Growing Complexity and Options for Students with Disabilities

School Administrator, May 2015

Industry Spotlight
Matthew Navo, superintendent of Sanger, Calif., Unified School District recently served on a statewide task force on special education.

In Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz., the percentage of students with autism is up 10 to 15 percent from what it was six years ago, according to Michael Remus, director of student support services. Deer Valley also has seen increasing numbers of students with speech and language disabilities and with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A similar picture emerges in school districts in many other places. “We see the number of students with autism has grown over the past five years,” says Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of special education in Ozark R-VI School District in Missouri. “It’s a statewide trend, a national trend.”

Superintendent Matthew Navo of Sanger, Calif., attributes the major increase in autism among school-age youngsters to improved early detection. “Today, we are better at identifying children along the autism disorder spectrum, but we find it challenging to design supports that help these children learn.”

Industry Spotlight 2
A student with special needs from Fairfax County, Va., benefits from personal attention.
Growing Complexity

Educating students in special education is astonishingly complex as superintendents and their school district staffs are well aware. To comply with current law, educators must find ways for all students to access and respond to content. This includes those who are blind, hard of hearing/deaf, unable to speak or emotionally disturbed, or who have cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and sensory processing or attention disorders.     

Educators are meeting this tall order by regularly scanning the horizon for better ways to serve children. The multi-tiered approach looks at staffing expertise, instruction, classroom assignments, commercial products including assisted technology and more.

Assistive Technology

Roughly 10 percent of students in special education use assistive technology, a term applied to various products, some of which have nothing to do with technology.

“It includes wheelchairs, special communications equipment and even devices to use during therapeutic swims in the pool,” says Sharon Pray, special education director in Portland, Maine, Public Schools.

Portland Superintendent Manny Caulk reports the district regularly purchases devices that address students’ IEPs. One specialized tool is a Braille embosser for a student who is visually impaired. The embosser is used in conjunction with Braille translation software and can print characters or Braille images.

Lewis Collins, who served as superintendent in two districts, identified auditory trainers as a relatively new technology. This assistive technology device is used by students who are hard of hearing, and it enables them to hear the teacher’s lecture. The teacher wears a special microphone around the neck, and the microphone has a cord running from the microphone that can be plugged into a student’s hearing aid. All background noise is blocked out and the student hears only the teacher’s voice.

“It’s not cheap at $4,000-$5,000,” says Collins. “But Medicare and private health insurance sometimes cover the cost.”

Communication Tools

“iPads are the most common assistive technology device in special education,” says Maureen Burness, co-executive director of California’s Statewide Special Education Task Force. “They are increasingly common in schools and they are simpler and require less training than devices in past years.”

Although most typical students rely on iPads for writing and research, they also can be used as communication devices with a product called ProLoQuo2Go, Wolfram says.

“ProLoQuo2Go enables our kiddos with significant communication difficulties to respond,” she adds. “If you’ve ever seen this happen, it’s extraordinary to see. The student doesn’t talk; we program the machine with what the responses can be, and then the student pushes a button and the program ‘talks.’”

Communication tools now exist for students with complex communication or motor disorders that have impaired their ability to speak or write.

The Picture Exchange Program system is one example. “For nonverbal children in grades K-3, picture exchange programs where a child can point at a picture or icon to communicate that she has to use the bathroom, wants lunch or needs assistance with homework can be very helpful,” says Collins.

The Dynavox is at the other end of the tech spectrum. It is a communication device that generates speech for students who are nonverbal or have aphasia. The company’s suite of products includes a light tablet that would fit into a backpack.

“I’ve seen the right tool make all the difference,” Wolfram says. “There’s been a real reduction in behavior issues.”

Online Speech Therapy

The use of online speech therapy is growing. The service appeals to districts with serious staffing shortages. In Colorado, the shortage of fully licensed and certified physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language therapists has made it difficult for school districts to provide uninterrupted services.

The 85,500-student Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, Colo., contracted with Presence-Learning to provide online speech therapy for 20 students requiring such therapy. It offers online speech therapy with a live, fully credentialed and licensed therapist.The company also works with much smaller districts, including the Stone County School District in Wiggins, Miss., a rural system with 2,000 students.

Pros and Cons

When it comes to online speech therapy, most educators believe the best option is a live person in the same room as the student.

“(Online speech therapy) would be a stop-gap measure,” says Navo, the superintendent in Sanger, Calif. “There’s just the human connection that students need.”

Wolfram agrees. “It isn’t the best option for many of our students,” she says. “But it isn’t out of the question. The need for language services is growing in our district. If a kiddo had a mild articulation disorder, I think it could work well.”

Measuring Progress

Signs of progress can be detected. Earlier intervention and inclusion are more common today than 20 years ago. Teachers are more proficient at adapting their instruction for students with disabilities. Educators’ mindsets are changing.

In Sanger, the 11,600-student district’s model is full inclusion. Every student with a disability is in the classroom with peers 100 percent of the time.

In Ozark, Mo., a 5,500-student district, about 9 percent of students are identified as requiring special education. (A more typical identification rate for special education is 12-13 percent, according to Wolfram.)

“The percentage is so low because we do a really nice job with general education, teaching to all students,” says Wolfram. Ozark’s general education teachers have learned how to adapt instruction as a result of professional training and ongoing education.

Compliance is not the goal. Districts are building multi-tiered approaches to improve student performance and behavior.

Liz Griffin is managing editor of School Administrator. E-mail:

Issues to Consider About Assistive Technology

Superintendents voiced many positives about new assistive technology. They also had words of caution.

Evaluate alternatives. Expensive products that require Wi-Fi may not be ideal for a student whose family does not have Wi-Fi. Also, some products require more training and maintenance.

Consider a company’s financial stability. Going with a company that will still be around when a problem arises or replacement is needed saves money and headaches.

Weigh how long a product will be current. Some products have a short life cycle. Will the district have finished paying for the product and training before a replacement is needed?

Additional Resources

Experts on special education recommend the following resources, which have been compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs:
Ideas That Work,
Lead and Manage My School,