Technology As a Prosthetic: Opening New Educational Doors for Disabled Children

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

In the USA every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education regardless of ethnic background, disabling condition or socioeconomic level. In the last part of the 20th Century, federal legislation ensured that all disabled children had a right to a free and appropriate public education. The contributions of disabled people in America has been tremendous, from Thomas Edison, Franklin Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking to Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Helen Keller, disabled people have enriched our society. Deaf people, blind people, cerebral palsied people and mentally challenged people have enriched our lives though their accomplishments.

Many of these young people have done well in regular classrooms with average learners. Others have had to have special programs and may from time to time be in separate classes or even individual tutoring. Learning comes through our sensory input, especially our sight and hearing. However the human mind is a marvelous thing that can compensate for distortions in our sensory inputs. Think with me for a moment about how we might reach a deaf blind infant. True, there are cochlear implants that might give the child a form of hearing. There have been experiments with ocular implants, but these have not been practical to date. How then will a deaf blind infant know his or her world? They must know their world primarily through the sense of touch, taste and smell. Unlike sight and hearing, touch, taste and smell are near senses.

Signs, codes, speech and language begin in the average baby very early. The baby cries when she is wet or hungry, and her crying stimulates the mother to feed her. The baby soon stops crying when she is picked up, in anticipation of being fed.  Then the mother begins to make small talk as she prepares to feed the baby. This small talk begins to allow the baby to anticipate being fed, and she calms down and even begins sucking. As the caregiver talks more and more to the baby, the foundations for communications are established.

With blind babies, we find them relating to the auditory speech that is in their environment. Their challenge is mostly mobility, that is, how to position themselves in space. In effect, how does a blind child understand up from down without visual cues? They can and do develop auditory communication skills. Cerebral palsied children develop a receptive communication skill even though they may have difficulty expressing themselves.

Technology as a prosthetic device opens new educational doors for many disabled children. A cochlear implant enables a deaf child if it works to develop almost normal speech and language. Computer aided speech gives a severely paralyzed individual, such as Stephen Hawking, speech. Computer screens with text can change the type font and brightness that make it possible for some visually impaired learners to read.

Technology does two things for the disabled learner: (1) It can be a prosthetic device that modifies the disability, and (2) it can enrich the learning environment so that it is a more level field for all learners.

Learning on a team through a learning game, the system does not know whether I am black, Hispanic, from China, deaf, male or female, living in a New York penthouse or in an isolated rural community in a desert on the New Mexico border. Technology can and must become the great equalizer, the force that gives every learner the chance to be all they can be.

When Alice (in Wonderland) said, “There’s no use trying, one can’t believe impossible things,” the White Queen replied, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Technology if used wisely allows us to accomplish our impossible dreams.

Every child in the world is entitled to the best education the world can offer.

The 125,000,000 children in the world today without a teacher and without a classroom may soon have an opportunity to learn through technology. The price of one day of war in the world could do much to ensure this impossible dream becomes a reality.

2 Responses

  1. One of the joys of my life, was to try to help a student not be identified as special education because with technology I could show his skills. He won a computer for me, my first.
    Another joy was to work with students in special education situations and to inspire, bring them forward and to change their attitudes about school. A student I taught who was not supposed to be able to talk, grabbed my hand one day and said..
    I am ssooooo interested in space science education. Many small miracles happened when with the use of technology I was able to individualize and customize education.

  2. Thanks for the article, Frank, and for your comment, Bonnie. While I have some gut qualms about the word “prosthetics”, I agree it is the right one for adaptive tech enabling people with specific disabilities: screen reader tech for the blind, e.g., that does not only read aloud what is on the screen, but also allows them to skip through the headers of a text headers with their ears as sighted people do with their eyes. Provided, that is, that these headers are proper headers and not just bolded, that is.

    And that’s what computer accessibility is about: providing content and tools that will work with adaptive technologies people with disabilities have to use. It is also a plus for others: again, if you make a text that will work well with screen readers used by the blind, it will also save well in formats for portable devices, and it will be easier to use by sighted people with dyslexia.


    The 125,000,000 children in the world today without a teacher and without a classroom may soon have an opportunity to learn through technology.

    As the ambassador of Yemen to the UN pointed out at a 2009 WIPO discussion about the draft of a “Treaty for Improved Access for Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled Persons”, people who are illiterate because they and their countries are too poor for them to be schooled should also be able to avail themselves of such a treaty, because they are also “reading disabled” – or “print disabled”, rather. Because they could read digital texts with a screen reader, and write digitally using vocal recognition (see, here Accessibility and Literacy: Two Sides of the Same Coin for more details).

    In 2009, there was the Kindle that had a screen reader, but Amazon had caved in to the Authors’ Guild, and allowed authors and publishers to disable it for their works.

    In the meantime, the iPad has come out, and it has a screen reader and a voice command too. Not sure how well it works for writing notes, though: the voice-to-text iPhone app is pretty lousy for English and French, though it gives a decent result for Italian.

    Sure, Apple’s i-stuff is too expensive for illiterate people in poor countries. And Apple is a fully proprietary system. Above all, the above-mentioned treaty, which would simplify and make cheaper the production of accessible copyrighted content, is being blocked by the rich “Group B” countries at WIPO, on behalf of big content producers: not much point in having the needed tech if you can’t have texts to use it with.

    Nevertheless, the needed tech already exists, not as prosthetics but by default, and WIPO itself is showing some welcome opening to the concept of access to knowledge: on 4 November 2010, WIPO invited Lawrence Lessig to give the keynote address at its “Facilitating Access to Culture in the Digital Age” meeting (see the subtitled and transcribed video of Lessig’s address): something that would have been unlikely even a few years ago. So we are not that far from the ambassador of Yemen’s vision.

    Finally, as an example of the contribution people with disabilities can offer society, here is Alexandre Jollien’s testimonial about his journey to Nepal on behalf of the humanitarian organisation Terre des Hommes.

    (the subtitles should show automatically once you launch the video. If they don’t, click on the icon that looks like a TV screen with “CC” in it , bottom right of the player, to activate them, then choose the language – French or English).

    Jollien himself, who was born with cerebral palsy, could not avail himself of digital adaptive tech when he grew up: it wasn’t about yet. Nor can, for economic reasons, most of the Nepalese children he speaks with in this testimonial. However, having it on YouTube means that his message of hope and about actions that must be undertaken can be spread more easily: in fact, even if the video is only subtitled in English and French so far, each set of subtitles can be automatically translated into the other languages covered by Google Translate. So an accessibility measure primarily meant for deaf people is actually useful to everybody, and this holds true for almost all accessibility measures.

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