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Pick of the products;BETT '99;Special needs

Books and keyboards, tracker balls, tools and talks - Sally McKeown looks at what's on offer at BETT`'99.

THE construction of the National Grid for Learning has fertilised a fine crop of new technologies for pupils with special needs and this year's BETT educational technology show will have many on display, plus a particularly good seminar programme.

Paul Nuttall, from Granada Learning (SEMERC), is well known for his enthusiasm for gizmos which allow disabled students to use standard software packages. He is particularly pleased with some of this year's offerings. Kids Ball (pound;49) is a large tracker ball which is an alternative mouse device. It's big and brash and ideal for young children or users who have difficulty using the standard mouse.

Big Keys (pound;99.95) is a chunky keyboard which is robust enough to withstand a real hammering and there is a choice of ABC or qwerty layouts.

Simple ideas are often the best and the Maxess tray and mounts (pound;30) allow switches to be positioned anywhere and at any angle on its surface. This can make all the difference to hand-switch users.

Little Ed (pound;199) is a small hand-held device which can be programmed to deliver two minutes of speech. This can be simple utterances, such as "Coffee, white, no sugar", through to long and complex messages. It has a built-in microphone, and speech buttons can be labelled with written text or symbols. It was designed in collaboration with the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and the really exciting news is that Little Ed is half the cost of comparable devices on the market.

More than 9,000 schools use the Wellington Square reading scheme and now levels 4 and 5 (pound;59 each) are being launched at BETT. At this level the books are a little more demanding, but the software has been designed to help learners extend their reading skills, concentration span and their ability to follow a story.

Two Widgit products, First Keys to Literacy (pound;40) and Writing with Symbols (Acorn pound;75, PC pound;85), are recommended in the National Literacy Strategy training materials. The latter is new this year and is aimed at schools, FE colleges, careers and the adult education community. It is a top-quality word and symbol processor, with a pictorial spell-checker, more than 5,000 Rebus symbols and more than 6,000 Mayer-Johnson PCS symbols.

The Government's New Deal and the University for Industry mean that there is an increasing demand for assessment tools for literacy and numeracy. BeST software offers a Screening Toolkit for Basic Skills (pound;294) that assesses literacy and numeracy against entry skills, level 1 and level 2 of the basic skills standards. It generates reports at different levels from a chart which maps skills to Wordpower and Numberpower criteria, through to a full narrative diagnostic report. It has been tried and validated by City and Guilds and can be used by careers advisers, training staff and college lecturers.

Karen Davies, one of the creators of the disc, says: "The materials have been influenced by our work with dyslexic learners. It is proving particularly attractive to disaffected young men as it is multimedia and interactive. It is quick and easy to administer and is very time and cost effective."

The most attractive feature of Inclusive Writer (pound;80 single user, pound;120 five users) is that it is a helpful way of providing differentiation to a wide range of learners. Chris Hopkins, an educational consultant, says: "This has a lot of potential to support early writing. You can have symbols attached to the words, on-screen grids and can customise the size of the text and the graphics to suit the needs of the individual."

If someone is struggling with spelling, a conventional spell-checker may be of limited use, so Inclusive Writer has speech and pictures as additional support.

nclusive Technology is launching Intellitools' Access Pack for Windows, and Arjan Khalsa of Intellitools will be at BETT to give a talk each afternoon as part of the seminar programme.

If you have a particular interest in dyslexia, the British Dyslexia Association is giving seminars on Wednesday covering study skills voice recognition.

The British educational Communications and Technology Agency will also be holding a seminar on voice-recognition systems and special needs on Thursday morning. The Department for Education and Employment has commissioned Becta to investigate the value of voice-recognition technologies with students with special educational needs. Twelve centres are evaluating the technology for learners with physical disabilities, visual impairment, specific learning difficulties and severe learning difficulties. The Becta seminar will give an update on the project.

Sally McKeown is education officer for special needs and inclusion at BECTA


BDA stand SN21 0118 966 2677

BECTA stand D72 01203 416994

BeST stand E80 01691 624634

City and Guilds stand E80 0161 953 1180

Inclusive Technology stand SN1 01457 819790

SEMERCGranada Learning stand SN9 0161 827 2927

Widgit stand SN13 01926 885303

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