Mainstreaming and inclusion are the key concepts emerging from the flood of new software and hardware suitable for students with special needs. The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, personalised learning, school learning platforms and now the move to widen home access to ICT and the internet are all increasing pressure on schools to provide inclusive ICT resources. Fortunately, many producers are rising to the challenge.
"Good software is for all learners, not just for those with particular needs," explains Terry Waller, manager for inclusion networks and advice at Becta. "Once all pupils can access equipment, the learning issues are the same."
Mr Waller points to a string of devices which can support mainstream learners as well as a range of disabilities. Software that reads a screen is useful for students with dyslexia and communication difficulties, the visually impaired and for those who have English as a second language, for instance. Screen-enlarging software for pupils with visual impairment will help older people with poor eyesight, too.
Learners with special needs are also increasingly benefiting from innovative mainstream designs, like the touch-sensitive screens and screen enlargers found in iPods and iPhones.
Sean Stokewood of NASEN (the National Association for Special Educational Needs) cites a school where hearing-impaired students use PSPs - PlayStation Portables - to video teachers' homework instructions, which are delivered in sign language. The pupils can play the videos at home, and hearing-impaired parents are able to check up on the homework.
"All our products for the last three years have been designed for the inclusive classroom and they can be used by anyone, not solely those with special needs," confirms Ian Bean, information manager for Inclusive Technology.
One of the advantages is that pupils with disabilities are not singled out by having to use different programmes from their peers.
ICT packages like Inclusive's Choose It! Ready-made, which cover National Curriculum literacy, numeracy and science, are suitable for all key stage 1 pupils, not just those with special needs. The literacy series, for example, which is linked to the DfES Primary Strategy for Phonics, Letters and Sounds, is appropriate for foundation and KS1 pupils, as well as those with special needs who will benefit from extra practice.
Inclusive Technology also offers some of the latest hardware devices. The Inclusive Interactive Plasma Screen can be quickly and easily adjusted in height to suit young children, tall teachers or wheelchair users. The screen is not affected by the user's shadow or ambient light, so children will not be confused by shadows blanking out the area of the screen they are trying to touch.
The company's latest offering, the Inclusive One Touch, is a robust, all- in-one screen and PC with integrated webcam and microphone.
Another variation on the interactive screen is Smart Technology's Table interactive learning centre, a brightly coloured table with a touch- sensitive surface, allowing groups of pupils to work together on interactive lessons, educational games and problem solving.
All pupils can find the table stimulating and fun, although one special school has discovered it is particularly effective with students who have autism, encouraging communication and collaboration.
Smartbox Assistive Technology has MyTobii, a combined computer and eyegaze unit which allows users to highlight something on the screen by looking at it. An in-built camera detects where your eyes are looking and you can select the item you want by pressing a switch, blinking, or gazing at the object for five seconds.
As MyTobii allows a lot of head movement while operating the system, it is particularly useful for people who have a lot of involuntary movement.
Another company, iansyst is also focusing on aids which benefit a range of disabilities. CapturaTalk v2 is mobile phone software that converts text to speech from a digital photo taken on a mobile phone. It highlights words and reads them back, helping to reinforce word recognition.
How can teachers choose from the plethora of equipment and software on offer? Several companies offer free advice and training, but online forums provide a chance to share good practice and learn how a specific product can meet a particular need.
"Don't just buy products off the internet," warns Mr Stokewood. "Investigate it first and try to talk to people who've used it.'
Mr Stokewood adds that effective training is also essential if teachers and teaching assistants are to feel confident enough to use and adapt new software.
SEN forums run by Becta
- Training offered by Logotron
Seeing is believing: what's playing at the forum
"ICT is central to everything we do," says David Keeton, deputy head of The Forum School, Dorset, which specialises in autism and holds the prestigious Becta ICT Mark for its excellent provision.
"Our students tend to be visual learners and they love using ICT," he explains. "Computers don't judge their idiosyncratic behaviour or see their disabilities."
ICT has a part to play in every aspect of life at this residential school, from assessing pupils' progress to communicating with parents. Statement review sessions include PowerPoint shows, with images of students' achievements, helping pupils to take an active part in the review process. Students can also contact their families via e-mail and webcam instead of a phone call; this can be very reassuring for parents, particularly those who have non-verbal children.
Thanks to effective training, all staff members are confident with software and imaginative use of ICT throughout the curriculum is a keynote at The Forum. Interactive webcams placed in the school grounds and in a nesting box project images of badgers, deer and fledgling birds on to whiteboards in the classroom. In the spring, students were able to watch the whole nesting process, from nest building with the first pieces of moss to the birds laying their eggs and keeping them warm and the hatching of the fledglings.
In PE, pupils enjoy an interactive sports wall with touch-sensitive lights. "Many of our students aren't motivated by PE, but they like a good workout at the wall," says Alex White, the ICT co-ordinator. Optimusic, an interactive audio-visual system, enables pupils to create a wide range of music, sounds and images by moving through the brightly coloured light beams.
As for software, an essential for non-verbal students is Communicate: In Print, a desktop publisher from Widgit. This generates the picture symbols (PECs) used for everything from the minutes of the school council meetings to lunch menus.
A favourite range is 2 Simple, which is applied to writing, photo editing, art and music. Pupils find is easy to use, yet it produces sophisticated results. CrazyTalk 5, by Reallusion, is a recent fun addition to the software battery. Here, students can take a still picture and create an animated, 3D, talking character, bringing Henry VIII to life, for instance. Much of the software can be used just as successfully in mainstream settings; simplicity and adaptability are the main concerns when choosing new programs, according to Mrs White.
Advice and support for teachers from Inclusive Technology