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Speech Apps to Smart Pens: Tech Aids Students With Learning Disabilities

Image: Students work on their tablets on Sept. 4, 2013, in the library at Fargo North High School in Fargo, N.D.

Students work on their tablets on Sept. 4, 2013, in the library at Fargo North High School in Fargo, N.D. Dave Wallis / AP, file

New gadgets and mobile apps introduced in the past few years are making reading, writing and math more accessible to students with learning disabilities.

Text-to-speech apps like Voice Dream Reader and Notability have changed the way students comprehend lessons in areas they normally struggle, said Karen Janowski, an assistive technology consultant in Boston. The apps magnify and “create more white space” around text or recite text to readers.

Voice Dream Reader app. Voice Dream Reader

Smart pens like Echo transcribe written word in specialized notebooks or the corresponding tablet app into digital documents and record voice notes the writer may leave.

“These gadgets are essential,” said Janowski. She believes moving away from paper and into digital formats, where text can be manipulated, is vital for students with learning difficulties.

Five percent of students in America have been formally identified as having learning disabilities, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).The most prevalent of these is dyslexia, diagnosed in up to three quarters of students with learning disabilities.

Chinese Woman Writes Simultaneously With Hands and Feet 2:07

The NCLD estimates another 15 percent of school-aged children struggle with learning disabilities, but have not been formally identified.

“These gadgets can give students a sense of self-efficacy, being in charge of their own learning,” said James H. Wendorf, executive director of NCLD. “For students who have learning issues, the learning field is tilted against them, so they’re going uphill.”

Giving an assist

The last five years have seen several advances in assistive technology innovations in all areas of disability. That's due in art to the “explosion” of mobile apps for iOS and Android smart phones, said David Dikter, chief executive officer of the Assistive Technology Industry Association.

“When I would use my iPad in class I felt a little awkward, but I think I’ll feel less awkward in college because everyone brings their technology.”

Students with learning disabilities often feel afraid of appearing different from their classmates. Ellie Quinn-Alger, an incoming 19-year-old freshman at Curry College in Milton, Mass., was diagnosed with dyslexia and began using assistive technology in eighth grade. Throughout high school in Burlington, Conn., she used text-to-speech iPad apps like Voice Dream Reader and Read2Go, and speech-to-text computer programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking.

“When I would use my iPad in class I felt a little awkward,” said Quinn-Alger, “but I think I’ll feel less awkward in college because everyone brings their technology.” She said using programs like Voice Dream Reader on her iPad help write her own essays and feel independent without an instructor sitting next to her. Ellie likes using the LiveScribe smart pen, which is less obvious than an iPad.

“The pen is small, and I don’t think people will notice,” she said.

Ellie’s reading teacher and assistive technology instructor, Shelley Lacey-Castelot, believes that apps for tablets and mobile phones vastly reduce the stress of word decoding; the process of translating a printed word into sound that many students with dyslexia struggle with.

“Text-to-speech apps carve out sentences, make them better able to comprehend what they’re reading,” Lacey-Castelot said. When she speaks to parents and students about technology recommendations, she makes one thing clear:

“Technology works best when it’s intertwined with skillfully-provided instruction. That’s when it’s going to be successful. If it’s not intertwined with that methodology, it won’t be enough.”

Is technology a crutch?

The Family Center on Technology and Disability in Washington focuses on creating programs promoting learning disability awareness. Director Jaqueline Hess said there is no single “best” product for students with learning disabilities because the range is so broad.

“We have low-incidence and high-incidence disorders, and autism is a spectrum disorder,” said Hess, with the Center since 2001. “If there is technology that has made perhaps the greatest impact recently, it’s tablets, mobile and smart phone apps.”

Devices with assistive technology capability like tablets and smart phones cost much less than they do now. There wasn’t as large a market years ago, said Hess, and text-to-speech or speech-to-text apps are interactive.

Learning disabilities, said Wendorf of the NCLD, “cut through anger, frustration, and anxiety when kids are struggling so hard to de-code information or comprehend, to process or retrieve, lots of other things happen than academic and social.

“One of the oppositions to assistive technology is that it’s a crutch. To that, I would say, can you pass me your glasses? Can you read this? Your glasses are not a crutch,” said assistive technology consultant Karen Janowski. “It’s not a crutch if it promotes success, confidence, and mastery, but mostly independence.”