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Teaching aids help neutralise special needs

Learning difficulties, special needs, physical and emotional limitations; these are all factors that can devastate a student’s educational experiences and outcomes.  As awareness grows, innovators are creating solutions that level the playing field and allow students to focus away from their weaknesses and onto their strengths.

Richard Branson is dyslexic, and has famously credited his success (in part) to his journey with dyslexia. He told Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson in 2015 that “if you have a learning disability, you become a very good delegator”. He also said, “it’s made me keep things simple and clear-cut”, which he says has contributed to the affinity people feel with the brand.

These role models – and there are plenty of them – provide an excellent basis for building confidence, but not all students aspire to fervent entrepreneurialism like Sir Richard. What we do want, however, is students able to focus on their strengths, as Branson suggests. “When you have a learning disability, you know what your weaknesses are and you know what your strengths are, and you make sure that you find great people to step in and deal with your weaknesses”. At school, we can’t enlist friends to help with exams but, luckily, designers of all persuasions are working on solutions to transform learning.

Industry views

 Dyslexia and reading

School News spoke with Karl Francois from Adaptions about assisting students with dyslexia at school. He says that educationalists have long questioned the emotional impact of exam conditions on dyslexic students. Mr Francois quoted research conducted by Garner Education Services in the UK to illustrate how dyslexic students might experience reading: “Dyslexic students may not lack understanding; the problem is created by their inability to read the jumping, moving, incomprehensible formation of shapes that are commonly known as words; this is the crux of the problem.”

He says portable readers can assist: “Scanning pens contain a high accuracy optical character recognition (OCR) that enables you to capture text and listen to pronunciations through a headset during exams.”

For general reading help, scanners with a selection of extra features are available. Mr Francois says these devices can save text files for easy transfer to your computer, and the models not for use under exam conditions include electronic dictionaries.

He says assistive technology is allowing schools to help students ‘troubleshoot’ small ‘disabilities’ to allow strengths to be realised: “A switch-adapted mouse is an ideal interface for individuals who can move a mouse around, but may have difficulties with clicking the mouse button. A single-button is connected to the mouse, providing an easier alternative to clicking the mouse button. Aides or carers can move the mouse around and the individual can make their choice by pressing the larger button.” 

He said, “special needs technology is manufactured in other countries and it has been difficult to source these aids in our region.” However, along with accessible toys, communication aids and assistive software; switches and interfaces are now available in Australia, with many products attracting exemptions on import duties and taxes.

 Inclusive education through easy listening?

For students with hearing impairment, effective augmentation is the difference between learning and frustration. School News spoke with David Brady, who mentors hearing impaired teens with Australasian charity, Hear For You to ascertain the best technology for the job.

As a deaf high school student, Mr Brady was fitted with hearing aids that connected to an audio-frequency induction loop (also called ‘personal FM’). The system takes an audio signal and converts it back to high quality audio for hearing aids to receive.

He says having to arrange set up with the teacher every lesson meant loop systems singled students out through a visible display of difference, “which is the last thing a teenager wants!”.

The transmission is also received by the ‘tele-coil’; an element present in adult hearing aids. Mr Riddle of Hearing Loop says audiologists do not activate this in modern hearing aids for children because it is difficult to manually switch between microphone and radio receiver.

Soundfield: one system to enhance understanding for all

Mr Riddle says new integrated digital tech, which includes a general broadcast to the class as well as targeted transmission to aids, promotes seamless inclusivity and suits current specification for children’s hearing aids: “The sound can project across a room from a Soundfield speaker and assists all students.” Mr Brady said, “the new tech is for everyone to some extent; it’s brought everybody in together – those with auditory processing disorders, or more sensitive hearing, even students at the back of the classroom.” 

 “The old personal FM ‘picked up’ everything,” Mr Brady reported, and Mr Riddle says this is because the old analogue systems could only support channels in five classroom without interference: “Using wifi technology, the system “channel hops”, which is why so many classrooms can operate independently.”

Meet Roger: “a propriety technology developed by Phonak that works on a frequency 2.4GHz”. Roger works with the system to allow a direct feed into hearing aids across these wifi channels. “A touch screen device connects directly to hearing aids and from a media hub to channel audio from a TV or projector or a portable mic,” Mr Riddle explained.

From an end-user perspective, Mr Brady says the new technology has reduced interference and improved sound quality for students: “The teenagers love that it is for everyone, and they think connecting their hearing aids to YouTube is ‘really cool’.”

Editor’s Note: For info on Hear For You or to seek mentoring for your hearing impaired students: and David Brady can be contacted on [email protected] 

Deep pressure for sensory seeking students

Libby Tricarico of KloudSac says educators integrating children on the spectrum (ASD) into mainstream schools require supportive equipment for their students. Commonly, ASD students will engage in ‘sensory seeking’ behaviour when confronted with transitions or taxing interactions.

Photo: Kloudsac

“Children who require proprioceptive (deep pressure) sensory input as part of their sensory profile often have difficulties regulating their emotions, so once they become anxious and distressed they find it very difficult to calm and regulate without an external influence.”

She said, “once an ASD student is overstimulated and showing signs of anxiety and distress, ‘Kloud time’ improves receptivity to other familiar strategies – e.g. social stories, visual cards/schedules. Teachers say they are re-joining their peers faster”. 

Mrs Tricarico says it’s the foam filling that does the trick: “The deep pressure (proprioceptive) sensory input students receive calms their nervous system, which in turn helps the student to self-regulate emotions.  Once they are receiving the sensory input they require, this enables them to calm and focus, allowing them to better engage in their surroundings.”

Other ways to achieve this involve wrapping or ‘cocooning’ in a blanket or weighted vests, or collars that provide sensory input to soothe anxiety. Mrs Tricarico said, “students on the spectrum need to maintain their ‘sensory diet’ to cope with the demands of the school environment and remain focussed”. 

It’s not just ASD students who benefit: “Students with other sensory processing issues as well as ADHD can benefit. Also, Rett syndrome, cerebral palsy, Angelman syndrome and fibromyalgia sufferers can all benefit.”

Inclusive education involves practices within the school that ensure students are not disadvantaged, and sometimes, structural change, such as classroom reformatting, ramps, and rails. It involves educating staff and students about diversity, but it also involves sourcing equipment and solutions that support students to reach their potential and participate fully in the school environment. By managing student challenges through the provision of targeted teaching aids, we can truly take the spotlight off their weaknesses and focus on strengths.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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