The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects students with intellectual disabilities in the classroom. IDEA defines intellectual disabilities as 'significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child's education performance.' You will notice that students in your classroom with intellectual disabilities usually struggle with social skills, taking care of themselves, and communication. Their limitations in mental functioning usually result in slower learning. This means that they may learn to walk, talk, use the bathroom, eat, later than their non-disabled peers.
Students with intellectual disabilities that qualify for special education are put on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP team - which includes the student, his/her parents, the principal, and both the regular and special education teachers - work together to determine what services and supports this individual child needs to be successful. Often times, the use of assistive technology is necessary and will be written into the IEP. They also determine which classroom setting is most appropriate for each student.
Keeping students with disabilities in a regular classroom environment with their non-disabled peers is always the goal in special education. The widely accepted philosophy is that if a student with disabilities can progress and meet the IEP goals in his/her regular classroom, that is the most appropriate place for him/her. Students with intellectual disabilities may not perform at the same speed and level as their peers, but with assistance, they can access the general curriculum. Assistance can come in the form of individualized instruction, peer tutors, accommodations, and assistive technology.
Assistive technology can be any object or device that provides a student with more access to the curriculum. Let's look at some of the ways Suzie, a student with an intellectual disability, struggles in the classroom and how assistive technology can help. Keep in mind, it would be unusual for one student to require all of these devices and supports. Also, each student is unique and requires their own individualized plan. The list here is extensive to give you a variety of ideas as you consider your own students and their needs.
- Pictures: Suzie's speech is unclear, which makes it difficult for teachers and friends to understand what she is saying. With the help of an augmentative and alternative communication device, Suzie is able to express herself in a way others can understand. She uses picture cards and word strips to show others while she is talking.
- Electronic devices: Certain devices, such as a tablet or ipad, use special text to speech software to act as a communication device. Suzie can select pictures or words and the device will say her message out loud. This device acts as her voice if and when she needs it.
- Digital recorders: Suzie does not have a good memory. She has a hard time paying attention in class for a long period of time and will sometimes miss out on the instructions given for homework or projects. When she uses a digital recorder, she can take it home and listen to instructions again. With the support of this device and her parents, Suzie is able to follow instructions and turn in homework and projects along with her classmates. Keep in mind that she completes her work with accommodations.
- Graphic organizers: Suzie is working on being able to summarize stories that are read to her. Graphic organizers give Suzie a visual prompt for the important parts of the stories and specific places to write them. As Suzie listens to a story, she can write (or draw pictures) in designated boxes on her graphic organizer. This allows her to see if she is missing anything or what she needs to listen for next. For example, she will listen for the main characters, the setting, and three main events that happened in the story.
- Books on CD: Suzie is behind grade level in reading, and can not keep up with her class. However, she still needs to learn how to listen to a story and be able to retell and summarize what happened. She uses books on CD so she can hear the story and focus on listening rather than worrying about reading the words right.
- Picture cookbooks: One of Suzie's goals is to learn independence. The IEP team has included goals that will prepare Suzie for semi-independent living. She practices cooking and following basic recipes that use pictures to show the instructions. The picture instructions eliminate the need for Suzie to be able to read all of the words and terms associated with food and cooking.
- Grasping devices: Due to limitations with motor skills, Suzie has a difficult time grasping objects. This makes it difficult for her to hold objects like pencils or utensils. This little device slides onto her hand and attaches to an object to simulate the grasping position.
- Bluetooth headsets: Being able to use a cell phone will have a significant impact on Suzie's ability to be independent. Smartphones can be an effect tool for Suzie, but it may be difficult for her to hold the phone up to her ear without pressing buttons and talk at the same time. Suzie practices making a phone call to her parents once a day during school to help her get used to using a Bluetooth earpiece.
Intellectual disabilities affect an individual's cognitive, motor, communication, and social skills. All students with disabilities should be included in the regular classroom environment to the greatest extent possible. With the help of individualized instruction and assistive technology, students with intellectual disabilities have a better chance of accessing academic content. Assistive technology also helps students gain more independence, which prepares them for life after school.
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