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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

Technologies for Students with Severe Physical Disabilities

Students with severe physical disabilities are a heterogeneous group. For some, mobility is the greatest barrier they face. For others, caring for their personal needs is a tremendous challenge. Still others face overwhelming obstacles in communication. The data indicate that approximately 63,000 students with orthopedic impairments were served in the public school system during the 1997–98 school year, slightly more than 1% of all students with disabilities who are currently receiving special education services.38 Fortunately, a variety of new technologies have been developed to help individuals with physical disabilities overcome their challenges and function well in school, work, and home environments (see Box 3).

For example, switches can be activated by almost any part of the body, allowing students with physical disabilities to control many aspects of their environment independently—from using a toy or radio for their own entertainment, to communicating with their nondisabled peers in the classroom, to controlling a computer or other high-tech or AAC device.51 Today, switches can be used with a number of adaptive devices that enable students with severe physical disabilities to successfully operate a computer independently, including turning the power on and off, inserting and removing a disk or CD from a drive, copying files, accessing a modem, and using a keyboard. A number of alternative input devices can be connected to a standard computer to assist or replace the use of a traditional keyboard, which is often the greatest barrier to computer use for students with physical disabilities. Adaptive keyboards, infrared sensors, and voice recognition systems, described in Box 3, all have proven to be highly effective in helping students with severe physical disabilities use computers to participate in many educational activities that would not be available to them through other means. These devices range in price from less than $100 for some switches to as much as $9,000 for higher-end, voice-activated systems.52

The previously mentioned technologies have grown increasingly sophisticated and are becoming more familiar in classroom settings, and still other technologies are being developed for use in the near future. For example, a number of research labs are examining the use of devices such as robotic arms, which can help individuals who are physically disabled accomplish such daily activities as eating, retrieving objects, turning pages in books and magazines, and even playing cards. Although it may be years before these technologies become commonplace, some robotic devices are already in use, and more sophisticated devices are continually under development. In time, they too may be commonplace, and technologies that have yet to be envisioned for use by students with severe physical disabilities will be moving into the limelight.