Toward true equality of educational opportunity: unlocking the potential of assistive technology through professional development.

Author:Stead, Jonathan

    Advances in technology have the potential to allow individuals with a wide range of disabilities to participate, and even excel, in every aspect of our society. Such advances will of course be tremendously beneficial to the individuals who use them and society as a whole, by allowing individuals with disabilities to care for themselves, and contribute to society, according to their full potential. Technology has already made it possible for individuals who are unable to lift a pen or reach a keyboard to become bestselling authors, (1) and for individuals with no legs to be championship runners. (2) For each such public success story, there are many other stories of everyday people with disabilities achieving less newsworthy, but no less remarkable life goals with the help of assistive technology. (3)

    The stories we hear most are those of people who have overcome physical disabilities with the help of technological advances and intensive training. There are also many everyday stories about individuals who have overcome less visible disabilities to succeed in everyday life. (4) These success stories attest to the critical nature of timely and relevant intervention. The progress that happens daily in the field of technological support for individuals with disabilities is a critical component of this intervention. Numerous studies have shown that people who fail to learn basic skills as children, such as reading, will have a much harder time learning them later in life. (5) It should thus be self-evident that children who have disabilities that impede their ability to learn should be provided with available technology that could mitigate or even eliminate such impediments. Toward this end, current laws, in particular the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), (6) require that most assistive technology devices (7) be provided free of charge to students with disabilities, if the devices are necessary for their education. (8) When combined with the IDEA's additional requirement that students with disabilities be educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible, there is a clear legal imperative to make assistive technology available. (9) Assistive technology, however, remains underutilized in American public education. (10)

    There are many obstacles to the full utilization of assistive technology in public schools. (11) Perhaps the most prevalent, and most easily rectified, reason for the underutilization of assistive technology is ignorance on the part of education professionals of the technology that is currently available. (12) Even where there is knowledge, however, there is often reluctance to adopt technology that would require the purchase of new equipment and the retraining of staff. (13)

    In most professions, a failure to keep abreast of, and adopt, recent advances in technology could put one at a competitive disadvantage but for those involved with special education, such a failure may result in students being deprived of potentially life changing resources, to which they are entitled under the IDEA. (14) Education professionals are required to participate in continuing education; however, the subjects of their continuing education endeavors are often left to them or their schools. (15) Requiring education professionals to participate in continuing education every year regarding advances that have been made in assistive technology could greatly reduce the incidence of such IDEA violations.

    In the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the need for reform in teacher professional development is recognized. (16) However, the NCLB measures fall short of what is needed to address the issue of professional development in special education. One major problem with the NCLB is that it supports the use of student improvement on standardized tests to evaluate the quality of professional development. (17) This criterion will rarely be applicable to the training of special educators.

    Another obstacle to the full utilization of assistive technology that cannot be overlooked is that neither the IDEA, (18) nor the NCLB has been fully funded. (19) The lack of funding for the NCLB has rendered its professional development requirements much less meaningful at best, and a drain on schools' needed resources at worst. (20) The IDEA's many positive provisions have also been compromised by the government's failure to fully fund it. (21) In order to fully address this issue, teacher education must be paired with funding sufficient to provide appropriate technologies, without diverting needed funds from other programs.

    This note will propose that these issues be addressed by legislation specifically mandating that those involved in special education regularly receive training on advances in assistive technology, and increasing oversight of its use, at the federal, state, and local levels. This note will provide an overview of the legal framework that governs the education of disabled students and the implicit and explicit role of assistive technology within it, and seek to illustrate the potential impact of assistive technologies by looking at specific examples of such technologies. It will also suggest that this issue, like many others in the field of education, can only be fully addressed if federal mandates on education are fully funded, and that without such funding, the impact of any reforms will be limited.



      In 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered an end to racial segregation in public schools in the United States. (22) In the decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote of compulsory education "where the state has undertaken to provide it, it is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." (23) This decision marked a turning point in one struggle for educational equality. , However, despite the seemingly clear language of the decision, the exclusion of children with disabilities from public schools was rampant, and legal, for nearly two decades following the Brown decision. (24) Although the Brown decision did not immediately impact the education of disabled students, it has served as a foundation upon which subsequent legislation and court decisions have slowly established a right to education for disabled students.

      While the struggle to achieve educational equality for disabled children is far from over, significant progress has been made. Following the Brown decision, there were a number of efforts to apply its holding to the education of disabled students. One example is Pennsylvania Ass'n for Retarded Children v. Pennsylvania (P.A.R.C.), in which advocates for disabled children, relying on Brown, challenged the exclusion of mentally retarded children from Pennsylvania schools. (25) The Court in P.A.R.C., citing Brown, found that it had jurisdiction to approve a consent decree between the parties, because the plaintiffs had a "colorable constitutional claim" under the Equal Protection Clause. (26)

      Although there were limited legislative efforts at the federal and state level to provide education to disabled students starting in the nineteenth century, (27) the first federal legislation to guarantee disabled children an education was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (28) The Act prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities by any federally funded program. (29) Since educational institutions receive federal funding, the Rehabilitation Act effectively required them to include students with disabilities. (30)

      The next major milestones were the Education Amendments of 1974, (31) and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA). (32) The EHA established strict guidelines for states to follow in educating disabled children, and conditioned the receipt of federal funding under the EHA on the states' compliance with them. (33) The legislative history of the EHA clearly indicates that Congress considered the equal educational opportunity (34) guarantee in Brown to apply to disabled children, and that it drew on Brown, P.A.R.C., and other decisions supporting a right to education in drafting the EHA. (35) The EHA's findings include the following regarding the state of special education at the time of its passage:

      there are more than eight million handicapped children in the United States today; ... the special educational needs of such children are not being fully met; ... more than half of the handicapped children in the United States do not receive appropriate educational services which would enable them to have full equality of opportunity; ... one million of the handicapped children in the United States are excluded entirely from the public school system and will not go through the educational process with their peers. (36) These numbers are a stark reminder that the wide availability of special education is a relatively recent development.

      The first federal legislation regarding assistive technologies was the 1988 Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act. (37) The program provided grants that states could use to promote the use of technological assistance for individuals with disabilities. (38) It also provided a legal definition of assistive technology. (39) In 1990, the Act's definition was included in the IDEA, an expansion and reauthorization of the EHA, which Congress passed that year. (40)

      The EHA, and now the IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be provided a "free appropriate public education," (FAPE) which it defines, in part, as an education provided in conformance with the procedures set forth in the IDEA. (41) These procedures include a requirement that schools, in cooperation with parents, create a written individualized education program (IEP) for every student who requires special...

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