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Assistive technology the focus of U.S. Education roundtable

Federal official seeks success stories, calls meeting 'a chance to learn from you'

9/19/2012
Sue Swenson, an official with the U.S. Department of Education, speaks about assistive technology at CU Denver

By Chris Casey | University Communications

DENVER - When a parent of a dyslexic boy explained how her son's academic scores dramatically improved when he began using Dragon Speak, a software program that converts the spoken word into text, a federal official wanted the story heard at the highest levels of government.

"The president would like to know that story," said Sue Swenson (photo above), deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. "You need to send it to me."

Swenson attended a roundtable discussion with parents and transition-aged students with disabilities as part of the Department of Education's third annual back-to-school bus tour. The coast-to-coast tour is in Colorado and Tuesday's meeting at Assistive Technology Partners was sponsored by ATP, part of the School of Medicine, and PEAK Parent Center.

Swenson said Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, suggested the Mile High City as a site to discuss assistive technology because of pioneering programs offered by ATP and PEAK. "Denver is the first place to be, because we think there is a chance for us in the federal government to learn something from you," Swenson said. "How we can be doing better, what can we be doing differently. How can we be supporting these programs so they will work better for you."

Swenson heard from students with disabilities and their parents from across the state. About 40 people attended the roundtable where Swenson stressed that assistive technologies are helping unlock the intelligence and ambitions of disabled students in myriad ways.

"We are very focused on the president's directive that the United States will be better at getting kids out of high school into college and into careers," she said. "That fits very well with the transition goals we all have for young people with disabilities."

The success stories ranged from students benefiting from Bookshare, which allows them to access multitudes of books, to technology that allow those with significant physical disabilities to speak through software programs. Max, a high school graduate from Aspen, explained through the computer-voice device, that he's been using technology to speak and learn since he was three-years old.

"I have been able to do things that no one thought was possible ... My parents always had to advocate for me to keep (school officials) from putting me in a special room on my own," Max said. "The problem was they did not know ways to teach me along side everyone else because it was never done before. But over time, the teachers saw how I was learning."

A parent of a young man with intellectual disabilities explained how Microsoft Paint helped her son. "He had some very severe, violent behavior and the art is what really changed his life and he's no longer violent. He's very calm. That expression made a huge difference in his life."

Technological advances show promise for more breakthroughs, advocates agreed, but the rub remains tight budgets and limited training for teachers who are tasked with making sure learning needs are met.

Cathy Bodine, executive director of Assistive Technology Partners, said less than 14 percent of licensed teachers have any assistive technology training in college. "There is a desperate need .... but even if AT is offered as an elective, teachers can't take it because they've got so many other requirements they're mandated to take in order to be teachers. I think the Department of Education can have a huge impact nationally on what is happening with technology in the schools just by shifting those (credential) pieces around."

Swenson said the room full of parents and students is "enough power to change what happens" but that it will take coordinated advocacy to the Legislature and Congress. "There is enough variation in the stories to completely change how the Legislature looks at the problem of bringing assistive technology to kids."

She wrote her email address on the white board, sue.swenson@ed.gov, and told people to keep the stories coming.

"We need to have a culture around assistive technology in a school," Swenson said. "It's not just, 'Here's the thing my kid wants,' but it's about how do we build a culture where all of the kids have what they need. That's really what the question is."

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Contact: christopher.casey@ucdenver.edu 

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