I am often asked, "What contribution can OT make to AT service provision for students with disabilities when other providers are being used?"
Or, "What is a good answer to the question 'why does a school district AT team need an occupational therapist?'"
The role of OT in the schools is circumscribed by many factors, some of our own making and some not. Occupational therapists contribute much more to the learning and development of children with disabilities than just addressing motor needs. As children increasingly move into inclusive settings and participate in required activities (such as standardized testing), the occupational perspective will be more important for successful outcomes.
Consider the research and practice trends in general education concerning the use of computer technology in the schools.
Headline: "New Comprehensive Analysis Sheds Light on How Computers Affect Kids at School and at Home." This is from the Fall/Winter 2000 issue of the on-line journal The Future of Children. The issue examines the effect computer technology has on development and learning in typical children. It addresses physical, cognitive and psychosocial effects of technology; the digital divide; and the differences in teacher preparation and use between lower and higher SES schools and communities.
According to the authors, while computers hold promise for positive outcomes in learning and development, they also can have a negative impact on the health and social development of children who spend large amounts of time in front of the screen and are at increasing risk for obesity, repetitive strain injuries, stunted social development and depression (see related story on page 10).
The digital divide continues both at home and at school between schools in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods and higher SES communities. Interestingly, teachers figure into it. While schools in general have about the same degree of access to computers, there are differences in how the technology is used for instruction. Teachers in higher SES schools tend to use computers more creatively and focus on instruction for mastery and real-life problem solving, reflecting a difference in training and skill level among teachers.
How does this impact on computer use for students with disabilities? AT specialists operate under the assumption that technology levels the playing field for students with disabilities-that adapted computer technology enables students to show what they know and to acquire academic content. The reality often is that students with disabilities are playing academic catch up with their non-disabled peers.
There is also the assumption that as the devices become more available, plentiful and visible in classrooms, they will be more accepted. However, as students move into inclusive settings where the experience and training of general education teachers and administrators is limited, disagreements can occur regarding the daily implementation of technology.
Instructional technology may present barriers to learning that general educators don't consider because it has features not accessible by students with disabilities. Furthermore, access and use needs of students with mild disabilities, such as those with learning disabilities, who can use standard platforms, is routinely overlooked.
Who can help? Who better than an occupational therapist trained and experienced in analyzing and implementing occupation within context.
What can be done? Do your homework. Find out how technology is used in general instruction and think of ways it can be better used to meet the needs of students with disabilities who can use standard platforms. Advocate for your profession and yourself by discussing whole use not limited to motor access.
You can download the Fall/ Winter 2000 issue of The Future of Children from, www.futureofchildren.org. For resources on learning disabilities, try www.ldonline.org and www.ldresources.com. To learn about technology discussions in general education, go to www.eschoolnews.org.
Miriam Struck, MS, OTR, ATP, on the OT faculty at Towson University, Towson, MD, has worked with assistive technology since 1988 in both school and home settings. She is a certified assistive technology practitioner (ATP) and has presented at various professional conferences, both national and international, and conducted workshops on assistive technology. She also provides consultation and training in AT. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.