Zachary Sweeting was in a bit of a rush.
He’d been working for months, programming coordinates on a lathe and perfecting every curve and angle in each wooden pawn, rook and knight. But his custom chess set still needed some serious work and the afternoon was almost over, the school year nearly done.
There is, however, good news for this 20-year-old student.
When school returns in the fall, so will Bridges to Tomorrow, a fledgling Barbara Goleman Senior High transition academy that uses computer programs and digitalized power tools to teach life and job skills to students with disabilities. The saws and laser-guided engravers are among the high-tech equipment deployed through Miami-Dade schools, where recent advances in technology have boosted the education of special needs students.
“I enjoy it. This gave me a whole new way to see how things are made, and it’s hand-on,” said Sweeting, who is pushing past a learning disability to pursue a special diploma. “I’ll be back next year to finish up.”
Across the country, schools are using new devices and equipment to better help students overcome disabilities, mental disorders and debilitating illnesses. While it’s hardly a new phenomenon - assistive technologies like wheel chairs and hearing aids have existed for decades - advances and out-of-the-box ideas for how to use equipment are leading to breakthroughs in the classroom.
“It’s a very exciting time to have such technology available for students,” said Ava Goldman, who heads Miami-Dade’s office of exceptional student education and student support. “It opens up many, many, many different learning opportunities.”
This has broad implications in South Florida, where according to the state there are 66,000 students with disabilities, although it’s difficult to say just how much is spent on assistive technology, or how many the equipment actually reaches. Neither the federal nor state governments compile such information, according to spokespersons. Goldman said accurate numbers couldn’t be provided for Miami-Dade due to myriad funding sources and different ways of identifying technology.
Still, new connectivity breakthroughs and devices like eye trackers and even iPads are improving equipment and becoming more affordable.
The Comlink Enable Eyes, used in Miami-Dade, allows students with little to no use of their arms, hands and voice to access and use a computer by calibrating their pupils with the device. Stare at an icon long enough, and the program opens. Also in use in Miami-Dade is the Forte, a word processor that uses text-to-speech to help students with learning disabilities organize their thoughts.
Expanded connectivity in schools is also opening up new possibilities. For example, wireless networks are spreading throughout schools - all of Miami-Dade’s should be wireless by March - and videoconferencing has become available to the masses. Combine the technology with robotics, and you’ve got the VGo, a $6,000 robot that so far has allowed dozens of children in the United States whose debilitating illnesses have kept them constrained to their homes and hospital beds to attend classes via surrogate, mobile wireless robot.
But probably the most influential breakthrough in assistive technology has come through touch-screen tablets - specifically the iPad, said Barry Birnbaum, the special education specialization coordinator for Walden University in Minneapolis.