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Learners with Physical Support Needs

by Paul Nisbet

on Thu May 18, 2017

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In today's blog for National Digital Learning Week 2017 we are thinking about learners with physical support needs. Assistive Technology has opened up a world of opportunities for people with physical support needs. Electronic assistive technologies are also becoming much more readily available, cheaper and mainstream devices now have quite sophisticated accessibility options.

For example, take a look at some of the technologies from:

Examples of Assistive Technology in action

Malcolm drives from class to class in his local mainstream school in his powered wheelchair. In class, Malcolm accesses his laptop with a joystick and clicks the mouse button with a wireless head switch. Malcolm has now been using his joystick since early primary school and is an expert.

World-renowned physicist Professor Stephen Hawking can write best-selling books, communicate, Skype and give lectures all over the world by using a computer operated by a single switch that detects when he twitches his cheek.

Mike, who is 6 years old, controls his computer with an eye-gaze camera. He reads books, writes, browses the internet, and generates speech all by himself.

Image of a child using eye gaze to draw on the computer screen

Tom activates a switch with his head to drive his Smart Wheelchair along special track laid on the floor, while pressing a second switch with his hand to fire his battery-powered water pistol.

Helen is in third year at her local secondary school. She has tremor and weakness in her hands that means she finds it very tiring to write and type. She is now using Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition for most of her writing, and finds it much easier and faster than using the keyboard.    

Assistive Technology changes lives

People with physical support needs or disabilities benefit from using Assistive Technology in many ways. For some of us, technology makes life easier or more convenient, but for some people with physical challenges, technology may offer the only realistic option to independently access learning, information, employment, to communicate, to control the physical environment, and to be independently mobile. Getting the right assistive technology is crucial, and the method of access or control is key to this process. Tablet or laptop? Switches or eye gaze? Physical keyboard or on-screen touch keyboard?

How do we identify the most suitable access technology and techniques?

Identifying the most appropriate Access Technology is a team effort, and requires input from:

  • the user;
  • the user's parents / carers / friends;
  • teachers and other professionals;
  • an experienced Assistive Technologist;
  • occupational therapist and often physiotherapist;
  • in the case of AAC, a Speech and language Therapist.

We have found that it is also a process of trial and error and refinement – even if the team can identify a suitable system initially, you will almost always have to refine it and change settings to improve it, and sometimes completely change your mind(s) in order to try something different.

Having said that, it's also important to avoid evaluating lots of different approaches if the first access method isn't immediately successful. Learning to use a control method is a bit like learning a musical instrument - it takes A LOT of practiced to become fluent. Think of how long it took you to learn any motor skill such as handwriting, typing, using a mouse, or driving. Learning to use eye-gaze, or scanning with a switch is just as challenging if not more so. 

Sometimes getting the basics right can make a difference to success and abject failure: for example, if the input device is not fixed in the correct position, it will be very hard to use it. So one of the first things to check is that the switch, keyboard, trackball or joystick are velcroed, secured or nailed down so they can't move when you try to use them. Seating is also crucial: it's really hard to operate technology if you are not sitting in a stable, comfortable position.

Marginal gains

Despite recent controversies around British Cycling I find Dave Bainsford’s ‘marginal gains’ approach to be helpful when thinking about Access Technologies. The basic idea is to make small improvements across a range of areas which together aggregate into a more significant overall improvement.

For example:

  • Get the input device(s) in the right position every time.
  • Secure the input device so that it doesn't move around.
  • If it's a switch, is it the correct size? If it's a joystick, does it have the best handle?
  • Are the settings optimised? (i.e. speed, delay, etc - here's one example of fine tuning)
  • If we are using an onscreen keyboard:
    • is the size and position of the on-screen keyboard big enough for accurate targeting but small enough to minimise mouse movement?
    • Is the design and layout of the on-screen keyboard optimised?
  • Will dwell selection give more efficient access than using a switch to select?
  • Are learning tasks and digital learning resources and activities designed to be accessible? We can't expect learners who type 3 words per minute to complete the same activities as their peers who can write four or five times as quickly. How can we design learning activities for all our learners? (Universal Design for Learning?)
  • Are unnecessary tasks undertaken by someone else rather than the learner – for example let's not have learners wasting time navigating through folders and finding files if someone can do it for them, when there is nothing to be gained in terms of learning.

Find out more about Access Technologies

Hopefully this blog has stimulated your interest. If so, wait a few days and then take a look at our new pages with information about how technology can help people with physical support needs. (Yes, yes I know, they should have been finished by now, the dog ate them, honest....)

Tags: technology, digital learning week

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