When my younger brother was little, his special education teachers gave him a large, bulky device to help him communicate and verbalize what was always stuck in his head. He could form sentences through words and pictures, and then click on the large white box at the top of the screen for a monotone voice to read out what he put together. Of course, given my brother’s sense of humor, he enjoyed making silly sentences and blasting them at full volume for all to hear. In addition to adding humor, his device helped him sound out words that we could not understand, making him a more confident speaker.
My brother was diagnosed with autism far before the world of iPads, iPods, iTouches, and i-Everything elses. He had always been interested in technology, and his school enjoyed testing different types with their students. Recently, there have been more and more articles published about apple products being used for special education purposes, helping to “deepen engagement, communication, and creativity” in classrooms around the world. I find the most interesting use of this application in the special ed. music curriculum.
A PS 177 music instructor in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, New York uses tablet computers to reach his students with disabilities. The entire band is made up of students who all play traditional musical instruments and iPads. Yes, that’s right – they play iPads. The iPad now has applications that allow people to produce complicated orchestral-style arrangements, allowing people to play all kinds of different instruments at the same time with just a push of a button. Instead of having to learn the intricacies of different instruments, students can play with the sound of different notes in creating music. This is especially close to my heart because my brother has always loved creating music.
This iPad revolution is not exclusive to the United States. On June 4th of this year, an exceptional educator from the United Arab Emirates received an award for “bridging gaps between children with special needs and their classmates by creating the first electronic tablet orchestra that includes children with special needs in the UAE.” This teacher, Hanan Al Attar, is a music supervisor at the Sharja Education Zone, and agrees that replacing traditional musical instruments with the iPad is a good solution to a short supply of instruments. Her orchestra is comprised of 68 children with both mental and physical disabilities.
Why are iPads so effective for special needs children? Educators believe that the combination of clear, big, and bright visual cues coupled with the easy-to-use touchscreen make it simple for kids to use without creating a visual or sensory overload. The iPad has therefore been significant in changing the way that people look at others with disabilities. Karen Gorman, the director of Assistive Technology for New York City’s Public Schools, and Hanan Al Attar agree that people are starting to look at the talent of students rather than at their disabilities.
Apple has published a video themselves to highlight their great contribution to the special needs community. The video profiles three schools, one in the Czech Republic, one in Japan, and one New York’s District 75, the world’s largest special education district. In all three locations, there seems to be an emphasis on “the individual learner.” Special needs students each have a wide range of abilities and disabilities, and each must therefore have a specialized education plan for maximum success. The iPad has allowed students to learn socially through different virtual games and simulations. Activities in such activities include washing their hands before eating or turning off the stove before leaving the room. The iPad can also perform the same function as my brother’s old device, allowing students to form words and sentences via pictures and sounds. Apple claims that their product has the potential to make the nonverbal verbal, and to enhance the social, emotional, and academic performance of special needs students across the world.
Though the iPad is more expensive than individual instruments, I completely agree with its use in a special needs music classroom as well as its use in other special education classes. The special needs community is a part of the student population that is often times segregated into separate schools, even though students greatly range in their abilities in each school. I think that the iPad has the potential to promote an individualized education and special attention to students, as well as expose them to the new technologies that are being exposed to all students across the mainstream and disabled spectra. As technology continues to change, educators and policy makers should use it to their advantage in promoting new learning opportunities. And these opportunities should clearly not be exclusive to the mainstream population.