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Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000

Use of Computer Technology to Help Students with Special Needs
Ted S. Hasselbring Candyce H. Williams Glaser

Children with Special Needs - Who Are They?

Over the past 20 years, the number of students with disabilities has been steadily increasing at a faster rate than both the general population and school enrollment.4 Today, approximately one of six students in schools across the United States cannot benefit fully from a traditional educational program because they have a disability that impairs their ability to participate in classroom activities.5 Federal law defines students with special needs as those who, because of a disability, require special education and related services to achieve their fullest potential.6 According to the most recent government statistics, more than 5 million students ages 6 to 17 were receiving special education services during the 1997–98 school year.7 As shown in Figure 1, students' disabilities ranged from speech and language impairments to mental retardation, and more than half were described as having a specific learning disability due to a psychological disorder.8

Children with disabilities vary with respect to the type and number of disabilities they have, and their disabilities vary in cause, degree, and the effect they have on the child's educational progress. Although children with disabilities are a very diverse group, data describing the demographic characteristics of students with disabilities suggest the following:


  • More than half of all students receiving special services are males.
  • Most are in elementary or middle school.
  • Most have no obvious disability; they have problems that are primarily academic, emotional, social, or behavioral.

Federal law mandates that all children with disabilities are to be provided with special education services. Students who qualify for special education services are entitled to a specially designed individual educational program at no cost to the parent.9 This program must meet the unique needs of the child, including any needed modifications to the place of instruction—be it the classroom, a physical education setting, the child's home, a hospital, or another institution. In addition, special education certifications entitle students to receive all related services (such as occupational therapy and physical therapy) required to meet the individual learning needs of the youngster. (For more on this subject, see the spring 1996 issue of The Future of Children.)

Federal laws also specify that students with special needs are to receive their education in what is called the least restrictive environment (LRE), on a continuum with regular education classes on one end and residential institutions on the other (see Figure 2).10 In recent years, demands have increased for serving all students with special needs in the regular classroom, no matter how severe the disability. This approach, called full inclusion, has placed more and more students with disabilities in regular classrooms, requiring teachers to find ways to make the education of these students as appropriate as possible.11

Teachers have found that technological innovations can help level the playing field for special needs students and enable these students to succeed in the regular classroom.12 Technology for students with special needs is defined by federal law 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 functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.”13 This broad definition encompasses a wide variety of both high-end and low-end technologies that have proven to be useful for improving educational options for students with disabilities. The following sections describe how various applications of computer technology can help meet the individual needs of students with disabilities and enable them to function effectively in the school setting.