Selecting Appropriate Technology for Special Needs Students

Instructor: Michelle DeSalvo

Michelle has been an academic librarian for over twenty years. She has a Master’s Degree in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How many of us enjoy using technology such as Google Drive or iPads? Did you know that these tools can benefit students with special needs? There are many more options as well. In this lesson, we will give pointers on selecting technology.


Have you ever heard the term inclusion and wondered what it meant? Inclusion is the integration of special education students into the regular classroom. The advantage is that special needs students get to learn along with their classmates and buddies.

For children with disabilities, special education provides resources and services. In addition, instruction is tailored to their unique needs. A major piece of the puzzle is having the right technology. Technology can be defined as a tool. The tools can either be low-tech or high-tech. Technology should always be used to help empower the student.


Braille is a wonderful example of both a low-tech and high-tech resource. Over 200 years ago, Louis Braille designed the raised-dot Braille system. Did you know that he was only a teenager at the time? His system has been used by millions of visually-impaired readers.

On the other hand, Braille can also be a high-tech tool. One exciting development is the creation of the UpSense Super Braille Keyboard. The technology uses touch-screen capabilities. Using their fingertips, people can create a library of digital commands.

Technology for special needs students is often called assistive technology. Assistive technology is any tool that helps an individual with disabilities maintain or improve their functioning. In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was created and the term assistive technology was born.

Children who qualify for special education services have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). (An IEP can either be called a program or plan). The IEP outlines the services available. Also, an IEP includes measurable goals for the student. Technology is also built into an IEP.

General and Specialized Technologies

Google Drive
Google Drive

The good news is that many operating systems support special needs. For example, have you ever used Google Drive? Did you know that Google Drive has an entire suite of special education applications? Students with learning disabilities have especially benefited from these applications. A learning disability is when a student struggles with tasks such as reading, writing, or math.


Dyslexia is a well-known learning disability. Google Drive allows students to easily share documents and information. Many students have found this feature very handy.

The Inspiration software has been another gift for special needs children. The software teaches concept-mapping skills. For students who struggle with organizing their ideas, the Inspiration software can be a game changer.

Nao Robot
Nao robot

iPads have been very popular in helping students with special needs. Robots offer many possibilities as well. For instance, robots are being used to teach gross motor skills. Have you heard about the NAO robot? This robot resembles a real human. The robot is being used to teach autistic children how to read social cues.

Web Accessibility

How many websites do you use in a day? Using the Web can present some unique challenges for special needs students. Web accessibility means that the site is equally accessible for all users. Many tools have been designed to aid in this effort. For the visually-impaired, screen readers are a major tool. They provide either speech or Braille. JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a famous screen reader program.

For students in wheelchairs, two tools have made the Web more accessible. Have you ever seen a Sip-n-Puff system where the student breathes into a straw? Each breath indicates a different command. Another breakthrough is with cameras. The software called FaceMouse recognizes face movements. The student can control a mouse with subtle facial changes.

Five Factors

There are many layers to selecting an appropriate technology. Keep in mind that many special needs students may have more than one disability as well.

When selecting technology, here are five factors to consider:

1. Who - Who will be trained to use the technology? Who will set it up and provide troubleshooting?

2. What - What is the goal of the technology? Can the goal be measured?

3. Where - Where will the technology be available? Can it be accessed from home?

Where will training take place? Will travel be necessary?

4. When - What is the timeframe for acquiring the technology?

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