Technology broadens horizons for Miami-Dade students with disabilities

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.

“The iPad, I feel, is a catch-all device because it’s new, it has a lot to offer,” he said. “It’s inexpensive, and can be accessed easily by the students. Until something else comes out, it’s going to be a mainstay of assistive technology.”

At Blue Lakes Elementary, 9250 SW 52nd Ter. in Miami, iPads were provided this past school year to each of the 40 students at the school’s autism academy, which is geared toward nonverbal children. It is one of five such academies in Miami-Dade. Interactive SMART Boards, which look like old-school projectors, and touch-screen SMART tables also help keep students involved and form a network that make technology the focus of the classroom.

In Sonia Lynch’s fourth-grade class, she displays an ABCya! spelling game on a SMART Board and holds an iPad. She gives her students a word, which they spell out by touching letters displayed on the tablet’s open application.

Lynch said the SMART Board and iPad work well with the academy’s students - all of whom come here as non-speaking children - because they engage multiple senses and offer instant responses that are predictable and rewarding. She said they often feel like they’re playing rather than learning.

“They’re seeing it. They’re touching it. They’re hearing it. They’re moving,” she said. “It engages all their senses. That’s why you have them so involved.”

For the first time, every child went home with an iPad provided by the school and funded by the federal government’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Apps on the device are particularly useful in promoting communication, which is vital in this school.

When second-grader Matthew Tabango wasn’t feeling well at lunch time, his teacher, Beatriz De La Noval, asked him if he needed to use the restroom. He responded by touching a button on the iPad, open to the program Proloquo2go: “I need a break,” the device said for him.

First-grade teacher Mercedes Brea said teaching is more important than the technology, but devices have helped her see a huge improvement in her students in just two years. “When they first started, there was no communication whatsoever. They couldn’t even tell me their name. Now I have them counting out loud. They’re starting to read,” she said.

The iPad is hardly the first communication aid. Blue Lakes classrooms also come equipped with the Tango, a hand-held device with preloaded phrases, which a student used last year to help him sing happy birthday to Principal Aida Marrero. But the teachers said the iPads are generally easier to use and don’t require much training for parents to continue use at home.

“We’ve come a long way in a very short time,” Birnbaum said.

Back at Barbara Goleman in Miami Lakes, Bridges to Tomorrow teacher Jeffrey Lintz agrees. In 30 years, he has seen the advances made possible with his students. And that includes out-of-the-box thinking, the kind that uses industrial equipment to further education.

There’s Ashley Calle, 20, whose fragile motor skills would have previously kept her from operating a jigsaw. But through the use of computer programs, she now makes rulers, and designs cut-out wood blocks. David Del Pino, 21, has become an expert at designing clock faces etched out by an Epilog laser.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was so impressed by the clocks he asked for one for each School Board member, Lintz said.

“We went into mass production,” he said.

That’s precisely the type of work he says his students need. Some won’t ever get a job, but will benefit from punching in, cleaning up and other organizational skills. Others who are higher functioning, like Sweeting, have a chance to acquire skills that could land them a manufacturing occupation, he said.

“This is more than I’ve seen in a long time, this program,” he said. “The technology has grown so much.”