The Role of Technology in the Education of Students With Disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment

By Dale Pennell, C.A.S.

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The inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 2004. Federal regulations emanating from IDEA explicitly state that students with disabilities are entitled to free appropriate public education in least restrictive environments (IDEA §300.114(a)(2)(i)). Further, children may not be removed from general education environments unless “education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily” (IDEA §300.114(a)(2)(ii)). Supplementary aids and services are “… aids, services, and other supports that are provided in regular education classes, other education-related settings, and in extracurricular and nonacademic settings, to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate …”(IDEA §300.42). Failure to provide supplementary aids and services that  enable students to be educated and participate in nonacademic activities with children who are nondisabled denies students with disabilities free appropriate education (IDEA §§300.17(d) and 300.117). Clearly, strategic selection of appropriate supplementary aids and services is essential to the education of students with disabilities in general education settings.

Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams are responsible for determining the supplementary aids and services that students require in order to be able to access and progress in general education classes and other education-related, extracurricular, and non-academic settings. This responsibility calls upon IEP teams to be knowledgeable of ever-expanding lists of such supports, and it requires teams to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of the supports they have selected. Additionally, it assumes that teams will reconvene at regular intervals to replace ineffective supports with supplementary aids and services that may more effectively protect students’ access to general education environments. 

Historically, many IEP teams have selected “low-tech,” inexpensive equipment, materials, supplies, and services or relied on expensive but scarce paraprofessional services to support students with disabilities in general education settings. For example, students who had difficulty writing would be given pencil grips, wide-rule paper, copies of other students’ class notes, writing assignments of reduced length, or extended time to complete written assignments and tests. As a last resort, paraprofessionals would transcribe written assignments for them. Then, if students could not “keep up,” some IEP teams moved them to more restrictive environments instead of providing additional or alternate supports, such as speech-to-text computer software, that might have enabled them to remain with their nondisabled peers. Notably, in many school divisions access to such “high-tech” supports increased when these students were placed in more restrictive environments, contrary to the very intent of IDEA. 

Today, the principles of universal design for learning and the advent of inexpensive “high-tech,” user-friendly technologies, such as smart phones, electronic notebooks, and global positioning systems, make it easier than ever to provide the supplementary aids and services necessary to educate students with disabilities in inclusive settings. According to Congressional findings summarized in the Assistive Technology Act (ATA) of 2004, educational practices that embrace the principles of universal design incorporate experiences that benefit students “with the widest possible range of functional capabilities” (ATA, 2004, 3.19).  As early as 1998, Congress reported that, “in these settings, technology provided to all students is sufficient to meet the inclusionary needs of students with disabilities” because supports for persons with disabilities are built in before rather than after production (ATA, 1998, 2.10). At that time, Congress acknowledged that the line of demarcation between mainstream technology and assistive technology was “becoming ever more difficult to draw” (ATA 1998, 2.7). For example, Roberto, a student with a disability that impacts his ability to read, once depended upon a paraprofessional to read print material to him. Now he listens to printed materials using the text-to-speech feature built into new computers.

Still, the distinction between mainstream and assistive technologies is significant. IDEA defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability” (§300.5). While local education agencies have great latitude relative to the selection and purchase of mainstream technologies, they must provide assistive technology devices and services that IEP teams have determined may increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities (§300.5). In other words, sometimes mainstream technology is assistive simply because its availability is guaranteed under IDEA. For example, Angela has difficulty initiating conversation and maintaining eye contact when she is talking with someone. In the past, she has been unwilling to use paper and pencil to record her attempts to self-monitor these behaviors in social settings. Now her IEP includes provision for a smart phone app (such as IReward) that Angela uses to self-monitor these social skills. Data indicate Angela uses this self-monitoring system consistently, and, most important, her social skills have improved. 

In other circumstances, mainstream technologies become assistive when they are modified or customized for use by students with disabilities. For example, in the past, Shasmin had limited success using a paper agenda booklet to address organizational skills difficulties and to record homework assignments. Now she uses an ITouch onto which the school loaded the My Homework app. As a result, Shasmin’s organizational skills have improved, and homework assignments are completed more frequently. 

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Finally, some students require technologies unique to their disabilities. These are technologies that simply do not provide educational benefit to students who do not have these disabilities. For example, Ashby does not speak; previously, his teachers made picture books of words that Ashby used to communicate with classmates. Now Ashby uses an electronic notepad with software that provides pictures of these words. This technology is easier for Ashby to use and saves his teachers hours of time they previously spent creating picture books of words.

The template that follows this article illustrates the process by which IEP teams may structure placement discussions prior to removing students from their least restrictive environments. The process begins when teams consider the means by which teachers provide instruction, as well as how students interact with instructional materials and demonstrate mastery of academic and functional skills and concepts. Next, IEP teams discuss the extent to which students’ disabilities negatively impact their abilities to receive, respond to, and demonstrate mastery of the curricula in general education environments. Then, teams identify supplementary aids and services that are successfully supporting students’ educations in least restrictive environments, as well as aids and services that students may require in order to remain in general education environments. A deliberate, thoughtful process such as this ensures that students have every reasonable opportunity to be educated with their non-disabled peers.

Subsequent issues of Link Lines will explore a variety of inexpensive electronic technologies, applications, and software that increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of students with disabilities to enable them to remain the least restrictive environment.

Resources to Assist IEP Teams Select Appropriate Technology Supplementary Aids and Services

National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials
BBC My Web My Way
Bookshare

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