Training in Multimodal Technologies Requires Training in Assistive Technologies

Wilferth, Joe

The focus of this special issue is squarely on the training of educators—secondary teachers and university faculty—as they prepare, perhaps for the first time, to work in technology-rich environments. This essay contributes to that focus as it emphasizes the importance of adaptive or assistive technologies, namely those technologies that facilitate learning for students with disabilities. The point here is simple: training in the multiple and varied instructional technologies that today facilitate learning in the writing classroom is not complete without training in assistive technologies. That is, training in multimodal technologies and the pedagogical implications of these technologies simply falls short when it fails to include assistive technologies that are designed to maximize access for students with disabilities. Training in assistive technologies enriches both student and instructor experiences in the writing classroom by raising awareness and by elevating access to instruction, to course materials, and to learning.

An adaptive or assistive technology (AT), in the sense that this phrase is used in disability studies, is a technology that assists persons with disabilities or helps learners adapt instructional delivery, content, and/or learning environments. The various forms of assistive technologies ultimately aim to increase access to instruction for persons with disabilities as they work to learn and synthesize material (Raskind 185). These technologies, often computer-based but not exclusively so, do not aim to “correct” or “fix” disabilities.  Rather, as John C. DeWitt notes in “The Role of Technology in Removing Barriers,” “assistive technology includes devices that enhance the ability of an individual with a disability to engage in major life activities, actions, and tasks” (317).  Distinguishing between activities and actions/tasks, DeWitt adds, “Major life activities include hearing, seeing, moving body parts, speaking, and interpreting information.  Assistive technology currently exists to assist in the performance of actions (or tasks) associated with each of these life activities” (317).  In the classroom, we constantly require our students to accomplish tasks—to do things—which themselves depend upon the activities of hearing, seeing, moving their bodies, speaking, and interpreting. Understanding the tasks and activities required of students with disabilities ultimately requires educators to become familiar with available assistive technologies—e.g., current technologies that magnify print on the screen, current technologies that read aloud print on the screen, current technologies that synthesize speech for individuals with communication impairments, current technologies that make available the transcription of classroom lecture and discussion, and more.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, fields outside the study of learning disabilities focused on “remediating” learning disabilities rather than “compensating for, or bypassing, learning disabilities” (Raskind 186). Approaches to instruction that aim to “remediate” disabilities seem to embrace the notion that a student’s disability may be overcome or “corrected” with the use of auxiliary aids or devices. Such an approach is somewhat naïve as it intends to “fix” the disability rather than to work with it. It’s a bit like explaining the color red to an individual who has been blind since birth by insisting that “red is red—you know, the color of a stop sign” instead of working with the student by comparing red to an emotion like anger or a sense like taste (e.g., the taste of cinnamon or salsa) or touch (e.g., heat).

In the early 1990s, however, disability researchers definitively documented the value of word processing for individuals with disabilities in cognitive functioning.  Like research in composition studies, this research in disability studies found that word processors

allow users to write without having to be overly concerned with making errors, since the text appears on the computer screen before it is printed out, and thus can easily be corrected.  In addition, omitted words may be added…. When not preoccupied with the ‘mechanical’ aspects of writing, persons with learning disabilities are free to focus on the meaning of their written communication. (Raskind 187)

In the decades since Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and Janet Emig’s convincing argument for a process-oriented model of composition instruction, writing teachers have known about such potentials of computer technologies in the writing classroom.  What we have perhaps failed to realize is that students themselves, especially students with disabilities, often come into our classrooms with full knowledge of available assistive technologies and awareness of how they learn. That is, students do not arrive on our campuses without knowledge of their disabilities. They have lived with low vision, deafness or partial hearing loss, or any number of the various disabilities for some time—since birth, for decades, or for years—so they are aware of the various assistive technologies that may be at their disposal.  Students with disabilities arguably know more fully how they learn than do students without disabilities because of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or simply because they have had to learn how they learn in order to be successful in the classroom.1 Faculty on university campuses, however, may be rather ignorant about those assistive technologies, certainly not because those faculty are mean-spirited or unwilling to assist students, but because they have not had to learn about these technologies or have not had the appropriate faculty training. On the other hand, students with disabilities, their parents, and their elementary and secondary teachers frequently know about resources like the Assistive Technology Training Online Project (ATTO)2, for example, which provides information on AT applications that help students with disabilities learn in elementary classrooms.

Figure 1. The Assistive Technology Training Online Project, hosted by University of Buffalo, SUNY; see

Students with disabilities, their parents, and their elementary and secondary teachers frequently know about software like Jaws (a screen reader), but knowledge of such resources and how to use such resources in instruction is frequently concentrated in one office at our public colleges and universities. These offices are amazing resources for students and faculty alike, though faculty tend to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the ways in which such offices and resources may facilitate learning for all students.  This lack of knowledge is frequently compounded by a mix of empathy and uncertainty, especially in how we (students and faculty alike) talk about disability.

Rhetoric and/of Disability: The Way We Talk about People and Disability

Because the focus of this piece is on assistive technologies and professional development, it is worth reflecting on the trouble we tend to have simply in talking about students with disabilities. That is, we are often uncertain about how to address our students and their needs.  Are they disabled students?  Students with disabilities?  Students with different abilities? Different learners? The way we talk about our students, those with and those without disabilities, reveals cultural, political, and personal biases. In "Term Paper,” Michael Bérubé points out that “people-first phrasing is de rigueur, on the grounds that people with disabilities are people first; ‘person with Down syndrome’ therefore is more humane, less stigmatizing, than ‘Down syndrome person.’  However,” he adds, “opponents of the locution ‘people with Down syndrome’ argue that the phrase unfortunately suggests that people with Down syndrome are completely defined by Down syndrome, as if Down syndrome is all they have” (113). This notion, of course, is consistent with what Foucault and others have demonstrated:  the act of naming is simultaneously an act of differentiating, an act of creating the other.  In the 2010 issue of the MLA’s Profession, Petra Kuppers, Michael Bérubé, Margaret Price, and Kristen Harmon examine such naming as they collectively explore the rhetorics surrounding disability.

For Petra Kuppers, in her introduction to a series of essays on disability and language, the classroom is the ideal location to deconstruct the rhetorics of disability.  That is, Kuppers teaches a course on disability culture, the first few weeks of which “circle, traverse, query, and play with the languages of disability” (107).  She and her students orient the first class meetings around a few central questions of phenomenology:  “What do you call these people?  Is there a ‘these people,’ and, if there is, what do they share?  What do you call them if you are one of them, and, if you are, what does the them say about us?” (107, original emphasis).  Kuppers and her students seemingly work through the awkward nature of the rhetorics surrounding disability by drawing out the cultural and political implications of naming; they reflect on the difference between “disabled person” and “person with a disability,” for example.  She adds,

After a few weeks, most students settle down to the real labor of understanding disability’s cultural places in our world, and they stop fretting too much about whether or not they use words that might inadvertently offend. What about differently abled, Down syndrome child, wheelchair-bound, mad, freak, exceptional? Are people without a disability nondisabled people, normal, or TAB (temporarily able-bodied)?3 (108)

Kuppers ultimately provides useful advice as she suggests a fitting response to such questions. That is, she and her students come to the conclusion that

as long as we are respectful and patient with ourselves and others, it’s OK to experiment, to try out language in one’s mouth, and listen all the way to the end to find out if there’s discrimination, paternalism, or pathos in the undertones…. As long as we take seriously the charge to be aware, ask questions where we are unsure, and call one another out when we note words that make us uncomfortable, we are involved in a worthwhile social justice project.  Together, we are honing our ability to understand how we continually make meaning and how our languages shift. (108)

Kuppers’ point that we are engaged in a social justice project when we talk about disability—when we name others based on a perceived attribute, quality, or characteristic—is a good one.  Our rhetorics of disability, our willingness to name, makes possible the inclusion and exclusion of individuals.

As Kuppers, Bérubé, and others demonstrate in their own classrooms, our rhetorics of disability are themselves good starting points for discussion in assistive technology training.  That is, if we include the subject of assistive technologies in our professional development opportunities and faculty training, why not begin those conversations with talk about how we talk?

Universal Design for Learning and Practice

Thanks to scholars in our field who have worked at the intersection of disability studies and composition studies—the late John Slatin is a shining example—we have extended earlier definitions of access and accessibility beyond traditional notions of reader-centered writing.  That is, instruction on and discussions surrounding document and screen design, layout, and mutimodal writing technologies now go beyond the superficial, albeit important, idea of reader-friendly text, both print- or screen-based text. These discussions increasingly address the needs of readers who access and interact with texts using a variety of assistive technologies. Writing instruction seems to be turning toward expanded conceptions of audience and readers’ needs. After all, writers inevitably fail when they “flatten” their audience by imagining a uniform group which accesses or reads with uniform knowledge and abilities.  It is bad practice for authors to do so.  It is equally bad practice for teachers to design their pedagogy around a “flattened” group.  A one-size-fits-all approach to instruction and to student needs is ultimately a pedagogy of exclusion. Whereas AT increases access to learning environments and information/instructional resources, awareness of the various technologies that are now available to our students is merely one part of our goal of inclusion. Making room for such technologies both in and outside of the classroom is crucial. Inclusion in this sense necessarily leads to a broader understanding of course and curriculum design.

Inclusion of as many individuals, specifically student learners, as possible in the curriculum is the essential goal of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  UDL, which is built on the concept of universal design first developed in architecture, aims to provide alternatives to an inflexible pedagogy of exclusion. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, “UDL helps address learner variability by suggesting flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that empower educators to meet these varied needs.  Curricula that is created using UDL is designed from the outset to meet the needs of all learners, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes unnecessary” ("UDL Guidelines 2.0").  UDL, then, makes room for the assistive technologies our students use on a daily basis.  That is, with UDL as a foundation for course design, space is made available for the necessary assistive technologies.

Identifying three guiding principles that help us incorporate UDL, experts at the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (NCUDL) suggest that faculty should whenever possible (1) provide multiple means of representation, (2) provide multiple means of action and expression, and (3) provide multiple means of engagement.  Regarding the first principle—provide multiple means of representation—educators and specialists at the NCUDL suggest that because students perceive and comprehend differently based on a variety of sensory disabilities, (e.g., blindness, deafness, dyslexia, or otherwise) they need different options for approaching, experiencing, and synthesizing content. They add that learning or the increased potential for learning “occurs when multiple representations are used, because it allows students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential” ("UDL Guidelines 2.0", original emphasis).

In practice, this first principle may be addressed by providing course syllabi, course handouts, and other print-based material in various formats.  Posting material to the Web instead of exclusively providing paper copies, for example, allows students who are living with low vision or blindness to use assistive technologies like screen readers (e.g., Jaws).  Checking compatibility of Web-based resources with standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is recommended.4 Likewise, students with low-vision may elect to magnify text using ZoomText or their computer’s magnifying features.  Students who are blind may likewise use the “VoiceOver Utility” made available on most Macintosh computers.  (Choose Apple menu > System Preferences, click Speech, and then click “Text to Speech”.) In the event that teachers wish to provide PDF files for students, they should keep in mind that PDF files should be saved not as image files but as “readable” PDFs.  Balabolka, a relatively new Text-To-Speech (TTS) program, reads PDFs, MS Word and Rich Text Format documents, and saves the audio file in a preferred format (e.g., WAV, MP3, MP4, WMA) so students may review the material later. Likewise, students with hearing impairments or deafness will find closed captioning on videos helpful.  (Libraries, media centers, and educators must be certain to purchase DVDs with closed captioning to make this an option for students.) In instances of classroom lecture and discussion, these same students often know about and have access to C-Print, a speech-to-text system developed at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf for classroom settings.  C-Print incorporates an iconic “meaning-for-meaning” interface.  Similarly, TypeWell, a somewhat expensive transcription service that is provided via an off-site specialist, offers word-for-word closed captioning on a screen interface.  A less expensive alternative would involve an audio recording of the classroom lecture and discussion which could then go with the student to the campus office for students with disabilities.  A staff member or liaison in that office may then provide a transcription. The point here is that multiple means of representation are rather easily made available so that more and more, if not all, students have access to instruction.  The idea is to have a variety of means (of representation) to an end (learning and knowing).  Online resources such as University of Washington’s DO-IT (Disability, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center is an excellent resource that may be incorporated into training workshops.5 DO-IT’s video training on Web accessibility is especially valuable as we think about this first principle and consider the assistive technologies that our students use to access and process course materials.6

Regarding the second principle—provide multiple means of action and expression—educators and specialists at the NCUDL suggest that because students navigate learning environments and express comprehension differently based on mobility impairments, organizational disorders, or language barriers, they need different options for action and expression. “In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential” ("UDL Guidelines 2.0", original emphasis).

In practice, this second principle may be addressed specifically in the writing classroom by expanding our notion of composition to incorporate a variety of media.  As the experts at the NCUDL point out, “there are media which seem poorly suited for some kinds of expression and for some kinds of learning” (National Center on Universal Design for Learning).  They add that

a learner with dyslexia may excel at story-telling in conversation [though] he may falter when telling that same story in writing.  It is important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment.  (National Center on Universal Design for Learning)

In keeping with this second principle, English teachers may use social media and interactive Web tools (e.g., discussion forums, chats, web design, annotation tools, storyboards, comic strips, animation presentations) or “compose in multiple media such as text, speech, drawing, illustration, comics, storyboards, design, film, music, visual art, sculpture, or video” to accomplish course goals and to ensure student learning ("UDL Guidelines 2.0").

Finally, regarding the third principle—provide multiple means of engagement—educators at the NCUDL suggest that because students engage material and are motivated to learn in different ways teachers must consider neurological, cultural, and personal factors that cause students to be spontaneous, impulsive, disengaged, anxious, or routine-oriented. “In reality,” they add, “there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential” (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, original emphasis).  In addition to suggesting strategies that include minimizing distraction and optimizing autonomy and individual choice, these experts suggest a strategy that coincides nicely with something that many of us already do in the writing classroom. That is, they suggest that teachers may optimize relevance, value, and authenticity (National Center on Universal Design for Learning).

In practice, such an emphasis on relevance, value, and authenticity translates nicely into writing assignments that are written for real or “authentic” audiences. Steve Watkins, for example, has described “authentic writing" that students practice and produce in computer-supported writing classrooms.  For Watkins, the work produced by students in the “traditional” writing classroom lacks a real audience outside the teacher and the writer’s peers.  A student’s writing—especially its purpose and context—extends no further than the classroom walls.  As a result, according to Watkins, the student’s writing is less authentic than that which is for a real-world writing situation and for a broader audience. That broader audience is made possible in computer-supported classrooms where writing may be done for Web-based readerships.  Similarly, Emily Golson demonstrated the value of hypertext and hypermedia writing for student writers in the mid-90s as she argued that on-screen writing, particularly hypertext writing with its orientation toward “real” audiences that are “diverging rather than converging” (296), makes authorship more relevant and more authentic for student writers.  Richard Courage’s work on private literacies is relevant here, as is work on digital literacies done by Kristine Blair, Jay David Bolter, Davida Charney, Danielle DeVoss, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Pamela Takayoshi, and so many more.


To facilitate training in assistive technologies, Marshall Raskind suggests that we first seek out and develop an awareness of the various assistive technologies that may serve our needs, as well as those of our students. Likewise, he suggests that we seek out individuals and professionals on our campuses. In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, public universities now house offices for students with disabilities. These offices are staffed with trained professionals.  Seek out such resources by searching the institution’s website—key words “disability,” “disability services,” “access,” or “accommodation.”  Include those professionals in the training of both new and experienced faculty in a coordinated effort to make a curriculum and academic programs of study accessible for all students (194).

Expanding our knowledge of the various technologies that facilitate learning in our classrooms, technologies that accommodate as many of our students as possible—perhaps all—is a noble yet attainable goal. It draws us closer to understanding more fully the cultural ecologies of literacy and the assistive technologies that participate in those literacies as they intersect to shape student learning.


1In 2010, the US Census Bureau published findings from its most recent census that indicated 54 million American live with a disability.  Of that 54 million, 1.8 million people age 15 or older report being unable to see printed words.  1 million people age 15 or older report being unable to hear. 2.5 million people age 15 or older have difficulty having their speech understood, and 16.1 million people age 15 or older have limitations in cognitive functioning. These numbers make the imperative for equal access in education all too clear, but even more revealing is the fact that 13% of people 25 and older with a disability hold a bachelor’s degree.  That figure compares with 31% of people 25 and older with no disability.

2Available online at

3Kuppers attributes the phrase “temporarily able-bodied” to Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability.

4Available online at

5See University of Washington’s DO-IT (Disability, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center has numerous resources that may facilitate AT training.


Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael.  “Term Paper.”  Profession (2010): 112-116.  Print.

DeWitt, John C.  “The Role of Technology in Removing Barriers.” The Milbank Quarterly  69 (1991): 313-332.  Print.

Golson, Emily.  “Student Hypertexts:  The Perils and Promises of Paths Not Taken.”  Computers and Composition  12 (1995): 295-308. Print.

Kuppers, Petra.  “Disability and Language:  Introduction.”  Profession (2010): 107-111.  Print.

"UDL Guidelines 2.0." National Center on Universal Design for Learning. National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2012. 1 Feb. 2011.  Web. 12 May 2011.  <>.

Raskind, Marshall.  “Assistive Technology and Adults with Learning Disabilities: A Blueprint for Exploration and Advancement.” Learning Disability Quarterly 16.3 (Summer 1993): 185-196.  Print.

Watkins, Steve.  "World Wide Web Authoring in the Portfolio-Assessed, (Inter)Networked Composition Course." Computers and Composition 13 (1996):  219-230.  Print.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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