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Accessibility: Empowering students with special needs


I must introduce you to Mr. Stephen Hackett a special education teacher in Virginia. I met Stephen just my connecting on Twitter. I saw all of the amazing posts he was creating featuring his students. I enjoyed watching the gains both big and small that he was documenting on his feed. As a former special education teacher, I had to reach out to him and learn more about his story. You will inspired and encouraged by the end of this article to find a way to empower all learners in your class!

“We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person” – Stevie Wonder

As teachers, our students are ‘our people’. I teach students with severe disabilities, and to me, making their day accessible is the foundation of my teaching and to their learning. There is dignity in the ability to have access to opportunities. Creating opportunities changes lives.

Students using eye gaze and actual objects to communicate.
Students using eye gaze and actual objects to communicate.

Creative Instruction

I create most of the instructional materials for my students. These vary from PowerPoint books with boardmaker symbols and audio, to eye-gaze assessments for students with visual impairments. I get to know my students before I make anything. Paper can only tell you so much about a student. They are always changing. Also, remember to collaborate with other professionals in your school community. There is a world beyond your school! Some students are visual learners and may require materials that are high-contrast. Other students can benefit from materials that are tactile.

If you have equipment that changes a students’ positioning, use it! An assessment or lesson could be taught/given in an activity chair or a stander with a built-in tray. Use of a stander can help a student in their physical needs areas. It can give them a different perspective during an activity (especially for a student who is a wheelchair user). Be creative! The only way you will know if something does or does not work is if you try.

Student in stander receiving instruction
Student in stander receiving instruction

Time for a break!

Students need time and space to take a break during their school day. These breaks can be more fun with the right tools and spaces. I often take my students to our adapted playground. Our playground has adapted swings. What makes them accessible is a built-in harness and a deeper seat. The playground also has musical instruments. Some of these are electronic. Electronic musical sounds can be activated by a student with a single switch input device. I plug the switch into the device, the student touches the switch, and it plays the notes. Pretty nifty!

Students using manipulatives and eye gaze adapted switches to interact with content.
Students using manipulatives and eye gaze adapted switches to interact with content.

Back to equipment

Some of my students can use an adapted trike or stander with wheels that they can move around independently with their hands. “Independence” and “access” are two words that go hand in hand when thinking about students with special needs. These words should drive your instruction.

Most of the tech in my classroom is based on the concept of cause/effect. A switch is plugged into a device. The student touches/ grabs/pulls the switch (yes, switches are not just buttons!). This then activates the device. Switches are tailored to the individual needs of the student. One of my students uses head switches as he uses his head intentionally to make choices. These switches are attached to the headrest on his wheelchair. These head switches can be a good way for students to turn the pages on an electronic book or to make a choice on an assessment (Answer A or Answer B).Communication is broad and that is OK we are all learning together.

Students using adapted playground material to have fun.
Students using adapted playground material to have fun.

Remember that access is about your students, and what works for you may not work for them.

Finding what is expedient may make their day more stressful. Also, what works for one student may not work for another. Instruction must be individualized for students with special needs. Being a quality special needs teacher is about being able to adapt the materials, environment and your mindset so that your students are successful.

Stephen Hackett is a teacher of students with severe disabilities, team lead and teacher mentor at Lake Ridge Elementary school (Prince William County, VA). He has taught previously at both high and middle school levels.

Stephen earned his MA in History from University College Cork, Ireland, and his M.Ed. from George Mason University, VA. His teaching endorsement is in special education (adapted curriculum, k-12).

Stephen’s professional Twitter page handle is @stephenhacket19

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