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Meeting Special Needs

Sep 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Rosanne Soifer

A contractor’s guide to special-education installations.


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Special-education installers must learn specialized equipment, adapt standard equipment to meet special needs, and navigate bureaucratic red tape to get project funding approved.

The phrase “special education” never elicits a mild response. To a parent with a child in a special-ed class, it may mean heartbreak, nightmares about the child's future, and frustration about just what, exactly, the special-education program is supposed to accomplish. To parents of children without special needs, the phrase may elicit relief that the description doesn't apply to their children.

Today's special-education industry has drawn criticism from parents and educators alike. Controversy has sprung up as some schools and parents are accused of putting students with relatively minor behavioral and emotional problems into special-ed classes simply to qualify schools for more state and federal funding. Arguments also rage about how special-ed students affect standardized school test scores, and on and on it goes.

But this article isn't designed to discuss the special-education industry generally — it's designed to provide independent AV contractors interested in working in special-education settings a detailed look at a growing, but largely untapped, market.

According to an April 21, 2006, AP wire report by Ben Feller and Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the No Child Left Behind Act promises parents of children attending a school that gets federal poverty aid a free tutor for any child who has not made steady progress for three straight years. The goal of the law is to make sure all kids can read and do math at their grade level. But this requirement can also benefit the installers who collect public money to help schools meet the law's requirements.

Sound & Video Contractor recently spoke with a variety of educators at public and private schools, foundations, and special-education facilities to offer guidance to independent AV contractors interested in becoming involved with special-education installation.

OVERVIEW OF THE FIELD

According to Linda Tsurouka, a music and theater teacher at the Henry Viscardi School at the Abilities Center in Albertson, N.Y., most special-education schools and centers do the purchasing, installing, and setup themselves because the whole field is so individualized. In most cases, students bring their own customized equipment. Motorized wheelchairs, for instance, are usually owned or leased privately, or assigned to students by the school.

Contractors who work in this field generally either start as educators and get involved in the technology because they have to, and have a knack for it (as well as perhaps a hobbyist interest), or they start as tech people and get more deeply involved in using the technology for education. Many of the jobs at special-ed centers, schools, and programs are staff jobs, which means regular salaries and benefits.

BASIC TERMINOLOGY

First, contractors interested in working on special-education installations should familiarize themselves with basic terminology: For instance, which is the right expression? Handicapped? Disabled? Exceptional? Differently abled? Impaired? Special-ed student? Developmentally delayed? It varies, say experts in the field.

“Special-ed refers more to educational curriculum adaptations than to people, explains Tsurouka. “Children in special-ed are given special programs, not necessarily equipment. Handicapped or disabled refers more to physical limitations.”

United Cerebral Palsy of New York (UCP/NYC) uses the term “persons with disabilities,” rather than “handicapped” or “disabled.” In fact, UCP/NYC prefers to dispense with labels altogether; in its literature, it instead refers to the people it serves as consumers, with a clear emphasis on the individual, not the disability.

According to Jose Torres, the technical director at Cooke Center for Learning and Development in New York, an institution that provides school-based special-education services that promote inclusion, “handicapped” means “physically handicapped,” while “disabled” means “learning disabled.” Torres defines special education as “school-age education outside the mainstream.”

Media teacher Tina Perretti at the New York Institute for Special Education (NYISE) in New York says, “Visual impairment is an inconvenience. ‘Special-ed’ is a label. Politically correct is ‘a person with a disability.’”

Math teacher Gian Pedulla, himself visually impaired, adds, “To work in this field you must understand the disability. Blindness is an inconvenience — nothing more.”

The technology used in the special-education field is referred to as “assistive technology.” Related terms include, but are not limited to, “adaptive,” “augmentative,” or “enabling.” Most contractors are somewhat familiar with assistive-listening devices for auditoriums, conference rooms, and the like, but the field is much more varied than that.

FACTORS TO CONSIDER

When working on a special-education installation — especially a classroom — contractors need to consider the facility's physical space to a greater extent than if they were simply refurbishing or upgrading technology in, say, a club, restaurant, or public area. Annette and Jeff Walsh, who head the music and theater program at NYISE, say that once a space such as theirs is divided into separate functional areas, it cannot be casually changed around, since this would cause visually impaired students confusion and loss of mobility confidence.

Tsurouka works mostly with wheelchair-bound students with multiple handicaps. She says any technology used must take into account the spatial needs of wheelchairs, some of which are heavy and wide, and may include attachments for crutches, oxygen tanks, and tabletops. Multiple power outlets are needed, and should be easily visible and placed at approximately waist level. Torres adds that extra space is also needed for supervising staff, who generally number more than in a mainstream classroom.

Another key factor to consider is the issue of upgrading an existing technology infrastructure. NYISE technology teacher John Hernandez states, “In an ideal world, all computers and technology would be accessible to all persons with or without a disability. Microsoft has made some nice accommodations in Windows with its Accessibility Options in the control panel. This is a good beginning and should be expanded. At NYISE, the main large-print and speech-access software is delivered to computers from a central server. Wired classrooms and delivery of digital information should be the norm now, and especially in the future. Good bandwidth is as important in education as in business.”

“Technology levels the playing field and must address the disability — and, in that way, circumvent the challenges,” adds Perretti. “For instance, computer software that speaks to those who can't see and enlarges letters for those with low vision. [Freedom Scientific's] JAWS program [Job Access With Speech] actually ‘speaks’ to the user and should be a given.”

Brad Jacobsen, a computer specialist at UCP/NYC, adds that having classrooms networked makes it easier for professionals to share files such as pictures and graphics so electronic tools that are adapted or individualized to accommodate one student's needs can easily be accessed by a teacher in another classroom for a student with similar needs.

All of this leads to the next key factor: adapting standard, existing audio, video, and computer technology for these kinds of applications. Adaptations to existing technology in such situations can work if the contractor understands that there may be some school/facility standards and guidelines that simply must be followed with no exceptions, and that the client's primary concerns are safety and accessibility, rather than aesthetics.

In the world of audio, for instance, most existing audio setups in an educational environment can be fairly easily upgraded for the visually impaired simply by increasing the volume overall, and labeling every control in Braille. The standard Sound Blaster sound card available in almost all modern PCs, for instance, is fine in most cases.

Most rooms in such facilities, though, would normally call for more than the standard number of speakers an AV specialist would put into a room of that size. And, of course, they are only interested in speakers that contain easily accessible headphone jacks.

Likewise, microphones in such settings need battery backup beyond usual requirements. Individualized lapel mics and individual headphone receivers can be a major boon in the educational quest of learning-disabled students who have trouble hearing or speaking. Such headphones should be sturdy, padded, and easily adjustable to fit around protective helmets.

When it comes to video, it's important to remember that while the blind hear what the deaf can't, the deaf see what the blind can't. Movies and video content in general, therefore, remain popular teaching tools for visually impaired, deaf, and learning-disabled students who have trouble grasping elementary reading concepts. Ideally, such equipment should encompass the latest headset technology and the ability to enlarge for impaired sight, and be equipped with wide screens to accommodate that enlargement. The NYISE also uses a separate low-vision magnifier for reading.

Computers — particularly the PC — have transformed how handicapped people go about their daily lives in a variety of ways, and the Internet has opened up whole vistas previously closed to them. At the Henry Viscardi School, laptops are used rather than desktop computers for increased portability, and paralyzed students are regularly equipped with computer “joysticks” on their hat and/or in their mouth. Variations on this theme include onscreen keyboards with which the user's headstick can point directly at letters.

Physical and electronic security is another important issue to consider in installations at special-education facilities. Putting in a security desk with closed-circuit capabilities and requiring badges for faculty and staff are not the only steps that need to be taken. Exit signs, for example, need to be illuminated better, often with flashing strobe lights, and bells need to be greatly amplified.

For safety and health reasons, any facility serving special-needs students also needs to be directly linked to local police and fire stations, without the need to dial 911. Normal business precautions, such as cable locks for computers and locks for closets and rooms containing expensive equipment and supplies still apply.

Special-education installers must familiarize themselves with customized assistive technology such as IntelliKeys Classic from IntelliTools.

FUNDING ISSUES

Educators also advise contractors entering the special-education world for the first time to be careful about terminology as they set about figuring out what kind of technology and techniques to use at a facility. Tsurouka explains, “The terms handicapped and special ed [normally] shouldn't be lumped together, but schools do it because of funding necessities.”

Contractors need to be aware of the facility's current lingo, which often changes from year to year, when attempting to get their projects or budgets approved. Funding for technology may come from a variety of state or private sources, such as tuition or companies lending or donating products and services. It may be easier to get payment from a school/facility via a private source or donation than to navigate the myriad of forms, bureaucracy, and wasteful spending endemic to the public sector. This is often all-too-clearly demonstrated in large urban school districts. It seems that the administration of special-ed programs can easily spin out of control; therefore, contractors need to do their homework before jumping into the fray.

Amy Sklar, an occupational therapist for the NYC Board of Education, comments that once a student has been evaluated as needing special education, three options are generally available. The student can be kept in a mainstream classroom; put into a self-contained class; or enrolled in a District 75, a special educational district responsible for administering special-education programs all over the city. Yet, the purchasing of technology and services happens at a far different level, and bureaucratic traffic jams are everyday occurrences.

Equipment is purchased and owned by the board of education, but routinely used by students, leading to typical wear-and-tear and pilferage. In New York, equipment is supposed to follow a student all the way through graduation, but veteran special-education teachers say there is apparently no reliable or consistent system in place to track the equipment if a student moves or changes schools.

It is also unclear what happens to old or “post-graduation” equipment. Is it sold? Donated? Traded in for something newer? Bought back or rebated for some kind of future discount? Scenarios such as these could provide enterprising contractors with a potentially lucrative “after-job” follow-up gig: tracking, placing, replacing, or brokering all that used technology.

Partnering with manufacturers of assistive/adaptive technology isn't done much, surprisingly enough. Instead, a practice called cause-related marketing is seeing increasing use. In cause-related marketing, a not-for-profit organization partners with industry for some mutual benefit. The charity benefits by access to the resources of the business, and the business gains credibility by being associated with a highly regarded charity. Ultimately, the consumer benefits from these increased resources, which are often in the form of valuable information for people with disabilities and their families. This can encourage sales of the product, as well as raising funds for the charity.

WORKING IN THE FIELD

According to educators, a little extra patience and effort is needed for contractors wishing to work in special-education settings.

“Take the stuff home and be willing to make time and learn how to use them,” advises Perretti.

Hernandez agrees, and adds, “A person needs to be flexible and willing to take time to learn a device or softwear that will only be used by a limited number of persons.”

“You don't really know the field until you get involved with it, and you must be able to teach a teacher how to use the technology in such a way that he/she can teach the kids,” points out Torres.

Overall, as Jacobsen and Liz Voluz of UCP/NYC emphasize, the pace of understanding and incorporating high-end technology into special-education facilities is “different — a little slower.”

Installers may well have to involve themselves in learning more about special education generally, and teacher training specifically, before they take on such jobs.

Special thanks to: Edie Goldman, Alison Holden, Liz Voluz, Amy Sklar, Jose Torres, John Hernandez, Brad Jacobsen, Tina Perretti, Gian Pedulla, Paul Rutkowski, Annette and Jeff Walsh, Linda Tsuruoka.


Advice for Dealers

While any business obviously requires potential vendors to be intimately familiar with their clients' needs, manufacturing devices and technology for the handicapped requires something extra that is harder to quantify. Perhaps it might be called, simply, empathy. Or, as Mike Subrizi, VP of database operations at marketing firm MDR, states in an April 21 AP wire report by Ben Feller and Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “We know we want to make money. But we believe we're in a worthy cause.”

In any case, there are certain basics manufacturers should comprehend if they want to be in this space. Neal Kuniansky of Duxbury Systems says, “An authorized reseller should be able to show a knowledge in Braille production and related access areas, and provide customer support.”

Indeed, an understanding of the importance of Braille and how to get it onto equipment is crucial in this arena. For instance, as Charlie Kiefer, product manager at Enabling Technologies, which makes Braille embossers, points out, “Our dealers have earned the respect and confidence of the Braille community.”

“You must realize that there's no such thing as putting in one computer model that everyone can use. One size never fits all, and, ideally, everything needs adaptive pieces for each [special] need,” says John Hernandez, a technology teacher at NYISE.

RESNA, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, now offers a credentialing program to help assistive-technology providers learn about working in the field.

Bob Stimolo, president of Connecticut-based School Market Research Institute (www.school-market.com), which helps companies sell products to schools, offers this advice: Keep your perspective, pay attention to your base business, and be aware that the No Child Left Behind program may be replaced (or changed) one day by the federal government.

Obviously, serving special-education needs involves more than just reselling a company's products and services.


General Guidelines for Special-education Installers

  1. Know the terminology — what is appropriate and when. If you're not sure, ask.
  2. Understand and respect a potential client's invoice process. It may take a while to get paid because of budget/funding issues and administration.
  3. Understand each technology company's sub-dealer/vendor agreements. As in any area, they are all slightly different. Some give finder's fees to non-dealers, some don't.
  4. Clarify or develop your own policy on working with existing equipment and technology that has been lent to the client by a third party. Become aware of any pre-existing agreements or insurance issues.


For More Information

General information and resources:

AbilityHub
www.abilityhub.com

Answers.com — Special Education
www.answers.com/topic/special-education

A-Z to Deafblindness
www.deafblind.com

Closing the Gap
www.closingthegap.com

The Council For Exceptional Children: Technology and Media Division
www.tamcec.org

Disabled World
www.disabled-world.com

No Child Left Behind
www.ed.gov/nclb

Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America
www.resna.org

United Cerebral Palsy of New York City
www.ucpnyc.org

Assistive technology for the visually impaired:

American Printing House for the Blind
www.aph.org

C Tech
www.lowvisionproducts.com

Duxbury Systems
www.duxburysystems.com

Enabling Technologies
www.brailler.com

Freedom Scientific
www.freedomscientific.com

Kurzweil Educational Systems
www.kurzweiledu.com

Assistive technology for those who have difficulty communicating, such as those with cerebral palsy:

AAC — Augmentative and Alternative Communication
aac.unl.edu

Attainment Company
www.attainmentcompany.com

Enabling Devices
www.enablingdevices.com

Prentke Romich Company
www.prentrom.com

Software and hardware:

Don Johnston
www.donjohnston.com

IntelliTools
www.intellitools.com

Mayer-Johnson
www.mayer-johnson.com

RJ Cooper and Associates
www.rjcooper.com

SoftTouch
www.softtouch.com


Rosanne Soifer is a New York-based professional musician and writer. She may be reached at srjrsd@aol.com.



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