In my lifetime, I have had two experiences that significantly stand out when it comes to the use of assistive tech. One was in high school when one of my close friends and classmates was in a wheelchair and wasn’t able to communicate with a voice because of her cerebral palsy. The other experience was in my first two years of teaching when I had a student with a cochlear implant in my classroom.
In 1993, I had very limited experience when it came to people with differing needs. Growing up in small town Saskatchewan, I knew of my uncle who was a paraplegic and that was about it. We only ever saw him when we drove to the big city of Moose Jaw to visit my dad’s family. That all changed when a classmate came from another town who had cerebral palsy.
In order to attend our school, significant changes needed to be made to the entrances, doorways, and main washroom area. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but looking back at it now, it is interesting that our school wasn’t completely accessible for all. Ramps had to be created for the main entrances so that my classmate could even enter the building without having to lift her wheelchair. Doorways needed to be changed so that the wheels of the chair could fit through. One of the high-tech assistive devices that was purchased for the school was the lift in the main female washroom so that she could be easily moved from her wheelchair to a changing table.
Our school definitely did not implement a universal design for learning approach at that time:
When she first started at our school, she had a low-tech communication board. It was a board with pictures for feelings, simple questions, phrases, and yes/no boxes. She would point to the different boxes in order to communicate and express herself.
Another way that we communicated was through the use of yes/no questions. If she wanted to say “no”, she would stick out her tongue. When the answer was “yes”, she would make a noise that was more of an “ah” sound. This was effective when we were able to phrase the questions in a way that she was able to answer. It wasn’t any deeper level thinking but she was able to communicate with us in some manner. Throughout the next couple of years, she started to use a device known as a Dynavox™.
This augmentative and alternate communication device was able to be programmed with buttons for words and questions that had multiple pages to use. Her ability to communicate was increased significantly. It still had its limitations though because it depended on what was programmed on to the device by others around her. I remember once that her brother and I changed some of the boxes to be inappropriate things to say… she thought it was funny but her instructional aide did not. She also found it hilarious when we changed the voice to an Australian man a couple of times. Though these devices allowed for an increase of communication, they were still limited by things outside of her control. She was unable to program the device herself to meet her needs and she was limited by her control over her gross motor skills. There were often times that she was trying to hit a specific button and her muscle control just did not allow her to do so.
The next significant experience was in my first and second years of teaching. I was fortunate to be able to work with a student who was hard of hearing. She used cochlear implants to help her be able to hear.
This student had already attended this school for grades five and six, so the school already had some assistive devices in place. Each classroom had a speaker system available to be used. As the student moved classrooms, she brought with her a head set and microphone system. This headset connected to the speakers in the classroom and to the receiver in her implant. It took some getting used to but you quickly forgot that you were wearing the headset. Keep in mind that this was the age of Britney Spears, *N-Sync, and Christina Aguilera, so headsets were quite trendy.
When you look at the school that I am currently at, every single classroom has a microphone system. Every teacher wears a microphone around their neck that amplifies their voice throughout the room. As they move around the school, it automatically connects to the speaker they are nearest. This is convenient when you move from the library to the classroom to the multipurpose room. It is a little distracting when the teacher next to me goes in to the hallway to speak to some of her students who are working and she connects to the speakers in my room though.
It’s crazy to think that an assistive tech device that was purchased and installed in a school in 2001 for one specific student is now installed in every single classroom in Regina Catholic Schools. Goes to show you that all students can use assistive tech even if they are not designated as someone with a “special need”.