessons:

  • Regular use of assistive technology can positively impact reading comprehension, student independence and motivation.
  • Assistive technology is most beneficial within the regular classroom and when students with special needs and others have training.
  • Teachers who directly experience students’ enhanced performance through the use of assistive technology are impacted in their beliefs and practice. (Moore & Pattison, 2008)

Clearly assistive technology provides numerous benefits to students with learning difficulties. Furthermore, it has also been observed, even at different levels, that many students benefit from assistive technology not just special education students.

Access for All

Today’s classrooms are diverse. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and have a wide range of interests, preferences, learning strengths and needs. Because of this, many provinces and states consider differentiated instruction as an approach that could be used to reach all learners. In Alberta it has been observed that differentiated instruction enhances the success of: students with disabilities (as part of an individualized program plan or IPP, similar to the IEP), English language learners, students who are gifted, students considered at risk for leaving school before completion. (Alberta Education, 2010)

Philosophies like these are not new but they are constantly evolving. A similar viewpoint is universal design for learning (UDL). This educational approach aims to increase access to learning for all students by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers. “UDL describes three main principles to guide the selection and development of learning environments, resources and activities that support individual learning differences: multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge; multiple means of expression, to provide learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know; and multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately and motivate them to learn.” (Alberta Education, 2010)

What is important to realize here is that both educational philosophies have a common thread: access for all. This way of thinking is not only appropriate in the 21st century, it is necessary. Educators are more likely to get what is needed for their students when they promote “access for all”. Fortunately for us, assistive technology can make this motto more than just a saying. Assistive technology has made a difference already and will continue to do so if its value is recognized and implemented.

Jumping hurdles seems to be an everyday occurrence for educators. In fact, it might even be said that jumping hurdles is a necessary evil because such hurdles keep us mentally limber and ever protective of our students’ needs. Justification of funding for special  education is an important hurdle that must be cleared. We must defend our students’ right to an education no matter what.

Hopefully the three arguments presented here will help you overcome this hurdle too!

Remember: if educators do not protect special education funding, who will?

References

Assistive technology: PBS parents.  (n.d.). PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/learning-disabilities/strategies-for-learning-disabilities/assistive-technology/

Benefits of assistive technology extend to everyone. (2008, December 16). Division of Information Technology (DoIT) | UW–Madison. Retrieved from http://www.doit.wisc.edu/news/story.aspx?filename=1107

Making a difference: Meeting diverse learning needs with differentiated instruction. (2010). Edmonton: Alberta Education.

Mauro, T. (2012). What is IDEA? Parenting children with special needs. Retrieved from http://specialchildren.about.com/od/special

Moore, B., & Pattison, C. (2008, November). Using assistive technology, differentiated instruction, and professional learning teams. CODE Chronicles. Retrieved from www.ontariodirectors.ca/CODE_Chronicles/files/CODEchronicles1_pg2-3.pdf

What is assistive technology and how is it used in schools? (n.d.). University of South Carolina. Retrieved from http://www.sc.edu/scatp/cdrom/atused.html