SEN and the gift of technology

Carol Allen

Carol Allen is an Advisory Teacher for ICT and SEN, having taught since 1980 in both mainstream schools – primary and high - and schools for students with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties. Recognising, as an English specialist, that communication lies at the heart of all effective teaching, the majority of her work has centred on creative and engaging use of technology to support communication in its widest sense.

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Recounting her experience of teaching special educational needs SEN pupils overseas, Carol Allen explains how technology can provide life-changing benefits for pupils with disabilities, and why we should never neglect the resources available to us in Britain.

As featured in the March edition of our magazine.

Over the past few years, I have worked at many educational establishments in the United Kingdom and abroad. My area is communication and access to learning for all - from those with profound and multiple learning difficulties to those who are academic and able but have a specific or transitory learning barrier. Unsurprisingly, my work in other countries has brought me into contact with some strikingly different approaches and attitudes to special educational needs (SEN).

In Albania I came across a slow start to the provision of education for some children with disabilities. Historically, in this country, such children were put through the same system whatever their disability. This had been the case for a blind man whom I met. Intelligent, articulate and a wonderful singer, he carried his few possessions - a cassette tape player with two cassettes and his cigarettes - with him at all times, having no safe place to store them.

We set up a computer with tactile access using an Intellikeys keyboard and linked this to some of his favourite songs from his youth. We then recorded his own singing on the computer and gave him tactile access to play it back and sing-along.

He was so moved by being able to do this for the first time in his life that all present were in danger of emotional collapse. Within one session, he understood the tactile symbols and was working independently.

With sponsorship from the extremely supportive Inclusive Technology we went further, training two teachers in using basic technology to help pupils with autism, cerebral palsy, visual impairments and learning disabilities.

The teachers questioned us incessantly, tried things eagerly, extended and developed our ideas as we watched, and then returned with more queries. We worked, answered, adapted and shared for every moment that we had. It was the very best continuous professional development experience ever!

One thing it highlighted was the power of technology to help people with disabilities. Returning to the UK, we were reflecting on the role of fate: how our birthplace can determine our educational opportunities, our life chances, our life expectancy.

At work the following week, I had an inbox brimming with items such as: “This child needs more teaching assistant time”; “This child needs a laptop”; “Can you come and deliver another CPD session?”; “It’s not possible to include so-and-so as he won’t sit sensibly in class”.

These emails made me realise that though our country has excellent SEN resources, an element of chance exists for pupils here too. Though some schools and teachers have a can-do attitude to SEN and seek solutions to difficulties, others are less proactive and look for reasons why certain pupils cause difficulties to established routines and practices. Both attitudes can exist within one school: a particular teacher may go out of her way to understand a child and his learning needs and preferences, whereas another might leave this to teaching assistants or avoid addressing the situation.

We have ready access to some superb technology. Free downloads such as WordTalk enable text to speech and the conversion to MP3, so that struggling readers can, for example, access revision notes in their preferred format. Google Translate can help EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils in those difficult first weeks when they are struggling with a new life, a new school and a new language. High visibility mouse pointers can be downloaded free-of-charge for those who have difficulty seeing the standard one.

Yet I visit schools where not even the basic accessibility features of Windows or Mac OS are being used. I see pupils with dyslexia using coloured overlays to help with their reading, but then working on computers with no accessibility features enabled to give the same support.

There are so many ideas to be shared. Twitter is a great starting point: it constitutes a worldwide community of experts eager to share their ideas! Facebook offers pages of ideas and tools, some focusing on a particular area, others broader in scope.

Next time you have that “end of a tough day” feeling, think of those in areas of the world which don’t have the buildings, the specialist training, the technology, the money or - most importantly - the political and strategic support that are available to us. Then determine to make a difference!

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