Lessons of Hope

By: Dr. Raymond Heipp


For the 41st year, Teachers, Special Education Directors, Therapists, and so many others gathered in Minneapolis for the Closing the Gap Conference. This conference brings together people from all over the world for presentations and discussions that focus on multiple aspects of assistive technology and pedagogical applications. For four days of crisp fall weather, people came together and shared their ideas and devices which help so many individuals. Allow me to share some of the discussions which reverberated through the halls of the conference.

The first topic that came up in a number of places focused on products and devices that the students would want to use. The issue seen in many schools throughout the country is that some individuals do not wish to stand out to their peers and become resistant to utilizing certain products or devices. Even at the cost of not having the proper support or accessibility, some individuals would prefer to remain as anonymous as possible.

How do we make assistive technology as inconspicuous as possible? In my presentation, I addressed this idea by speaking about how to create a level of transparency with assistive devices, as well as incorporating sensory supports for all students. Talking with others as well, we described how the start of the process begins. We want to start incorporating various devices into usage within inclusive classrooms in the early years. Simple activities like using a Quick Talker as a way of having books “on tape” allowing all students to “read to themselves,” having a “You Are Awesome” Big Mack in your office, or utilizing Talking Brix2s as a way to have directions or other information at locations in the classroom can have lasting effects on demonstrating how those devices are simply technology which anyone can use.

Another topic on people’s minds was the ability to use devices for more than just one individual or one activity. This follows from our thoughts above. Because most devices are used in specific instances or only with specific individuals, the training for alternative uses of these devices is almost non-existent. This under-utilization of devices leads to cabinets full of assistive technology that are simply collecting dust. There really are many ways those devices can make a difference in the classroom. When you have questions about those cabinets full of these devices or want some other ideas as to how you can turn your current devices into multi-purpose devices, feel free to reach out to me. There are so many things that you can do with those devices and be able to work on desensitizing neurotypical individuals to the use of those devices.

One topic which was part of many presentations and had people talking was the usage of sensory supports and how they can best be shared by all students. Understanding the variety of sensory tools and promoting the use of the proper tool for each student is critical here. Using sensory tools which are both socially and classroom appropriate, along with the right tool for the individual will be of the highest benefit. Another important point to consider is the use of sensory tools for better focus and attention in both therapy settings and classroom settings. Again, you want to consider those sensory tools which are non-disruptive and simply provide sensory input.

An important discussion for many of us surrounded the proper support and training of teachers and therapists. We need to make sure that our professionals are not left to fend for themselves when having to introduce or support their individuals with devices. There are so many great trainers who do so much for overall training. Individuals like Kelly Fonner, Mo Buti, and Kelli Suding provide schools with professionals who share their experience and make it understandable for all. You also want to work with groups who will supply the training you need for specific devices like utilizing the experience of our own Jodi Szuter who understands all the intricacies of various types of reading pens and is an expert with the Cosmo. The critical piece is to find someone who is respected in the field and not aligned to a specific product or manufacturer so that you can have the best support tailored to your needs.

When we look at better understanding how we can use the technology in multiple manners and create environments which are supportive of our students through sensory tools, we find that our schools can be both a safe space, as well as a space which gives all the opportunity for access to learning. When we use those devices that are already in the classroom, we are maintaining levels of familiarity for both the teachers and the students. So even if we change the routine of how we use them, the change is not as overwhelming as in the introduction of new devices. Teachers have such amazing abilities, if we can just give them the tools and proper support around those tools, their classrooms become an even more arena of excellence.

The hope surrounding these ideas is real. As I spoke with so many, we agreed that there is so much potential in the future. By utilizing the ESSER III funds, looking ahead for how we can best support our students, and using the networks we have developed, we can enhance what we are doing and make the world a more accessible place for all.


Posted in SH Special Education Today Newsletter