Improving Achievement among Students with Disabilities, the Promise of Education-Based Information Technology

by Johanna Gilmore
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 2, May 2002, Within Our Reach: Higher Student Achievement

A teacher has a student with a hearing impairment among the 25 fifth graders in her classroom. She wants to teach a lesson using virtual-rainforest software to help her students experience the sights and sounds of the rainforest. She realizes the student with a hearing impairment will not be able to hear the animal sounds, but she decides that the student will pick up enough from the lesson by watching the program on the computer.

A second teacher is teaching the same lesson with the same software to the same types of students. He thinks the student with a hearing impairment should experience as many of the sounds on the virtual rainforest software as possible, so he obtains the captioning for the software and imports it into the program.

A third teacher also is using the software to teach the same lesson to the same types of students. Like the previous teachers, she wants her students to learn how animals communicate and use sounds as warnings. Using the virtual- rainforest software as a tool, the teacher creates an assignment for which her students are tribes living in the rainforest. She asks each tribe to develop a warning system that can be used by everyone, including the tribe member with a hearing impairment. The students take a cue from the animals in the rainforest for their warning system—when they sense danger, they become very still. They sign the word "danger," which they learned how to do from their hearing-impaired classmate. This student-centered, problem-oriented approach includes the student with a hearing impairment and teaches the students in the class that hearing impairments are physical differences that are part of society and need to be considered not only in the development of a warning system but also in other facets of life.

Software and computer technologies are commonplace in classrooms, but the scenario given makes it apparent that how technology is used in the classroom can make a difference in student learning. In this scenario, provided by Pat Guerra, a Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) program associate working in the Special Education and Rehabilitations Services Program, three different teachers are using information technology or IT, in their lesson plans.

IT includes software applications and operating systems; Web-based information and such applications as distance learning, telephones and other telecommunications products, video equipment and multimedia products that may be distributed on videotapes, CDs, DVDs, or the World Wide Web; calculators; and computer hardware. Because it is being used in classroom instruction, the rainforest software is a particular information technology called education-based information technology, or EBIT.

While the first two teachers in the scenario allow the technology to deliver their lessons, according to Guerra the third teacher has effectively applied EBIT to introduce all of her students to the rainforest. She not only gives her hearing-impaired student access to the software but also uses the technology as a tool to help the students solve the problem of communication in their simulated rainforest.

The Role of Technology in Teaching Students with Disabilities

About 96 percent of children with disabilities attend regular schools, and three-quarters of students with disabilities are being educated in regular education classrooms with nondisabled children for a significant part of the school day. Despite this, many students with disabilities still lack access to the kind of instruction their classmates receive, and consequently to the lessons they are learning. In classrooms throughout the country, many of the students with disabilities are participating in "drill and kill" activities while their classmates forge ahead on assignments based on increasingly higher state standards.

Useful Definitions

The Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines assistive technology as any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Examples include wheelchairs, hearing aids, keyboards with large keys, text telephones, and software that reads text on the screen in a computer-generated voice.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 defines information technology as any equipment or interconnected systems or subsystem of equipment used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information.

The U.S. Department of Education defines education-based information technology as any information technology that is used by either students or employees of educational entities, including, but not limited to, teachers, administrators, and administrative staff.

In the past decade, educators have come to recognize the powerful role that properly implemented technology can play in helping all students—including those with disabilities—master mandated curricula. But just as students with disabilities do not necessarily have the same access to instruction as their peers, they do not have the same access to technology as their nondisabled classmates, says John Westbrook, director of SEDL's Special Education and Rehabilitation Services Program. "A variety of information technologies are being used more frequently as instructional tools in America's classrooms, but the misuse of education-based information technologies threatens to place students who cannot fully use or benefit from them at a significant disadvantage from their peers," he says.

Before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA), "children with disabilities were segregated and given different types of instruction because people thought they could not join a regular classroom," says Wendy Wilkinson, project director for Southwest Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (Southwest DBTAC), based in Houston. "This is the challenge with technology, too. We have to make sure these children are not segregated by virtue of their being unable, through the lack of accessible information technology, to access the world of learning opportunities available via technology."

All too often, however, schools spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on technology, only to realize the technology they have acquired does not match the needs of the students with disabilities or that teachers lack the skills to integrate the technology into the curriculum. An expensive piece of equipment ends up underused or collecting dust on a shelf. But what would happen if a school had the resources to purchase and offer all students access to information technologies? What if each student's carefully considered needs dictated the purchase of technologies rather than a vendor's marketing expertise? What if teachers received the proper training that enabled them to incorporate technologies into student centered instruction? Then students with disabilities would have a better chance at keeping up with their peers, who, in turn would develop a better understanding about their classmates with disabilities. Such a result is the promise of education-based information technologies that are accessible to students with disabilities and appropriately infused into the instructional strategies of their teachers.

A Partnership to Support Improved Access and Instruction

Last year the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) charged the nation's 10 DBTACs with providing children, youth, and adults with disabilities access to information technology. NIDRR also established the National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT), based at the University of Washington in Seattle, to collaborate with the DBTACs and develop materials on making EBIT accessible.

The Southwest DBTAC which serves the same states that SEDL does—Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas—has partnered with the Better Business Bureau Consumer Education Foundation, the New Mexico Technology Assistance Project, the Region VI Regional Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program, SEDL, assistive technology projects in each state, such as Communications Accessibility for State Associates (CASA) Network, and several centers for independent living to carry out NIDRR's mandate.

Wilkinson and DBTAC partners, including Bill Newroe, an assistive technologist with CASA Network in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are reviewing state education technology and procurement plans to learn what the five states ask of their schools in terms of requiring that their information technology be accessible. Then the DBTAC partners will be available to provide assistance to state education policymakers in adjusting these guidelines to make sure they meet technological accessibility standards.

Newroe said CASA Network will work with K?12 and postsecondary school network administrators as well as classroom computer teachers to "ensure accessibility to information technology in resource rooms, computer labs, and other areas where all students access information through information technology systems." In the next six months, Newroe hopes to develop an electronic and information technology accessibility resource exchange and expert consultation registry of information technology personnel and their school systems. CASA Network will offer an information technology expert referral service, technical assistance, and training for primary and secondary schools in the five states.

Equal Access Guaranteed by Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 defined the rights of children with disabilities to attend public schools, while Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA provided additional protections to a broader class of children, including requiring new schools to be architecturally accessible. Section 504 and the ADA also require that students with disabilities have access to the same academic services, programs, and activities as their nondisabled classmates, which includes access to their schools' technological infrastructures.

EBIT and Student-Centered Teaching and Learning

While other partners work to ensure accessibility in the five states, SEDL is working to expand the definition of EBIT into a student-centered model of teaching and learning to help special education staff integrate technology into their classroom practice. Westbrook sums up the challenge: "Public schools' education-based information technologies must be carefully chosen and implemented to ensure the maximum accessibility to the school curriculum and classroom by all students."

"If you appropriately use technology, doors will open for all students, including those with disabilities," Westbrook says. "But it's not just about training on how to use technology. It's about the way teachers teach."

Implementing education-based information technology in the way Westbrook describes requires professional development that includes raising a school staff's awareness of EBIT to modeling student-centered teaching so teachers can change their philosophy and practice of teaching to offering teachers the training and technical assistance they need to effectively use EBIT in their classrooms.

SEDL plans not only to make the technology more accessible but also to model and support teaching with technology by infusing technology into curriculum instruction and offering EBIT professional development and technical assistance. In doing so, Westbrook, Guerra, and other SEDL staff will draw upon SEDL's previous technology work that helps teachers create student-centered learning environments supported by technology. This earlier work—rooted in the constructivist theory of learning, which is informed by cognitive psychology, educational research, and neurological science—says that learners take in information, process it to fit their personal frameworks, and build new understanding. SEDL's professional development modules and technical assistance program inform teachers about constructivism, or "student-centered learning" and show what it looks like in a classroom. SEDL also models how teachers can use technology as a tool to further instruction.

Westbrook believes this same learning theory, professional development, and technical assistance adapted for special education teachers could improve achievement among students with disabilities and make better use of a school's education-based information technologies. Because of SEDL's experience in creating student-centered models of learning and the networks of teachers and professional development providers that SEDL staff have built through programs such as the Regional Education Laboratory, the Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Teaching, and the SouthCentral Technology in Education Consortium, Westbrook says "SEDL was an obvious choice" to partner with Southwest DBTAC in helping public schools to effectively weave the constructivism-EBIT combination into K-12 curricula.

SEDL will provide the mechanism for reaching, informing, and educating school personnel about the acquisition and use of accessible information technology hardware and software for students with disabilities. SEDL also will produce an education based information technology (EBIT) Web site and publications, develop modules for teacher professional development programs, and establish an EBIT listserv for school personnel.

Through their efforts, all Southwest DBTAC partners expect to help schools overcome the hurdles to accessible EBIT and assistive technology to improve achievement not just among students with disabilities but all students, Wilkinson explains. "Accessible technologies work for everyone."

Johanna Gilmore is a SEDL communications specialist.

Online Technology Information for Special Education Staff

The following organizations, publications, and resources feature information on education-based information technology legislation, events, funding, and product reviews.

The National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT), based at the University of Washington in Seattle, serves to increase the access of individuals with disabilities to information technology in educational institutions at all academic levels nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research funds AccessIT and its site at, which contains case studies, promising practices, and a growing database of frequently asked questions on accessible information technology in education.

Closing the Gap
Closing The Gap, Inc., at, focuses on computer technology in special education and rehabilitation through its bimonthly newspaper, annual international conference, and Web site. The site’s resource directory features a “product of the week.”
Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
The CEC, at, is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving educational outcomes for individuals with exceptionalities, students with disabilities, and the gifted. The site includes discussion forums and information about publications and professional development events.
Information Technology Technical Assistance Training Center (ITTATC)
ITTATC, at, promotes the development of accessible electronic and information technology by providing technical assistance, training, and information. The site contains information on upcoming Web casts and events, as well as technical assistance, training, and publications.
National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC)
NCAC, at, works to show how the combination of new curricula, teaching practices, and policies can create practical approaches for improved access to the general curriculum by students with disabilities.
National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO)
The National Center on Educational Outcomes, at, provides national leadership in the participation of students with disabilities in national and state assessments, standards-setting efforts, and graduation requirements. This site features information on accommodations, accountability, alternate assessments, and universal design, and includes a new online accommodations bibliography that allows users to search a compilation of empirical research studies on the effects of various testing accommodations for students with disabilities.

Online Publications
Connecting Student Learning and Technology
This 1999 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory publication discusses constructivism, a theory of learning that provides a valuable framework for using computers and other technology in productive, interesting ways. This is not a nuts-and-bolts manual, but it examines using technology in environments that support learning.
Constructing Knowledge with Technology: A Review of the Literature Another
Southwest Educational Development Laboratory online publication produced in 1999, Constructing Knowledge with Technology begins with a review of the literature on constructivist learning theory and outlines some of its implications for the classroom. Next, the various characteristics of a constructivist learning environment are explored, followed by a discussion on how technology, specifically computers and online networks, can support changes in classroom practice aligned with the implications of constructivist learning theory.
Note: As of December 2009, this product is no longer available.
Empowering Rural Students with Disabilities through Assistive Technology
This 1995 Southwest Educational Development Laboratory online publication is still pertinent today, as it provides an overall perspective on the field of adaptive and assistive technology and issues related to its use in rural schools. The discussion addresses devices available for students, the legal mandates related to the use of assistive technology in schools, funding for assistive technology devices and services, existing support systems in the Southwest Region, implications for rural school administration, and resources to help educators who are planning and implementing assistive technology programs.
Twenty-Five Years of Educating Children with Disabilities: The Good News and the Work Ahead A PDF version of this publication is available through the American Youth Policy Forum site at It includes statistics showing the progress made during the past quarter-century in educating children with disabilities and how much more needs to be done to prepare all students with disabilities for a productive and independent future.
What Are the Barriers to the Use of Advanced Telecommunications for Students with Disabilities in Public Schools?
In 1996, the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed approximately 1,000 school administrators about the use of advanced telecommunications in their school, including use by students with disabilities. The results of this survey are posted at

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