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The Power and Role of Technology in the Field of Learning Disabilities

Many excellent paper-based tools exist to teach reading to students with learning disabilities (LD), and for years, educators have relied on them. At the LDA conference in Jacksonville last week (February, 2011), I decided to explore the power and role of technologies such as digital books and content in addition to paper-based approaches in the LD field. The consensus of the hundred-plus educators attending my session entitled “Get Ready for Digital Books” was that the LD profession recognizes that digital books and content are here. The question is not “are you ready,” or do you want to incorporate digital content,” but “how quickly can you incorporate digital content in your instruction.”  One attendee described how she had given a student an assignment and he came back the next day, with “Hi, Mrs. Teacher! Look what I found on the Internet.” I’m sure this scenario happens again and again.

Nothing can replace the basic instruction in phonemes, word structure, comprehension, etc. that educators provide. However ideally, armed with these essentials, LD students will be equipped to discover, and read, content on their own, from books, digital books, the Internet, or any source. Along with the essentials, it would be beneficial if learning disabilities professionals would also teach students how they can read beyond their school assignments.  Not just the mechanics of reading, but also about the options and sources of materials that they can read.  Digital books from a variety of sources are excellent options for many LD students and have the potential to turn an LD student who can handle the mechanics into a reader.

Teaching students how they can read will remove the labels, the barriers, and stigmas. When students know about all the options for reading, their “disabilities” will no longer be disabilities, but will become preferences, like choosing to read a book on a Kindle, or buying a paperback vs. hard copy from a bookstore, or reading on a computer or iPad with books from a source such as Bookshare, or checking books out from library.  Labels won’t be necessary and self-esteem will grow. I envision a world in which students with learning disabilities don’t have to state, “I have a learning disability;” rather they will say, “I read best with ….,” filling in the blank with their preferred reading medium. Technology can make this vision come true. Knowing one’s preferred medium can begin at a young age, as young as elementary school.

Several educators working with students with learning disabilities shared ideas about using technology. Here are a few:

–          Projecting a digital book on a SmartBoard in a classroom of students with learning disabilities and using the capabilities of the SmartBoard to study words, practice word attack skills, and discuss meaning

–          Writing a grant to raise funds to equip a school library with digital books and the technology to access them

–          Buying iPads, or writing a grant to buy iPads to use with LD students. (There was lots of excitement about the potential of iPads for students with many different disabilities.)

Educators, please continue the great work you do using the many excellent educational methodologies and tools. Then think about how technology will make your students’ lives easier and allow them to take the foundation you’ve given them and explore the world. Show them other ways to read, beyond words on a printed page.

And please comment and contribute your ideas and best practices incorporating technology into learning disabilities.

P.S. While discussing technology in the field of learning disabilities, I want to briefly mention one tool for teachers – not students – that I would have loved to have had when I was tutoring an LD student about 10 years ago. I used to make his pattern recognition worksheets, one-by-one, on my computer. This tool would have saved me many hours!  It will automatically generate individualized lesson plans using the Orton-Gillingham approach.  Check it out!


  1. Jim McCarthy

    I manage a program to provide accessible electronic books to students in higher education throughout the state of Maryland. Those who have learning disabilities tend not to be aware of reading devices like the Classmate from HumanWare or similar products. Many do seem to know of k3,000 but little else. In contrast, blind students are very aware of the hardware and software tools they might use to access these materials. I am not an expert on learning disabilities, though I continue to learn a lot. It is probable that reliance on paper tools by professionals in the field explains why students come to college with little knowledge of the technologies they might use to gain access while in higher education..

    • Betsy Burgess

      Interesting insight! Thanks for contributing. I wonder how that can be changed.

      • Deborah Armstrong

        The reason more blind people know about the coolest gizmos is because we like to read. As the lives of LD students change, and they discover that reading isn’t painful, they’ll start keeping up with technology solutions too.
        We should encourage LD students to get videos up on YouTube showing them succeeding with technology! Deaf and blind people have pride, but the LD community too often hides.
        It is important to realize blind people have less to figure out. We either use speech, large print and/or Braille. LD students need to discover strategies, usually by experimenting on their own to blaze a trail towards comprehension. Some need to close their eyes and listen. Some need to listen while pacing around or doing housework. Some need to focus on the highlight that follows the onscreen text. Some need to block out all but a few lines of text at a time. Some need to look at the book while it is being read out loud. Some need more breaks. Some need to stop and write things down. Learning differences are just that — DIFERENCES! I have the feeling that many teachers unconsciously promote their own favorite methods over equally valid others.
        As for most having a greater awareness of Kurzweil, that’s just marketing. My students know all about iPods, but frequently don’t realize that the cheap, shrink-wrapped music player in the local drugstore will work nearly as well for playing mp3 files. Better in fact, because if you loose a $10 player, you can easily afford a new one!
        Shame on teachers who insist on Kurzweil without showing students the low-cost and admitedly less effective solutions out there. Not everyone can drive a Lexis!

        • Betsy Burgess

          Debee, as always, thanks for the great comment

  2. […] Bookshare also attended the Learning Disabilities Association Conference in Jacksonville, FL.  Here too, we were excited to speak with many families and educators and to provide a very popular training session on accessible e-books and the role of technology in the field of learning disabilities.   In fact, it prompted our Director of Outreach to post a thought provoking blog post that you can read here! […]

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