UNICEF has revealed that three quarters of an estimated 5.1 million children with disabilities in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia have fewer opportunities than their classmates due to a lack of quality, inclusive education. The 2019 report states that millions of children in these areas don’t attend school. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities are segregated from their peers and sent to ‘special’ schools. 

Afshan Khan, the UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia says: “For a child living with a disability, access to assistive technology can mean the difference between a life of exclusion and isolation to getting an education and reaching their full potential.”

In the US, the National Education Association (NEA) reports the number of US students enrolled in special education programmes has risen by 30 per cent over the past ten years. The educational needs of children are changing, and the digital world must innovate to ensure technology is accessible and customisable to the needs of the learner. 

Assistive learning technology is defined as being any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual's specific learning deficits. Innovation in the area of assistive technologies (AT) is helping to bridge the education gap, and ensure that all children can achieve digital competency and literacy. 

AssistiveWare is one of the leading assistive technology pioneers, and the company was created twenty years ago to help the founder’s friend who was left paralysed following a car accident. David Niemeijer developed an on-screen computer keyboard to support his friend’s changing needs. Amongst the company’s suite of products, it has an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app, Proloquo4Text, which helps people to communicate if they can write but can’t speak. It uses intuitive word and sentence prediction anticipating what the person might want to say next. It is also customisable, allowing the user to save down their favourite and most frequently used phrases, as well as choosing their ‘voice’ from 130 options across 18 languages. 

For children with paralysis and fine motor skill disabilities, sip-and-puff systems have been innovated to assist their learning. A device is moved by the child’s mouth, and in a similar vein to a joystick, it can be moved in any direction and click on navigational tools. On-screen keyboards can also be controlled by applying a sip or a puff.

In the US, an AT tool called BookShare is providing customisable e-books for pupils with reading barriers. With over 693,000 books to choose from, people with blindness, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and other reading difficulties can enjoy reading in formats that are easy for them. This is achieved by adjusting the reading font and colour, applying word-level highlighting, reading in braille,  or even listening to books with high-quality audio.

For older pupils, writing tools such as Draft:Builder  helps them to break down the writing process in to three steps; outlining, note taking and draft writing. The programme uses a graphical organiser, which helps students slot information in to the right place, and then uses an automated process to help the student create the end paper. 

AT can help enrich the education of all children with learning difficulties. All children have the right to a good education, regardless of their abilities, county of birth, or wealth. However, access to these technologies and the internet is key in order to give all children the same start in life.  UNICEF estimates that access to assistive technologies in low-income countries could be as low as 5-15 per cent. Barriers are believed to be a lack of production and services in those countries, not enough trained professionals, and a lack of awareness about these types of technologies. 

Governments, the private sector, education sector, and technologists need to collaborate to ensure assistive technology is affordable, achievable and accessible to all who need it. 

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