Universal Design and technology have dramatically changed how we can teach and assist individuals with disabilities. Thank you for reading our Pepin Academies blog, my name is Dr. Celeste Kellar, Director of Grant Administration and former Principal of Pepin Academies New Port Richey campus.

I began teaching in the field of exceptional education in 1982, only 7 years after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted. IDEA granted access to special education services for all students with disabilities.

My first education job was as a special education resource class teacher at a 7th-grade center. The school was located in a low-income urban area. I remember meeting with the principal after taking the job and inquiring about my classroom and materials. The principal hemmed and hawed about where he was going to locate my class and finally told me that since they were no longer offering shop class, he would assign that classroom to me. He also said there were no funds to purchase any specific materials for my class but said I should ask the regular classroom teachers “what they could spare.”

There were no computers or copy machines. There was a mimeograph machine on campus, a donated manual typewriter, and a whole room of shop equipment that would not be removed until after I had been at the school for a year.

I approached the other teachers, begging for materials. Some gave me a textbook or two while others said they were short of materials themselves and could not share. I made fast friends with the school librarian who shared as many books with me as she could and also offered me any discarded books so I could cannibalize them to create appropriate materials for my students. I shopped garage sales, sought donations of paper and pencils, and handmade most of the materials.

I remember reading books onto a tape recorder and having my students listen to them for comprehension activities. I did not get a computer in my classroom until 1996 when I was now at a school with a copy machine! By this time, school districts were specifically allocating funds to support exceptional education classes and prioritizing their learning environments.

Even then, I could not begin to dream of the future technological advances that would improve the education of students with disabilities. I remember begging my principal to purchase a set of calculators for my ESE math class. I argued (in a professional way) that my students should learn how to use one as an accommodation for their math disability. He felt they would never learn how to correctly use the appropriate math operations if they had the “crutch of the calculator!”

Now calculators are found on all SMART phones! Along with a calculator, a SMART phone can offer the accommodations of text-to-speech, voice-to-text, proofreading programs, and audiobooks! Interactive voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, or Echo can respond directly to your voice commands and perform basic tasks such as raising or lowering a thermostat, setting alarms, reporting weather, etc.

The concept of Universal Design considers that everyone has different abilities. Universal Design creates an environment that is flexible, adaptable, safe, and efficient. Universal Design concepts benefit everyone not just those with disabilities. For example, sidewalk ramps not only allow wheelchair-bound individuals to navigate the sidewalk but also assist anyone pulling wheeled luggage or carts. Handrails or benches in shower stalls benefit not only those with large motor impairments and the elderly but also anyone who might need additional support while showering. Street and warning signs with both visual and auditory signals benefit those with vision or hearing loss, non-English speakers, and non-readers, and are just easier to understand for all. Door entry openings are now larger to accommodate wheelchair users, but the larger openings make it easier for all to enter or exit.

These advances (and many more) help accommodate the environment for students with disabilities and provide easy access to accommodations that can increase their academic performance as well as improve their daily living.

In a future blog post, we will look at some Artificial Intelligence natural language processing tools such as ChatGPT, ChatSonic, Google Bard, etc., and explore the benefits and disadvantages of these programs for students with disabilities.