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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

In New Zealand / Computers Empower Students with Special Needs

New Zealand educators are using today's technology effectively to help students with physical and intellectual disabilities make significant learning advancements.

Students with special needs are often thought to be less capable than they really are. For example, many students with intellectual disabilities until recently have had only limited interactions with computers, primarily through the use of drill-and-practice instruction. Students with physical disabilities also have had very few options for interacting with computer applications. In the past, these students were generally given simple, repetitive programs. The result was that many of these students were hindered by restricted access and limited opportunities to use computers to support their own learning.
Fortunately, this situation has changed. The importance of providing appropriate learning opportunities for every student has become abundantly clear. And, adaptations that enable full access to computers (for example, laser scanning, alternative keyboards, and voice recognition) allow students with special needs to demonstrate their capabilities.

An Empowering Tool

The idea of using the computer as an empowering tool to help students gain control over their learning is now widely accepted. In the past, many educators had concerns that computers might isolate students. They now understand that the use of technology can create excellent opportunities for students to work together (Nolan and Ryba 1987). In fact, students often appear to learn more from one another than they do by working alone with the computer.
One of our earliest projects in New Zealand involved the use of a microcomputer to teach word recognition to adult students with intellectual disabilities (Ryba 1980). At that time, the computer was seen primarily as a tool to provide automated instruction. We were surprised to note that the most significant learning outcomes seemed to be the ones that weren't being measured.
For example, one woman who was socially isolated and seldom spoke to others would talk with her partner and work cooperatively to solve problems presented by the computer. A man who was known for his inappropriate behavior (head rocking, verbal outbursts) would work diligently at the computer for an extended period with no evidence of these behaviors. These social outcomes demonstrated the capabilities of people who had previously been judged as “limited.”

A Tool for Social Development

The focus on interpersonal skills within the computer environment is not only important for social development, but it also provides a basis for intellectual growth (Clements and Nastasi 1988). For example, students with intellectual disabilities have learned to follow directions and master basic academic concepts using simplified versions of the LOGO computer language (Ryba 1988).
The effectiveness of using computers to develop and asses learning strategies for children with cerebral palsy, autism, or severe learning disabilities has been documented by Weir (1987). Michayluk and Saklofske (1988) have described the use of computers as a socializing agent with hyperactive children. The main theme in this research has been on the creation of learner-centered environments and the development of positive interactions among students.
  1. How can we use the computer to create positive interactions among students?
  2. How can we ensure that computer experiences enhance student self-esteem?
  3. How should we organize classroom use of computers so that students develop interdependence, good work habits, and a sense of their own competence?
Because computers naturally lend themselves to cooperative learning approaches, social development can be linked to the curriculum regardless of the extent and type of disability a student has. Cooperative learning is based on the concept of interdependence—students' learning and depending on one another in a positive way (Ryba and Anderson 1990).
In one project, for example, a group of students with intellectual disabilities taught university students how to use computer software (word processing and LOGO turtle graphics). The university students developed some new materials using the software, and asked their former teachers to help them test the programs.

Enhanced Learning Opportunities

Features such as digitized speech and pictures in multimedia format can enhance computer-based learning. For example, Gover (1991) developed a word recognition program for Kerry, a student with Down's syndrome. Kerry's program begins with a digitized picture of herself and the speech message, “Hello Kerry, I hope you enjoy your program.” This message is delivered in her grandmother's voice.
The program allows Kerry to view a picture of an object and to hear the spoken word associated with it (for example, ball). She can click on the picture to hear the word, and can use the right arrow key to display the target word on the screen and hear it spoken. Personalizing the program has proved to be very motivating for Kerry. The material presented is more meaningful to her because it relates to real people and real situations. And, it has given her greater control over her learning than she would have in a conventional teaching situation.
Providing relevant learning technology is but one way of respecting the personal needs, desires, and interests of special needs students. These students must be seen as individuals with unique points of view who are capable of participating in determining the ways they might use technology to enhance the quality of their lives.
Seymour Papert (1980), known for his ideas on using computers as empowering tools, warns that special educators, parents, and others must take care to avoid holding artificially low expectations of what special needs students are capable of accomplishing on the computer. We must also take care to avoid the use of age-inappropriate learning materials—such as early childhood books—and teaching methods. The use of such materials can have an adverse effect on performance and motivation.

Multimedia Programs

Multimedia programs are a good way to focus on students' abilities and to actively engage them in the learning process. Educators can relate such programs to almost every area of the curriculum, and students across a range of ability levels can use them. Even students who have a limited range of responses can benefit from interacting with a computer; it provides an opportunity for them to exercise control. Just activating a switch and clicking on objects and seeing what happens can be good for exploration and for teaching cause-and-effect relationships.
Dan Sawyer, a special education teacher, explains how he uses multimedia to enhance his students' learning: We started using multimedia in our classroom at the beginning of this year. At first we used some existing files that came with Optima. “Old McDonald's Farm” was one of our favourites. We added some extra sounds, and then used Optima graphics to create a house, cat, rooster, etc. When a student clicks on the animal it makes a sound. Next, we added a programme entitled “Our House.” Students can click on different parts of the house and see what is in each room.The first program that I wrote is called “What I Like.” It is designed to allow students to express something about themselves—for example, “I like pigs.” Recording their own voice has helped my students to build their confidence to talk. For example, one young woman was quite shy and would seldom speak; she would turn her head away to avoid communication. All of a sudden, she opened up and began talking to herself on the computer.Multimedia programs get students involved, and they provide a context for discussion. For example, students can recognise a voice and then talk about that person. We have pictures and voice recordings of every school staff member on one of our programs. It is great for recall and helps students to recognise people. A social benefit of computer learning is that it encourages interaction among students. The computer becomes a whole-class activity in which students naturally interact with one another.
Multimedia programs provide learning opportunities for the teacher as well as the students. The teacher can develop skills by creating programs and working with students, and there are numerous opportunities for creative problem solving. Modern software provides a vehicle for good teaching practice as well as being exciting, motivating, and professionally rewarding to use (Ryba and Selby 1995).
Multimedia programs such as Optima on the Archimedes computer are easy to use and very empowering for students, as well. The medium is ideally suited for nonverbal students. For example, the teacher can quickly and easily customize a communication board for such students to use. This board might include a set of graphics for eating, recreation, and personal needs.

Celebrating Learning Achievements

  1. School or class announcements of individual student accomplishments. For example: “We are proud of Sara for learning to use the Impression Junior word processor.” “Bill has offered to teach others to use his new adventure game. See Bill after school if you are interested.”
  2. Student demonstrations of software and hardware. For example: “John has a new speech synthesizer that he would like to demonstrate.” “Sally and John are running a course on the new version of Printshop that can be used to make posters, cards, and banners.”
  3. A multimedia club. Start a multimedia club as a class project, and invite people from outside the school (parents, computer enthusiasts, other students, family members, teachers). Use this as an opportunity to promote positive interdependence.
  4. Computer celebrations. Hold a special event to celebrate student accomplishments with the computers. The event might feature multimedia creations, software demonstrations, and illustrations of student work. Send invitations to parents, family members, school trustees, other students, and teachers.
  5. Certificates of recognition. Create certificates that acknowledge such student accomplishments as using a word processor, helping others to solve problems, and starting up the computer.
  6. Bulletin boards. Display student work in a prominent place at school or in the community.
Recent advancements in technology mean that almost all students can now access and use computers in personally meaningful ways that help them to communicate and learn. The computer provides a student-centered learning environment that is truly empowering. It allows the student to exercise control and act purposefully to achieve a desired goal. Perhaps most important, learning with computers can be fun for students who have experienced excessive amounts of failure in conventional teaching situations. And, computers provide a good context for celebrating students' learning achievements.

Clements, D.H., and B. K. Nastasi. (1988). “Social and Cognitive Interactions in Educational Computer Environments.” American Educational Research Journal 25: 87–106.

Gover, C. (January 1991). Demonstration Presented at a Conference on Computer Technology for People with Special Needs. University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Male, M. (1988). Special Magic: Computers, Classroom Strategies, and Exceptional Students. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield.

Michayluk, J.O., and D. H. Saklofske. (1988). “LOGO and Special Education.” Canadian Journal of Special Education 4: 43–47.

Nolan, C. J. P., and K. A. Ryba. (1987). “Computers in Transition Education: A Case Study with Young Offenders.” In Transition: Perspectives on School to Work in New Zealand, edited by W. Korndorffer. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. Brighton, England: Harvester.

Ryba, K. (1980). “An Evaluation of Microcomputer Assisted Instruction for Teaching Word Recognition to Developmentally Handicapped Adults.” Doctoral diss., Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Ryba, K. (1988). “How Computer Learning Technology Can Enhance Quality of Life.” In Quality of Life for Handicapped People, edited by R. Brown. Beckenham, England: Croom Helm.

Ryba, K., and B. Anderson. (1990). Learning with Computers: Effective Teaching Strategies. Eugene, Oregon: International Society for Technology in Education.

Ryba, K., and L. Selby. (1995). “Empowering Learners with Computers.” In Learners with Special Needs in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by D. Fraser, R. Moltzen, and K. Ryba, pp. 156–177. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore.

Weir, S. (1987). Cultivating Minds: A LOGO Casebook. New York: Harper and Row.

End Notes

1 Optima is an easy-to-use multimedia program that enables the user to integrate sound, text, graphics, and scanned images.

2 Archimedes computers are supplied by Acorn Computers New Zealand Ltd. They use a RISC operating system that enables high-speed multitask processing suited to multimedia and integrated software applications. Archimedes computers are quite widely used in New Zealand schools, especially at the elementary level.

Ken Ryba has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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