Whether at home or at school, ICT can play a major role in enabling young people to achieve their potential whether or not they have a disability or specific learning difficulties, says Adam Waits, lead assessor (children and young adults) at national computing and disability charity, AbilityNet.

For a child with special educational needs, a computer can be both friend and foe. When the traditional methods of recording, reporting, retrieving and presenting work may pose problems, a correctly adapted PC can provide an invaluable aid to communication, facilitate curriculum access, promote independence and aid inclusion. But all too often a limitation in a child’s abilities is assumed to be an unavoidable barrier to effective ICT access.

A flexible tool
In most cases it is not the individual pupil that causes the limitation, but the design and management of the interface to the computer. The size, needs and abilities of the end-user are not quite as predictable as the almost universal provision of the standard keyboard, mouse and monitor set-up would suggest. It is not always an appropriate solution and, as a result, pupils can be uncomfortable as well as unproductive, a situation which is unlikely to have a positive outcome on their attitude or output. Fortunately, a modern computer is an immensely flexible tool, and there are a wide range of adaptations and alternatives that can be used to fit the computer to the user.

Making the ‘right choice’ Making the right choice from the huge selection of practical alternative and adaptive hardware and software now available, can bridge the apparent gap and prove that the so called ‘disability’ is not in the student, but in the way they are expected to use computer equipment. It is essential that schools are aware of what is available and what is possible, and subscribe to the basic principle that a computer should be, and can be, adapted to its user’s needs and not the other way round.

The field of adaptive technology is constantly expanding with a steady stream of new products coming on to the market. Whilst some of the ‘high-end’ solutions may seem expensive and complex, there are plenty of helpful, productive and easy-to-implement modifications that cost little or nothing. Where budgets are under strain and funds for new equipment difficult to unlock, awareness of these adaptations is particularly crucial.

Modifications that cost little or nothing
For those pupils who present physical or visual disabilities, dyslexia or cognitive difficulties, or perhaps a combination of several problems, there is not a single discrete solution for each providing the answer for their particular computing situation.

Some simple adaptations can be helpful in a number of different contexts. For example, a child with visual impairment may need to increase the size of various icons including the red corner button (this can be effected through the control panel). A child with cerebral palsy may struggle with a mouse to hit small targets because of lack of control over fine motor movements and benefit equally from icon or button enlargement.

Symbols rather than words
Children with dyslexia will normally find symbols easier to deal with than words, so encouraging them to use the icon-based instructions on the toolbar, rather than the drop-down menu-based options will be a much more effective means of working.

Easier on the eyes
Choose the colour scheme of the screen to best suit the needs of the user. White may not be the best choice. Children with visual impairment or dyslexia may benefit from changing the colour combination. Eye strain can be avoided too by selecting bigger and clearer font styles and sizes. Arial, for example, is much ‘cleaner’ than Times Roman. A sans serif script is almost always easier to read. Fonts like Courier can also be helpful as they have equally spaced letters so the length of the word reflects the number of characters it contains.

If a child is struggling with complex websites involving multiple columns and text in strange colour combinations, the format of what appears on the screen can be adjusted so that it adopts a more readable appearance. Some changes to readability can be effected by simply increasing the text size of websites through the view menu of Internet Explorer. More comprehensive changes to web page colours, font style, colour and size can be made through the web browser options. Further information on how to make these changes can be found in the skillsheets on the AbilityNet website: ‘Choosing your preferred colours in your browser’ and ‘Choosing your preferred text style in your browser’.
More detailed assistance to help adapt a website’s appearance would require additional software. One such package is Webwide, available from Widgit Software, which can provide text to speech, simplify the layout of multiple column web pages and even provide symbol-supported text.

Readability can also be enhanced by using 1.5 or double-line spacing. Teaching children the keystroke alternatives to effect a change in spacing can speed things up considerably: simply block the text and use Ctrl1 for single spacing, Ctrl 2 for double and Ctrl 5 for 1.5.

Finding the right word
Searching for and spelling the right word for every occasion is a challenge for any child, but particularly those with specific learning difficulties. The MS Word Thesaurus can be a major ally here. Finding and spelling ‘gigantic’ is easy! Just type ‘ big’ into your document and press shift and F7, which immediately provides a wide range of alternatives ready to go!

Help with spelling
For students with literacy difficulties, there are some helpful techniques to aid accuracy. One such feature in MS Word will automatically correct misspellings and is called AutoCorrect. You can add your own typical mis-spellings to AutoCorrect and these will then automatically be changed as you type. Additional software can help check for homophones – packages like ‘Sounds-Write’ from the Ace Centres, which costs about £30.

Text to speech
When a child has trouble reading text on the screen, either due to visual impairment or literacy difficulties, text-to-speech software can prove invaluable. You can download a simple text-to-speech package which will read back your work, revealing errors that may otherwise be missed, even by a spell checker. Such ‘freebies’ are available from www.readplease.com  and www.naturalreaders.com which will also read from the internet.

An option available at www.wordtalk. org.uk provides you with a ‘plug-in’ – an additional toolbar which also usefully highlights the speech as it reads and also features a talking spellchecker.

More comprehensive packages, such as TextHelp Read and Write, Claroread and Dolphin Tutor, aimed at secondary-aged students and adults, begin at around £120. More information can be found from www.texthelp.com , www.clarosoftware.com or www.dolphinedu.com

Word prediction
For less than £100, you can also obtain word prediction software – that will ‘guess’ what you are about to type and offer to complete the word or phrase for you with a number of apposite choices. Words and expressions can be added to the programme relevant to particular curriculum subjects or projects in hand. Packages such as Penfriend and Co Writer are ‘intelligent’ and will grow their vocabulary to coincide with the pattern of usage. They can also ‘learn’ new words from pertinent websites and documents with appropriate vocabulary quickly and easily.

Select and control the pointing device
‘Hunt the mouse’ is not a game a visually impaired child enjoys. Avoid wasting time by making use of both pointer trails, the mouse pointer locator in ‘mouse options’. Enlarge the mouse. If you can’t make it big enough you can download additional large or high contrast mouse pointers from www.ace-centre.org.uk or www.dolphincomputeraccess.com 

The mouse is not the easiest piece of equipment to manipulate, particularly if a child has minor motor problems and finds fine hand movements difficult. You can re-tune a mouse to suit a left-handed user, you can slow down its reactions, including the double click, or even change its functionality altogether, depending on what is required – the pupil should be in control of the computer, not the other way around.
If interactive activity involving a mouse is uncomfortable – such as holding down the mouse buttons to ‘drag’ copy or move images, particularly the case for children with motor and coordination difficulties, then using Click Lock is a useful feature of the Windows Operating System. This allows you to highlight or drag without holding down the mouse button. A short press of the mouse buttons will activate this feature, another will release it. This feature can be activated from the mouse options in the control panel.

Alternatively, you can purchase a mouse, trackerball or joystick with a third ‘drag-lock’ button, which eliminates the need for the pupil to keep their finger on the button continuously.  Starting at around £60, these can be a very worthwhile purchase. And while we’re on the subject of mice and pointing devices, remember that little hands need little mice; grappling with adult-sized equipment will not be helpful for any primary school child!

Keystroke alternatives
If mouse use is particularly problematic, avoid it altogether: there are keystroke commands for virtually everything a mouse can do and they are often faster as well as easier on the hands, paying immediate dividends. Check www.abilitynet.org.uk for a full breakdown. Some of the most useful include:

Ctrl+S – Saves document Ctrl+P – Prints document Alt+F4 – Exits current application F1 – Displays on-line help for most Windows applications

Alt+tab – Cycles between open applications

Accessibility options within Windows
There are many accessibility options within a Windows environment, which can make a crucial difference to comfort and productivity without involving any additional equipment at all. Many software programmes require you to press two or three keys down simultaneously, an impossible task for the one-fingered or mouthstick user, or those who have limited reach or a general lack of coordination. Sticky Keys allows you to press one key at a time in succession and instructs Windows to respond as if the keys had been pressed simultaneously.

Other features such as SlowKeys, FilterKeys or RepeatKeys adjust the sensitivity of the keyboard in other ways which can be a great help to those children with dexterity problems causing slow reaction times or tremors. You can, for example, stop repetitions caused by holding a character down for too long by slowing down the repeat time or eliminating it altogether.

Relax while you type
A useful piece of equipment costing well under £100 is the keyguard – an indispensable piece of kit for a child with a motor difficulty or muscle-wasting condition. It enables the pupil to lean onto the keyboard while they type or reach for keys without fear of additional keys being pressed.

Customise computers independently
A new internet site devised by AbilityNet, called My Computer, My Way (www.abilitynet.org.uk/myway), provides free, helpful hints and guidelines to enable teachers to customise computers independently. Supported by Microsoft, the site offers a simple and user-friendly route to understanding and adjusting the existing software settings – simple modifications which can make a crucial difference to the end user.

Also available on the AbilityNet website at www.abilitynet.org.uk is a comprehensive range of free skill and fact sheets covering all the information in this article and much more besides.

AbilityNet offers free information and advice from 10 offices nationwide including a dedicated Education Centre in Cambridge. It provides training and consultancy services to individual pupils, schools and local authorities.

For further details check www.abilitynet.org.uk or call AbilityNet’s freephone helpline on: 0800 269545.