Delivering Success through Technology for Students with Disabilities

Homework, tests, reports and pop quizzes are standard fare in the life of a student, but for those diagnosed with a disability, they can be challenging to manage. However, with creative use of technology, educators are finding new ways to break down barriers and positively impact learning for all their students equally.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there are 2.4 million students diagnosed with learning disabilities and receiving special education services in the United States. Of those students, 20 percent of drop out of high school, and only 67 percent graduate with a high school diploma.

Those are discouraging numbers, and many educators are looking for ways to increase them. Three such educators, who have been selected to attend Microsoft’s Partners in Learning 2012 US Forum, are using technology in an innovative way to effectively prepare their students diagnosed with a disability for a successful future.

Igniting Communication through Technology

Students in Julie Conn‘s classroom at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Hendersonville, North Carolina have been diagnosed with autism and are considered functionally non-verbal, or have repetitive speech patterns. To reach these students, Julie developed a Microsoft PhotoStory-based project to help her students learn social behaviors and conversational skills.

Through the project, students select a topic, collect photos, write a script, and then must use their verbal skills to narrate their story. It allows each student to think beyond what they see, create structure from chaos through various photos, learn to sequence, and enhance their computer skills. Each PhotoStory is then posted to the class website, allowing parents to hear their child’s voice. The impact has been inspiring for both students and their parent, many of whom have had little hope their child would ever read or speak. One student learned to read and verbalize 55 sight words through his PhotoStory, amazing his parents, who are continuing this work with him at home to extend his learning and engagement.

(Above, Julie Conn and William Imperatore work on a building language skills with their PhotoStory project.)

The project has been a lightning rod for progress in Conn’s class. All of her students showed increased general knowledge, reading and communication skills. The project also motivated them to become more independent and outwardly curious, navigating the internet to watch their classmates’ PhotoStories. Finding their voice and sharing it with others through the process has fueled their excitement for learning while building self-confidence.

Bridging the Gap for the Blind

Numerous disabilities can impact student learning. A majority of Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI) students struggle in math because traditional teaching methods used in mainstream education do not take into consideration their unique accessibility needs; even more difficult, is finding a qualified math teacher certified to teach the visually impaired (TVI). At the Washington State School for the Blind, Robin Lowell and Sherry Hahn are conquering all odds, and in their own way, have reinvented math education approaches for their students. The result is an accessible virtual classroom using Microsoft Lync video conferencing.Washington State School for the Blind

When Robin’s husband’s job moved her to Snoqualmie, WA, Lowell and Hahn figured out a way for the school’s only qualified, TVI certified math teacher to instruct a classroom of students more than 170 miles away in Vancouver, WA. Lync is one of many products developed by Microsoft with accessibility prioritized for functionality to work seamlessly with Assistive Technology devices. As such, the examples Robin creates on the Lync whiteboard are easily transmitted to the students’ Braille Displays. Accessibility features built into Windows and Lync enables students and teachers to easily transfer files, instant message, and share desktops and programs for 1:1 instruction. (Above, Robin Lowell (on the television screen) instructs Chris Green and Sunny Aparece through Microsoft Lync video conferencing)

Not only are students completing assignments, tests, and projects with greater ease, they are also increasing their technology skills, preparing them for future educational and professional opportunities. The project has also empowered students to advocate for themselves by shaping the tools they need to succeed. For example, students let the Lync engineering team know how the program interacted with their accessibility device JAWS. Lowell also requested the ability to change the width of color of the pens so that low vision students could see the work. The engineering team took their feedback to heart and those changes were made to the product.

Overcoming Obstacles

Living with a disability is challenging enough; succeeding in school can often be even more difficult. We applaud the creativity and compassion of these educators and the many others around the country who are working to make a real impact on their students’ education and their future. The Partners in Learning US Forum will bring together 100 like-minded educators using technology to creatively engage students, providing them the opportunity to collaborate and further the impact they have on students in the classroom and beyond.

If you would like to follow the progress of the 2012 US Forum, track #pilus on Twitter and follow @TeachTec for updates. Select educators from the US Forum will advance to compete and share their work on a global scale at the Partners in Learning Global Forum in Athens, Greece in November 2012.


Thank you all for the great work and I look forward to meeting you in Redmond this summer.


Rob Bayuk

Program Director, Microsoft U.S. Partners in Learning Team

See related posts: