UK College of Education UK leads national study into technology
for children with special needs


Gerald Abner, an assistive technology specialist, teaches Megan to use a Braille Lite. Megan is a second grade student with a visual impairment who benefits from the speech output and refreshable Braille features of the device. This device and many others were made available by the Jessamine County school system in Kentucky where Megan attends school.

At the end of 2005, the National Assistive Technology Research Institute (NATRI) at the University of Kentucky College of Education is scheduled to release a comprehensive report on the state of assistive technology (AT) in our nation’s public schools. This report will have far-reaching implications on federal and state policies concerning the provision of AT to students with disabilities. Most importantly, however, the report will serve as a guide to “best practices” that will help public schools provide a quality education to all their P-12 students.

UK researchers Ted Hasselbring, Bryan Endowed Professor for Special Education Technology, and Margaret Bausch, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling (EDSRC), are co-principal investigators on the research project. Melinda Ault, disability program specialist with the EDSRC, is NATRI’s project director. In anticipation of the institute’s national report, each researcher commented on some of the significant aspects of NATRI’s research, the report’s initial findings, and the potential impact they hope will result from their work.

All of them stressed that although some trends are becoming apparent, there is still a large quantity of data to be reviewed and analyzed before any final conclusions can be drawn.

Within the context of NATRI’s research, assistive technology, or AT, as it is commonly termed, refers to anything that aids a person with disabilities to successfully participate in classroom education.

NATRI was created by the U.S. Department of Education through a grant from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through IDEA, the federal government directed schools to give students with disabilities access to the same quality education as any other student. It was a sweeping mandate that forced many public schools to deal with a multitude of issues pertaining to their students with disabilities.

However, school officials lacked the professional expertise and training to implement IDEA’s systemic changes. This dilemma was especially true for schools in underserved areas. Therefore, nationwide, there has been great variability in the compliance with IDEA’s mandate, said Hasselbring.

“Policies vary widely from state to state and from school system to school system. It was largely because of this circumstance that the U.S. Department of Education funded NATRI at the UK College of Education,” Hasselbring explained.

The scope of the study is extensive. To date, NATRI has conducted over 700 interviews of policymakers, teachers, students, and families about AT issues and examined reams of reports from online surveys.

Research is currently being conducted in no less than seven areas:

  1. Assessing the status of AT in schools.
  2. Reviewing AT policies, procedures, and resources at the state and school level.
  3. Examining how teams make AT decisions about individuals enrolled in special education programs.
  4. Gauging the need for providing training and technical support to individuals who plan to use AT devices or techniques.
  5. Investigating how AT devices are integrated into the learning environment.
  6. Evaluating the effectiveness of AT devices and services.
  7. Looking into how higher education is preparing education professionals in AT knowledge.

Data are being gathered in ten key states: California, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In each of those states, researchers have selected six school districts that represent a wide range of geographic and cultural diversity. Data collectors have been recruited in each district as collaborative partners, providing information on effective and ineffective AT practices at the ground level.

“Incident reporting from data collectors has proven to be among the most effective means for us to gather critical information,” said Margaret Bausch. Data collectors report facts to UK in a variety of ways, but primarily through the use of three on-line surveys: The Effective AT Critical Incident Survey, the Ineffective AT Critical Incident Survey, and finally, The Status of AT Use Survey. Researchers have placed these surveys at - the institute’s home page on the internet.

Of the many issues being raised by this national institute, one fact seems clear. There are too few trained AT specialists in the country and fewer still that have any extensive experience or formal preparation, said Bausch.

Many AT professionals in public schools report that they acquired much of their knowledge through companies that manufacture assistive equipment. The rest of their training often involved solving challenges on their own, she explained.

“Most AT professionals collaborating with us on this project have reported that they learned their profession while on the job. Outside of those persons specifically trained in special education, we found that most had little or no preparation in college to deal with students with special needs,” Hasselbring added.

The best kind of research is that which leads to more questions and that certainly is the case with NATRI’s work. Based on field reports, staff members have taken a closer look into higher education’s preparation of classroom teachers in special education technology. It is a common complaint among many general classroom teachers that special education technology is not an area for which they received much formal preparation, said project director Melinda Ault.

“That finding presents a potential challenge for colleges of education across the country to add some aspect of special education to their teacher preparation curriculum,” Ault commented.

Because of the general scarcity of AT field professionals, developing a resource for shared knowledge would be a tremendous benefit, said Ault. While NATRI is an effort to assess how well schools are integrating AT policies and procedures, the staff feels that a more crucial goal is to gather and make available information about practices that are most effective and those that are ineffective.

What researchers have found is that there are few organized records of best practices for states to follow. As anticipated, there are some states that have done a better job of adopting AT than others, said Margaret Bausch. However, even in states that have generally weak AT implementation, individual schools have incorporated very effective policies.

It appears that one of the major factors determining how well schools have adopted AT policies are those that have had to develop them as a matter of practical necessity, said Bausch. School districts that have students enroll with disabilities have to devise solutions to accommodate them. “It is from these people that we have acquired our most valuable information,” Bausch said. “They are the ones who have worked to develop solutions and succeeded, often in ways that are also fiscally sound.”

It is from these successful experiences that NATRI hopes to have its most profound impact. The report is not intended to criticize states or expose a general lack of compliance with IDEA.

“That much was known well before NATRI was created,” said Hasselbring.

For the NATRI research team, the central component of their report will be information on best practices gathered throughout the country.

There is hope that the study might inspire higher education to better prepare teachers to deal with students with disabilities. But most importantly, the report should help states and local school districts establish workable AT policies and ensure more consistent adoption of IDEA in the country.

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Content by Josh Shepherd -- Updated on April 13, 2005 9:17 by the [an error occurred while processing this directive]