Technology becoming a great equalizer for students with special needs

By Samuel Gilstrap, LA Unified School District Daily

Students in L.A. Unified face unique challenges when it comes to achieving in the classroom – many of them dealing with disabilities that create barriers to learning or inhibit their ability to get to a classroom at all.

But high-tech devices are creating new opportunities for youngsters with limited mobility or other disabilities that may constrain their ability to learn.

Assistive technology can be – in a sense – magical,” said Kari Tapie, who coordinates the Assistive Technology Program in L.A. Unified’s Division of Special Education. “It can provide a sense of empowerment for students by virtue of their ability to do things previously believed to be impossible.”

To help educators determine what device is the most appropriate for a student, L.A. Unified is opening assistive technology “lending libraries” at locations throughout the District. More akin to a showroom than a library, the displays include models of high-tech devices that may eventually be purchased to help students access their curriculum.

Meet Christopher Leon, user of assistive technology and accomplished artist

Christopher Leon is among students that have been assisted by VGo, a robotic machine that replicates a person’s presence in a remote location. Students who are physically unable to attend school can still be present in the classroom, thanks to a wheeled machine equipped with a camera, microphone and  screen. With just the touch of a finger trigger or other input device, students can see, hear, move around and communicate.

Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at an early age, Christopher has been home bound since first grade. Thanks to the opportunity to be a “test driver” of the VGo device, he has been attending classes at Verdugo Hills High School for the past two years and is set to graduate this spring. Through the process, he has developed friendships, attended school events, and had the chance to overcome what he describes as a shy personality. He plans to be present for his graduation.

Christopher was present via his VGo device at the recent open house of the lending library at Plummer Elementary School. There, he used his device to talk about his artwork on display and his post-graduation plans.

“At first I plan to study artistic design at Santa Monica College,” he said through his screen. “Later I want to attend the Art Institute in San Francisco.”

It’s not a surprise to hear that Christopher is passionate about art. A great deal of his work was on display at the lending library. He is definitely a fan of super heroes, fantasy figures, and other colorful characters.

“Because his disability affects muscle strength and movement, Christopher has been unable to hold a pencil or turn pages in a textbook since the seventh grade,” Tapie said. “However, his disability never held him back in terms of educational progress. It is his character and curiosity that have enabled him to achieve academic success as he works to complete his course credits for graduation. Technology has certainly provided a foundation on which he has been able to do so.”

Christopher was named as the winner of the “Yes, I Can” Award in Technology by the Council for Exceptional Children in April 2015. He was more recently awarded the Every Child Succeeding Award from the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) and will be honored at a ceremony in May 2016.

“It is his artistic talent and his willingness to embrace technology has resulted in this important honor,” Tapie said. “And now thanks to a robotic device, the reciprocal experience of creating, critiquing and enhancing artistic expression between Christopher and his classmates has provided an extension of opportunities for him to grow as an artist, and also support the growth of his peers in their work.”

Christopher is among about a dozen students in L.A. Unified who are able to participate in general education classes thanks to the use of VGo technology.

Other devices on display at the lending library used technology called Eyegaze, which use eye movements to manipulate keyboards and other input devices.

“It is important to be able to spend time with each student and know what specific barriers he or she faces,” said  Brian Saavedra, an occupational therapist who specializes in finding the right assistive technology for students. “It’s one thing to read about or see images of these devices. But to appreciate fully how they function and help our students, one needs actually to interact with them in person the way our students do.”