Understanding Technology & Accommodations for Students
By Emerson Dickman, JD
Because I am an advocate, many parents come into my office seeking accommodations for their child: extra time to get all of his thoughts out; a computer because of his handwriting; a reader because he reads slowly; a scribe because he has trouble getting his thoughts on paper; a quiet place because he is distractible, and regular breaks because he fatigues. Given enough accommodations, one could almost take the SAT in a coma. I am, of course, exaggerating and being purposefully inflammatory to catch your attention. In many cases, accommodations are appropriate and necessary. However, a child with a broken leg is not cured by a crutch alone. The hope is that the crutch will not always be needed. It would be a great mistake to view technology, as many do, as a tool for accommodations alone. Technology also offers incredible promise for new and effective intervention, remediation, and compensatory support.
There are right and a wrong way to use accommodations. To understand the role of accommodations it is necessary to understand the term disability as it is used in the field of learning disabilities. Neurocognitive deficits are shared by all individuals with so-called learning disabilities. Such deficits predictably interfere with the development of skills required by the time and culture in which they live. Only when a deficit has a negative impact on one’s ability to enjoy life or be productive does it become a disability. Most individuals with dyslexia share a deficit in phonological processing. However, that deficit results in a disability only if it interferes with one’s ability to access the vocabulary and background knowledge buried in books. A deficit without negative consequences is not a disability. For example, a sense of direction and the ability to track and shoot game to feed our families (essential skills 400 years ago) are no longer critical to our survival. The ability to dance, sing, or play a musical instrument were never critical (thank goodness!). However, to survive in the world of today, among other skills, we must know how to read.
A neurocognitive deficit, such as phonological processing, that places the development of a critical skill, such as the ability to read, at risk, can be responded to in a variety of ways:
1. Intervention is a response to the early identification that predicts the risk of a disability. Intervention is an attempt to preclude the development of the disability; just as a road that is purposefully built to withstand predictably harsh climactic conditions prevents the development of potholes. Due to such intervention, the predictable negative consequences of such a climate are avoided.
2. Remediation is necessary when intervention has not occurred. Remediation is somewhat more difficult than intervention because the risk has been realized and the child is experiencing the disability and the sense of failure concomitant to the disability. However, remediation does fill in the pothole. We can see where the pothole was and there may be telltale rough spots, but we can also walk over it as if it never existed.
3. Compensatory strategies may be required when neither intervention nor remediation adequately address the disability. For instance, memory deficits are difficult to remediate. I used to carry a digital recorder because my own memory has limited capacity (it is an older model). Alas, I could never remember to bring it with me. Compensatory strategies don’t fix the pothole, but they let you know where it is and how to get around it (if you remember to bring them with you).
4. Accommodations are never a substitute for effective intervention, remediation, or the development of compensatory strategies. Accommodations require someone else to help you around the pothole, such as a boss who provides a quiet room or extra time to complete a task. Properly used, accommodations support and promote independence and empowerment. Overused, accommodations are enablers that result in dependence and a sense of helplessness.
The promise of technology is virtually unlimited. It can be used to provide and supplement early intervention and remediation, and it can be used as a compensatory tool. The quality of our lives is, in many ways, a measure of the quality of our accumulated knowledge. If we do not read, we do not accumulate knowledge. If we cannot read, books on tape are an accommodation that is capable of revealing to us the vocabulary and background knowledge that can only be found in the written text. If we are not accommodated by having the text read to us while we are acquiring the skill to hunt it down on our own, we will fall behind in building the foundation necessary to support the promise of our potential. Intervention and remediation are intended to be permanent, accommodations temporary, and compensatory strategies available for use as needed. Technology has the potential to offer a sense of personal control and empowerment that, in turn, motivates the initiative, persistence, and resilience necessary to overcome the deficit and avoid the disability.
Dickman, G.E., (2007). Technology and Accommodations. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 33, 3 at p. 5 (G. Emerson Dickman, President