Accessibility Tools Can Be Transformative for Some Students. But at What...

Opinion | Special Education

Accessibility Tools Can Be Transformative for Some Students. But at What Cost?

By Ryan Fan     Aug 23, 2022

Accessibility Tools Can Be Transformative for Some Students. But at What Cost?

When John first came to me in fall 2020, he was a ninth grader and we were in the thick of the pandemic, doing emergency remote learning. It was tough to gauge John’s abilities and potential because he didn’t say a word and kept his camera off during every Zoom lesson.

After a couple of weeks, he emerged as one of the few students to show up every single day and attempt to complete his work. But he was reading and writing at a kindergarten level, according to diagnostic tests. John, whose name has been changed, is dyslexic and had been struggling with reading and writing for years. He wasn’t alone. Based on the assessment system I use, many of my students were reading at a level between kindergarten and second grade, which is not ideal, given that I teach high schoolers.

I’m a special education teacher serving students in a self-contained class, and all of my students have moderate to severe learning disabilities including ADHD, intellectual disabilities, emotional disabilities, specific learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. In my classroom, I usually teach English language arts in 70-minute blocks. During virtual learning from 2020 to 2021, that was condensed to 60 minutes and we spent much of our time focused on reading texts, answering text dependent questions and writing essays.

John’s sharp intellect was apparent. It shined through his use of context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words, his adaptability with the technology available to him and, according to his math teacher, his strength with numbers. Effort was also a strength — he gave every assignment his all. But his written responses were at best a sentence and at worst a few words, depending on the day.

Then something odd happened. One day, I asked my students to write an exit ticket responding to a section of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and John submitted a full paragraph. I didn’t understand. Had he been holding back? Was there something about this book that really resonated for him? When I asked him about it, he shared his screen on Zoom to demonstrate how he was using the Read&Write toolbar for Google Chrome to dictate his thoughts.

Screenshot of Read&Write; Courtesy of Ryan Fan

The Read&Write toolbar is a speech recognition tool (also referred to as speech-to-text or voice recognition), meaning it translates spoken language into digitized text. John spoke into the microphone on his computer, the tool captured his words into writing and he edited his thoughts after.

I was ecstatic. So many students are unable to read and write proficiently. It’s a systemic learning barrier that makes me feel like I’ve failed my kids every day,but John gave me hope. It wasn’t just that he submitted a well-crafted paragraph, it was that he demonstrated resourcefulness and found a way to leverage his tech savviness for learning.

Throughout the year, John went from barely writing a sentence to crafting five-paragraph essays with the support of that tool. It was the most significant progress I’d seen a student make in a very long time. He noticed his growth too, which boosted his confidence significantly. John was now willing to take academic risks that he hadn’t taken before ninth grade. For years, he had internalized a narrative that he just wasn’t good at reading or writing, but that started to change for him. For all of this to happen when so many students were struggling with the transition to remote learning made John’s story especially refreshing.

To be clear, I don’t see John’s progress as a reflection of my teaching. He discovered how to use speech-to-text tools to help him write. He showed up and worked hard every day in our virtual classroom. He took initiative and persevered— all skills I didn’t teach him.

His growth made me wonder whether I had been underutilizing speech dictation tools to support struggling writers. It wasn’t a new concept. Early on in my teaching career, I noticed that many of my students who struggled with writing would text their friends using Siri, and that my students with oratory and verbal strengths benefited significantly from the accessibility tool. I just hadn’t applied that directly to my teaching.

What held me back was a lack of access to technology and a lack of being forced to be innovative with edtech. I taught in a brick and mortar school. I used paper and pencil. Until I couldn’t — because everything had to move online.

Losing Access to Accessibility Tools

As a result of John’s progress in writing, among other subject areas, our team adjusted his IEP to place him in a more inclusive setting — an inclusion class with two co-teachers: a general educator and a special educator. I checked in frequently the next year to see how he was doing.

At the beginning of 10th grade, his new English teacher, a general educator, shared that John was struggling with writing and answering text-dependent questions because he couldn’t rely on speech dictation tools anymore. Last fall, as the surge of students returned in person, our school had a shortage of devices and John no longer had access to a laptop. Last fall, as remote learning ended and the surge of students returned in person, our school asked students to return their laptops. John no longer had access to a laptop.

Thankfully, she said that when it came to essays, John was able to navigate a graphic organizer and to recall the work we did with essays the prior year. With assistance, he was able to produce a five-paragraph essay. But without access to the speech detection tool, it remained difficult for him.

Reflecting on my decision to allow John to use the Read&Write toolbar, I felt torn about whether I held his hand too much. Maybe I should have balanced opportunities to write with and without the tool, or encouraged him to gradually move away using it. Maybe I should have let him productively struggle with less support.

It is a delicate balance — providing just enough support to empower a student, but not too much that it becomes disempowering. I wish I had worked with John to develop more traditional writing skills and set him up for the reality that he would not always be in a quiet environment where the computer could clearly hear what he wanted to say — or for that matter, that he would have access to a computer at all.

Once he graduated, he would have less support than he did in high school. Less modifications, less accommodations, less adults looking out for him, and I worried about that. Maybe he needed to learn how to write and edit more traditionally, and eventually — if he could — without the support of the Read&Write tool. Maybe being overly accommodating didn’t prepare him for his next steps.

Though I wish we had worked more on traditional writing skills, I couldn’t ignore the value of the skills and confidence he built in ninth grade by using the accessibility tool. That confidence allowed him to overcome a weakness in literacy that he’d internalized during the first decade of his education career. One that created a false narrative about his potential.

Teachers Need More Professional Development on Accessibility Tools

Figuring out when to use accessibility tools to support our students is complicated. Teachers need more professional development around edtech tools to help struggling readers and writers, especially given that moving between in-person and virtual learning spaces has become the norm. And we need a guarantee that once we teach our students how to use the tools, they’ll continue to have access to them.

At the end of the day, this tool was incredibly useful for John. But there needs to be careful consideration about when to implement an accessibility tool and how to create a balance between teaching struggling writers how to succeed with a tool like Read&Write and gradually help them succeed without the support, to ensure that we’re not hindering student development.

One of the keys to being a special education teacher is learning how to gradually release support as students are progressing. It’s something I struggle with, but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to mean pulling support completely — and it really is necessary to encourage students to explore their independence, which they’ll need beyond high school.

Young people are tech savvy. And in reality, since tech is such an integral part of our daily lives, they learn to adapt in digital literacy, no matter how much they may struggle through a lesson plan or assessment.

John’s 10th grade teacher worked with him individually on traditional writing skills like writing a topic sentence and selecting and analyzing relevant textual evidence. And he was successful again, largely due to his grit and hard work, but also because of the newfound confidence he gained from being so adaptable during virtual learning.

Next year, John is taking an Advanced Placement English class. For a student who was reading on the kindergarten level just two years earlier, that’s quite a feat. Part of it was having the technology tools at his disposal, but mostly, it was him.

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