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Technology to Access the Curriculum - a Case Study for Digital Learning Week

by Paul Nisbet

on Mon May 16, 2016

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Today is the start of Digital Learning Week, and during the week the CALL team are going to post blogs about how digital technology can be of benefit to learners with additional support needs. In this post, we're going to look at an example of using technology to address physical challenges to accessing the curriculum.


Malcolm was referred to CALL when he was in nursery school. He has cerebral palsy which effects his gross and fine motor control and staff recognised that it was important to find an independent method for Malcolm to access the curriculum from the start of Primary 1. Malcolm was felt to be a very able young man, with the ability and drive to be very successful academically, but he could not access conventional printed books or materials, or use pencil or writing tools.

Technology to access the curriculum

Working with staff, Occupational Therapy, and parents, we carried out a full assessment of access methods. In nursery, Malcolm had become pretty expert with scanning - where he used a head switch to select items as they were highlighted on the computer - and so this was an option, but scanning is relatively slow and so we were keen to find a faster technique, and also we wanted an intuitive and effective way for him to control the mouse on the computer.

Computer access

In the April before he started primary school, Malcolm explored a whole selection of trackballs, joysticks and head-controlled mice (this was before eye-gaze systems were available), and we found that he could use a large, 'gated', switched joystick. He just couldn't control the more usual joysticks such as the Roller because he really needed a limiting plate to restrict the joystick movement to up, down, left and right. After some practice, he was able to access his laptop completely independently using the switched joystick. He used the joystick to move the mouse, and a wireless switch, which he activates with his head, to click the mouse button.

To write, he used Clicker 5 with an on-screen keyboard. The joystick did require more physical effort than the head switch, but it was faster and simpler, and crucially, Malcolm had complete independent access to the computer using it.

Voice Output Communication Aid

Malcolm does have communication impairment as a result of his cerebral palsy, and so we worked with the local speech and language therapist to explore voice output communication aids. Malcolm was provided with a DynaVox Maestro communication aid with WordPower software, which he accesses using a second head switch. 

However, at the time, the voices available on DynaVox were pretty limited - adult voices with British or American accents, and not very appropriate for a young man living in Scotland. So Malcolm took part in the search for a Scottish computer voice, and he was one of the learners who helped choose 'Stuart', the high quality Scottish computer voice that is now available to schools and learners across Scotland. 

Primary 1

In August, Malcolm started at his local primary school, and quickly became a valued member of the class, an effective contributor and was successful with his learning. He got an electric wheelchair, and this broadened his horizons in many ways. Malcolm, his parents, school staff and other professionals, and his classmates worked collaboratively to address and overcome a myriad of small and sometimes large challenges that were encountered.

Primary Maths

By Primary 3, Malcolm was comfortable using his laptop for most of his writing. However, recording mathematical working was a challenge, and particularly, completing worksheets and assessments. We discussed the problem, and decided to experiment with adapted versions of the Scottish Heinemann Maths materials that were being used in class. We scanned the books and then inserted 'answer boxes' (using the same technique that is employed for SQA Digital Question papers) so that Malcolm could more easily type in his answers, then press the Tab key to jump to the next answer box. We created an on-screen keyboard with Click n Type with numbers specifically for this task. Malcolm was very pleased with this because it meant he could produce the same work as his classmates. The classroom assistant was also pleased: instead of having to scribe for Malcolm into the worksheets, once his joystick was set up she left him to work independently while she supported other learners who needed help.

The accessible versions of the maths textbooks worked very well for Malcom, and we found, for other learners to, and so throughout the 2012-13 academic session, we scanned the entire series and CALL staff and volunteers from George Heriot's School in Edinburgh added tens of thousands of answer boxes to the books. These were then added to the Books for All Database for other learners in Scotland to use. The books were so successful that we adapted some of the TeeJay titles as well.

This video on accessing maths using digital PDFs gives the full story.

Malcolm's teacher was also looking for simple ways to record mathematical working, and we explored quite a few different methods and techniques before opting for some simple Microsoft Word templates. These are available in a variety of formats for  addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and can be downloaded from our website.

Digital Textbooks

As well as the maths books, Malcolm used reading books and other textbooks from the Books for All Scotland Database. Digital textbooks meant he could access the materials by himself, without having to call for help. This had a big impact on his independence.

Technology updates

New joystick

Malcolm exerts quite a bit of force on the joystick, and over time, the shaft wore away until it broke completely. It was repaired several times, but it was clear that an alternative was needed. Malcolm required the limiter plate, but no commercially sticks with suitable plates were available, so we made one for a Roller II Joystick out of stainless steel, and he has been using this since April 2012 - and it's not broken yet!


Wireless head switches

To reduce the number of trailing wires, we replaced Malcolm's head switches with wireless devices. This was neater and meant the staff did not have to continually plug and unplug cables. The switches themselves, which were made of hard plastic, were adapted with Evazote foam to make it more comfortable for Malcolm to activate with his head. (Stop Press: Roger Dakin of Smile Smart Technology has invented a much better solution - "SoftyTops", which are very nice soft plastic caps that fit over the switch to make it far gentler for head banging. They aren't on his web site yet, but they look really good.)

From Clicker to Word

Malcolm had used Clicker very successfully, but his teacher was keen to enable him to use Microsoft Word as well. With Clicker, Malcolm had used a keyboard with 'frequency of use' layout - where the most common letters were grouped together. This is more efficient than a qwerty layout because it requires less movement with the mouse. We created a Click n Type on-screen keyboard with the same layout, so that Malcolm could type into any program including Word.

Managing work and files with OneNote

In Primary 6 we introduced Malcolm to Microsoft OneNote, and this was a great success for several reasons. Malcolm found it much faster to use (than Word or Clicker) for taking notes and small pieces of work in class; and it was much easier for him to manage, organise and find his work. Previously, he had large numbers of files organised in folders, and navigating the folders and then trying to remember what each file contained was becoming very hard. With OneNote, everything was quickly and easily available all in the one place.

On to Secondary School

Malcolm is now in his last term of first year at secondary school. He goes from class to class in his electric wheelchair, and participates in school trips. An assistant trolleys his laptop and joystick between classes, and helps to set it up. This is working OK, but it does take time, and we are exploring ways to make the whole process faster and easier. The pace and volume of work in the secondary school are also challenging, and Malcolm does dictate notes to his assistants if he cannot keep up with the work in class.

Key messages

  • For some learners, Assistive Technology is essential if they are to access the curriculum and to participate.
  • Learners with physical challenges may need quite specialised, if not unique, solutions. Assessment and advice from Assistive Technology specialists, who have knowledge and experience, and access to the full range of devices, is essential.
  • Support must be on-going - a single, one-off 'assessment' is of little value without continued support to review, refine and adapt to meet the learner's ongoing development, and the changing requirements of the curriculum.
  • Over the years, Malcolm has asked questions of and posed challenges for everyone around him. The team around him have been able to work with him and come up with solutions - like the accessible maths books and templates, and the Stuart voice - which have then been made more widely available across Scotland. 
  • Thanks Malcolm for the opportunity to work with you over the years!

Tags: physical access, curriculum

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