The following quotation appears, unattributed, in a new publication from the National Council for Educational Technology: "One thing that I did find good for me was when we had a go on the computer, we found that I could write with a keyboard. For me it was like someone had switched the light on." For those of us who sometimes question whether educational IT is worth the effort, comments like that are a salutary reminder that for a sizeable minority of the population the new technology has been nothing short of a godsend.
The NCET's publication spells out the various ways IT can help people with disabilities and severe learning difficulties. Coincidentally, Research Machines has covered much the same ground in a new 30-page booklet which contains not only a very informative essay, but also plenty of useful addresses and two typical case studies.
One of these is a teacher's diary entries which track the progress of John, a disabled 13-year-old. He couldn't work independently, lacked concentration, seriously underachieved - and then he discovered Microsoft's Musical Instruments CD-Rom. John found the combination of pictures and sound irresistible. He quickly became the class know-all - at least on the subject of obscure musical instruments Brimming with new-found confidence, he was introduced to Microsoft's Dinosaurs. At first all he wanted to do - like the rest of us - was run the video clips. But soon he was consulting the index, doing independent research and using a word processor to write his own treatise on why the dinosaur became extinct - "ther was a cance in the wether . or mebe litle crecars ate ther eggs." I don't quote John to make fun of him - I have too many spelling black-spots of my own ever to do that. But the joy of word processing is that no one need ever know that John and I can't spell for toffee.
John can also resort to on-screen word banks, overlay keyboards and talking word processors that will help him hear his mistakes, or simply ask Miss and make his surreptitious amendments before printing off the final, impeccable version.
As the RM booklet emphasises, mainstream software can often be far more amenable than special needs teachers sometimes think. There's a brief but excellent section on how to customise Windows 95 using the Accessibility Options in the Control Panel.
The repeat key function, for instance, can be turned off so that children with motor control problems needn't worry about getting their finger off a key quickly enoughhhhhhhh.
The "sticky key" option which overrides those tricky double-key manoeuvres is invaluable for a child who types with a head pointer or mouth stick. Even the mighty mouse can be tamed.
The control panel enables the teacher to slow the beast down, or allow pupils to make a double-click at a more leisurely pace.
Every teacher who has anything to do with special needs, or harbours any doubts about the enormous potential of IT, should make a point of reading both these invaluable publications. Let's hope that this autumn term sees so many lights being switched on, it will rival the Blackpool Illuman - mun? - men? -min? - ations.
IT, Disability amp; Lifelong Learning (Pounds 5). NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Special Educational Needs (free), RM, New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4SE