A Villain’s Tale: The Monetization of Assistive Technology and Other Barriers
On a Professional Level
In my third year as a teacher, I transferred from teaching A.P. Grade 12 English to teaching SUCCESS, an elementary inclusivity program for students with special needs. One of my students had Stage 5: profound hearing loss. With no prior experience addressing this need, I asked my new administrator what accommodations and technologies were available. I will never forget the advice I received.
“When you are speaking, make sure to look directly at them and really enunciate.”
That was it. My mouth forming words slowly was the pinnacle of our so-called inclusivity program for this student. It did not sit well with me. Fortunately, in the two years I continued in that role (and in my roles since), improvements have advanced more rapidly for students needing assistive technology (AT).
Some Beneficial AT (from my teaching experience):
- For students with ADHD and/or Autism: High-tech small, hand-held word processors (with built-in text-to-speech and speech-to-text) and mid-tech desk bikes.
- For students with Dyslexia and/or Dyscalculia: High to mid-tech computer-based learning programs, spell-checkers, and Smartpens.
- For a student with Cerebral Palsy: High-tech eye-tracking communication device and mid-tech gait trainer.
- For students with visual impairments: High-tech apps, text-to-speech, and video magnifiers. Low-tech large printed font, books in braille, and handheld glass magnifiers.
- For students with hearing impairments: Augmenting devices like Personal FM Systems and Soundfield Systems. Transforming services like captioning and continued 1-1 student-teaching conferring.
On a Personal Level
It’s been almost 5 years since my world unilaterally fell silent. I went to sleep with “perfect” hearing and woke profoundly deaf in my left ear. After weeks of medically advocating for my condition, an ENT finally told me I had sudden sensorineural hearing loss, an inner ear disability that affects roughly one to six people per 5,000 annually. From being able to hear a student’s inappropriate whisper across a rowdy room to abruptly being unable to localize questions, sudden hearing loss had an extreme impact on my teaching ability and practices.
It would take me a full year to seek AT support in the classroom. The Oticon tinnitus cancelling hearing aid (HA) I required cost over $6,000. What?! Living as a disability-free Canadian for 30+ years, the cost knocked my ableist glasses right off my face! STF benefits cover HA costs up to $1200 every 4 years; my husband’s benefits are the same. You can do the math. That leaves a personal cost of $3000 for assistive technology every 4 years. While we are fortunately able to absorb that cost, the initial bill made me pause. How did my (now former) students, the majority from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds, navigate such a financial blow? As accessibility champion, Jane Velkovski, so eloquently outlines in the Ted Salon: The Life-Changing Power of Assistive Technologies, over 1 billion people require assistive technologies but 90% do not have access to “reach their full potential.” If AT plays the hero in our global story, the villain is blatantly the inflated monetization of these technologies.
Crossing the Barriers of Assistive Technology
Looking on the bright side, we all know the transformative power of assistive technology. On a personal and professional level, these advancements have improved my life and the lives of so many of my students. As Velkovski says,
“This chair is my legs; this chair is my life.”
Despite its extraordinary potential and capabilities, AT comes with a wealth of limitations and challenges.
In the research article, Childhood and Assistive Technology: Growing with Opportunity, Developing with Technology, Botelho outlines that children (in particular) face a number of barriers, but “the most important of these barriers are lack of awareness, governance, services, products, human and financial resources, and the inaccessibility of most environments.” I will now discuss a few of these barriers:
- Lack of awareness: When my administrator advised that I slowly enunciate my words, was there truly no better tech available at the time…or was it a lack of awareness (as I concluded)? Before becoming partially deaf, I took for granted our highly sound-dependent world. People continually believe that my hearing aid, or a student’s HA, returns our hearing capabilities to 100%. Unfortunately, that is not a reality….yet. In my case, my HA allows me to localize sound (necessary in a classroom full of chatter and questions), partially cancel out irritating tinnitus, and avoid feeling like my head is split in half. At best, my left ear registers sound like a muffled radio broadcast. For someone with a cochlear implant and/or bilateral deafness, the experience is entirely different. Complete awareness of various needs is almost impossible unless experienced first-hand; however, it’s essential we continuously consider these needs for our students and society. Whenever I enter a building with stairs and no assistive tech, I am reminded that my reality is not everyone’s.
- Governance: It seemed telling that out of our class’s plethora of experienced Saskatchewan educators, many of us (definitely me) seemed uncertain about current SK accessibility legislation. In my weekly research, I learned that on November 15, 2022 (coincidence???), The Accessible Saskatchewan Act was introduced in the Legislative Assembly. If it passes, it will help to prevent/remove accessibility barriers. Seems long overdue!
- Human and Financial Resources: As previously noted, I am grateful for my personal and professional access to AT; unfortunately, the effort and advocacy necessary to access it are often overlooked. On a personal level, if I had not relentlessly self-advocated, I would not have received a correct diagnosis, steroid medication and aural injections, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, or a HA. Similarly, in every student accessibility case, countless specialist and IIP meetings, grant applications, research and training sessions occurred before access became a reality. What would we do without Special Support Services Teachers? For many of my (former) community school families, literacy rates remain low while financial barriers remain high. With reports of over 34 million deaf children worldwide, and Canadian hearing aid price tags ranging from $1000 to….who knows where inflation caps?…..the monetization of assistive technology hinders its life-changing capabilities.
How can we put a price on moments like the following?
And yet, our world sets that price tag high all the time. With Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR), AT can become the hero it was intended to be: “This approach involves everyone, from parent to teacher, physical and other therapists, community health worker, organizations of persons with disabilities, and others, in awareness-raising, training, service provision, and resource allocation, to each according to their role, but always with the needs of the family and child at the center.” (Source)
As Botelho so aptly notes,
“It takes a community to include a child.”
Despite the barriers, we all must play our part in helping our students fully access their learning potential.
Points to Ponder
- What other barriers have you experienced in providing/implementing assistive technology?
- As educators in SK and elsewhere, how is AT provided and introduced in the classroom? What training is provided, if any?
- If you have been teaching for 5+ years, have you noticed a shift in AT access?
- In your opinion, what should an educator/administrator’s response be to students misusing AT? For example, a student continuously uses an iPad to take unsolicited pictures of classmates. Or a student uses text-to-speech to recite inappropriate words.
Thank you for your post Kim. I find it incredible that we don’t provide devices like hearing aids to our citizens who need them. It isn’t a luxury to hear, it is a necessity, and we are one of the richest countries in the entire world. Somehow we find billions of dollars in tax breaks for large corporations in the hope that they will create jobs (when in reality they move the money off shore and pay almost no tax on it), but hearing aids – apparently that’s preposterous.
Now that I’m done ranting I would like to answer your first question. The barriers to assistive technology (AT) in my school mostly revolve around training and access. We don’t have 1:1 devices in our school, and some of the ones we have are old and don’t have great functionality. The training that we have access is pretty limited as well. Most of the time you end up stumbling through relying heavily on your teaching assistants and colleagues (who are invaluable – I would never diminish the amount of help they have provided me). The systems works, but it is a bit chaotic, and I think it could be working better. It would be interesting if school divisions incentivized taking assessable tech courses (or certificates), or provided them as part of ongoing professional development. I find PD to be very scattershot – I wish we would pick something important and stick to it over a longer period of time.
Thanks for your very thorough comment. I appreciate all the additional insights. In particular, I like your idea of incentivizing tech courses/certificates. There’s something to be said for that idea. And like you, nothing “grinds my gears” more than PD that is dropped soon after. Pick 1-2 strong initiatives and stay the course to see the long-term benefits for students. Just imagine if that’s how it was done?!
This was a great post! Thanks for all your insight. I haven’t had much experience with students needing high-tech assistive tech in my classroom, but I also lack awareness and support regarding teacher training. It’s a lot of “just figure it out”. I do wish there were ed tech classes available during undergrad degrees in education.
Thank you for your honest response. You are right – it is actually too much for us to just figure out on our own. The stakes are too high for our students needing AT. Funding, clear programming, and support are needed moving forward to ensure everyone achieves their best potential.
Great post Kim! I certainly take so much for granted. Thanks for the grounding post of your personal experience with hearing loss. To answer your second question re: training for our teachers…I bring in our Ed Tech Coordinator to present to our new staff every year on all the capabilities of the computers/tech in the school (talk to text, translators, FM systems, etc.). We utilize our so called experts within our school division to help train our staff as much possible. However, this is something that our universities could do a much better job at preparing our new teachers with. In fact, Ed Tech and Assisted Tech should be an undergrad course that all graduating teachers require to graduate.
Every time you speak in class or respond to my posts, I am impressed with your leadership initiatives and insights. Your staff is very lucky to have you. Ensuring that staff is supported through adequate training is one of the best ways to decrease staff burnout and ensure student success. Great job!
I appreciate the vulnerability you show in sharing your personal story regarding hearing loss and your accessibility journey. When it comes to AT in our division, we try to provide support through a variety of platforms: curated digital documents and tutorials that are shared with teachers to utilize as needed, PD sessions prepared and delivered to staff, training sessions presented to all students, and training sessions shared with families and the community. With this in mind I am 1 person for 400+ staff; I know I am not reaching everyone. It is my hope that the more groups who receive AT training, the more support our community has as a whole when it comes to familiarity and application of AT in student programming.
I really appreciate your comment and the insights you shared in class on this topic (and others). While you are one facilitator for so many, it is clear to me that you are making a difference for the people utilizing your abilities/resources. Training sessions and digital documents are so beneficial for staff and students unsure of where to begin accessing AT.
Thank you for sharing your story, Kim. I greatly appreciate your willingness to share your own personal journey. When we look at AT in my division, I have found that we are pointed in the direction of the divisional website and then have to dig to find guidance. When I first came to the division we had learning coaches, teachers who were giving some training to provide support for differentiation in the classroom. This was a huge benefit to those that accessed the support, but as with many initiatives that get rolled out, this was quickly rolled back up and put in a closet. Teachers are encouraged to use Read, Write Gold for Google, but each teacher is mostly on their own.
Thank you for sharing. It sounds like your division was on such a great, inclusive path….and then, like with too many other great initiatives, budget cuts caused their damage. Imagine what it would be like to be properly funded and supported!
Kim – great post! One thing that I often overlook when it comes to these ATs is the cost and access. Many families may not be able to afford some of these technologies. Personally speaking, in grade school a very close friend of mine was having trouble with his eyesight and required various tech to help him out. He had a computer type monitor that magnified text to make it easier to read. We were to young to think about the cost to these things, but while I was writing my blog I saw that it was listed for a cool $3500!
Thanks for sharing your friend’s experience. Unfortunately, it is the reality for too many. Having a support services teacher with a full understanding of government AT grants has been a saving grace. Without these supports, too many families and students go without.