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.