When people talk about access for learners with special needs, they usually mean physical access. But what about intellectual access? We devote an extraordinary amount of time to teaching people to read as if literacy were the be-all and end-all of education. Of course, reading is important, but we can't wait for people to develop good reading skills before we start educating them. Text is no longer the only medium for conveying information. And some people will never learn to read. In these days of moving images and voice-overs, shouldn't we be looking at ways of educating the whole person, instead of just concentrating on one skill?
There has recently been a spate of software dealing with moral and social issues. From Yorkshire Interactive Thomson Multimedia comes Growing Up Together, a very interesting CD-Rom (for 5-12-year-olds). The basic format is that you explore a block of flats to find out who lives there. Students investigate themes such as death and bereavement, the generation gap and Jewish and Muslim festivals. I suspect that few younger pupils will have the necessary concentration and listening skills to follow such complex information, but older pupils and adults could use the video sequences as the basis for discussion and for recording their own thoughts.
The Feelings Factory from Semerc has been developed by a team in Liverpool to promote discussion about such subjects as violence and inappropriate touching. Its aim is to help adults with learning disabilities and children to communicate their feelings and to discuss their own experiences. It uses images, sound and speech that can be adapted for any culture or language. This is not the sort of package that should be used for solitary study since the whole purpose is to start and to develop the process of communication.
The latest venture from Widgit Software also focuses on feelings that are hard to express. In conjunction with Westminster College, Widgit is producing a range of symbol materials about bereavement. "There are times when we all find it difficult to cope, for example if your child or parent is dying," says Tina Detheridge of Widgit. "It is even harder for people with learning difficulties. "
These materials really show the value of symbol software. They can be distributed electronically and then personalised to meet individual needs, so the story of Aunt Bessie's funeral can be changed to grandad's funeral and the symbol will change, too. Because symbol software is essentially a talking word processor, you can use the computer just as on-screen talking books or you might choose larger symbols and print them out for a visually impaired person. Erica Brown of Westminster College is working with groups from different faiths so there will be a multicultural aspect to the work.
Widgit is launching a symbol subscription scheme this autumn and these stories are part of the package. Tina Detheridge would like to hear from sites interested in trying out the materials.
Plenty of good work has come out of the alliance of VIRART, a research unit at Nottingham University, and the local Shepherd School. They have been using virtual reality to create worlds that can be explored by pupils with severe learning difficulties, some of whom have additional physical disabilities. Now a number of these worlds are available through Rompa. Lifestyles costs Pounds 163-Pounds 199 and brings together several environments: road safety, shopping or wandering round the house, making a cup of coffee in the virtual kitchen.
Perhaps the most exciting world is the virtual ski slope. It gives pupils the chance to develop direction skills and gives them access to a physical activity that many will never enjoy in real life. "It introduces an element of speed, which some pupils with profound and multiple disabilities never experience, " says David Stewart, headteacher at The Shepherd School. "They are in control and they zip down the slopes at a cracking rate."
Sometimes literacy training and thought-provoking themes can be combined. Words in Action is a revamped and revised version of The Reading Disc (CTAD). It helps students to develop the skills for reading, writing, speaking and listening. The first version had topics such as caring for elderly or disabled relatives, homelessness, drugs and job seeking. The new version covers bullying, contraception, infertility and prisoners' rights. Everything on screen can be read aloud and there are video clips to stimulate discussion and lots of superb colour photos to enhance students' work.
To some people, it may seem that this emerging genre of new software is merely depressing, with its dramatic subjects such as death, drugs and violence. These are, however, topics of perennial interest. Perhaps that is why they feature so strongly in soap operas on television. Unfortunately, for many of the students in our schools they really are everyday issues.
CTAD 43 Clifton Road, Cambridge CB1 4FB. Tel: 01223 582582 Rompa Goyt Side Road, Chesterfield Derbyshire S40 2PH. Tel: 01246 211777; fax 01246 221802 Semerc 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4LB. Tel: 0161 627 4469 Widgit Software 102 Radford Road Leamington Spa CV31 1LF. Tel: 01926 885303 YITM The Television Centre, Leeds LS3 1JS. Tel: 0113 243 8283 .