How does Technology Help People with Special Needs?

Next week, my 7th grade Computer Applications classes will be learning about how technology can help people with special needs. Year after year, this has become one of the most interesting and intriguing lessons for my students. They learn about the ADA, hearing impairments, sight impairments, mobility challenges, and learning disabilities. This lesson opens their eyes to the struggles of individuals with special needs and how they overcome their disabilities with the advancement and use of technology.

This lesson is based around the famous scientist Stephen Hawking. He has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. He was diagnosed with ALS at age 21 and as he has aged, he lost movement of his muscles and is now almost completed paralyzed, including his vocal cords. Stephen Hawking uses technology to help him communicate, for mobility, and for him to complete day-to-day tasks. Over his life time, the technology advances have helped him to maintain a level of independence that he might not otherwise have. I believe that a lot of the advances in technology for individuals with special needs stems from his involvement and persistence with technology companies to come up with the next best tech tool.

One technology device that Stephen Hawking uses is an electronic voice synthesizer. He uses this to communicate. This system works through his wheel chair which has an infra-red ‘blink switch’ connected into his glasses. By scrunching his right cheek up, it actives the ‘blink switch’
and he is able to talk, compose speeches and research papers, browse the Internet, and write e-mails.

His wheel chair houses all of the technology tools need to run his communication system along with assisting him with mobility. His current computer, a laptop, can run up to 7 hours or longer if switch to run off of his wheel chairs battery. There are also various external peripherals, a touchscreen LCD, and speakers which project his hardware-synthesized voice. The computer also has wireless Internet access that connects through cell phone towers. Through this system he can also make and receive phone calls. Lastly, he has a radio transmitter that opens doors from him in his home and office increasing his ease of movement around home and work.

All of the information that the students learn about Stephen Hawking is then connected into other disabilities and how those technologies that he uses could be adapted for students their age to help them communicate, learn, and be independent. At the end of the informative section of the lesson, which includes a reading passage from their textbook, an informal discussion & presentation, and a recent video interview with Stephen Hawking, the students are challenged to come up with their own futuristic technology that could help students their age to overcome their disabilities. Look back next week for their inventive ideas!

Article by Laura Ketcham

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