Seeking help in the hype
It's been hard work finding out about products for the special needs market for this year's BETT. But one thing's for certain: it's going to be a great year for hype.
I have received an unprecedented number of press releases, all from companies claiming to be "leading suppliers" of "best-selling" software. Apparently it's all easy-to-use, low-cost, award-winning stuff - but I must admit to having had some problems in working out exactly what some of the products do and how they can help learners who are disabled, have dyslexia or other learning difficulties. For example, does anyone really want to pay thousands of pounds for an electronic register cum mark book?
Those who don't may find that NBT is more in their line. This is a small company which specialises in software for the Archimedes and BBC as well as board games for adults with learning difficulties. The company's road safety series won the Joseph Rowntree Award for Best Software in 1994 and it also has many other programs for leisure and recreation, shopping and cooking. Unfortunately, many of its products are not switch accessible, which limits their market.
Switch users used to be restricted to a narrow range of products but recent innovations such as Switch Access to Windows from the ACE Centre have opened up more of the standard software. But games are still a problem as most require quick reflexes.
Widgit has just launched Phineas Frog, a talking adventure game for the PC which can be operated via a range of input devices, including a switch. It's great fun and will be popular with parents and teachers.
In the old days, parents looked at what was available in schools and then bought something similar for home use. Now schools may be increasingly influenced by what is available in their pupils' homes. With this in mind, Ablac has launched a home and school learning link. Every time you buy a piece of software for home use, you get a Pounds 10 voucher for a discount on software to pass on to a school or college.
So what kind of software might you buy? There are Bookworm Talking Books for younger children at Pounds 29.95 for two. At the other end of the scale there are the Jasmine Multimedia Libraries for Windows and Mac. These are copyright-free teacher resources with video clips, photographs and sound on a range of topics from industry to sport, nature to special effects.
New word processors offering new facilities or different combinations are launched every year. TextEase from SoftEase is for Acorn and PC. This is a desktop publishing package which allows you to start writing anywhere on the page and rotate text and graphics, all for Pounds 49 plus VAT. For Pounds 65 plus VAT, you get speech as well.
TextHELP! from Iansyst is a useful facility for learners with dyslexia. It works with practically any Windows program and offers speech feedback, predictive word processing and the option of real-time spell checking, so you can correct errors as you compose. It costs Pounds 75 plus VAT.
I've always been a great fan of Information Workshop. Now Black Cat Educational Software has WriteAway, a word processor for Windows which has a planner tool, ideas notebook and individual pupils' word books.
More specialist applications this year include Boardmaker for Windows and Macs, a combined graphics database and drawing program which included 3, 000 words matched to communications symbols in clip art form. Produced by Mayer-Johnson, this will be on the Semerc stand.
Sherston is developing a speech recognition system which will integrate with the Talking Book series. The company visualises that this will be used to create Talking and Listening Books; the child will read aloud to the computer which can compare what he or she says with a model and mark how well it is read. Now that teachers have less time to listen to children reading, this could be a way of keeping tabs on what progress is being made. It may seem a bit sad and soulless, but at least the machine will not break off to deal with lost property or to tell someone to sit down. For some children, undivided attention would be a luxury.
If BETT is short of new special needs products, there is plenty of expertise on offer. On January 10 the British Dyslexia Association has an excellent lecture series covering such diverse topics as modern foreign languages, mathematics and multimedia.
The National Council for Educational Technology is following up on its focus on deaf people project with two seminars. On January 11, Megan Davis from Wolverhampton University will talk about the Internet and the work of the visual languages department, and on January 12 Steve Partridge and Robin Squires will describe their work at Allerton Grange High School in Leeds.
* Ablac - stand 120. ACE - stand SN35. BDA - stand A1. Black Cat - stand 732. Iansyst - stand SN18. NBT - stand SN16. NCET - stands 560544. Semerc - stands SN1SN2. Sherston - stand 260. SoftEase - stand 845. Widgit - stand SN8