Inclusion Guru: Kathy White’s 6 Accessibility Strategies that Got Results

by Kathy White and Mary Pembleton

Student and teacher with computer

Kathy White is co-chair of the AT Forward Project for the state of Wisconsin, and a retired assistive technology specialist with over 33 years of experience working in the public school system in Janesville, Wisconsin. In that time, she witnessed the classrooms in her community gradually change from groups of students with similar learning needs to a student population with vastly different challenges and strengths.

Kathy White

“You’ve got students who are English Language Learners, you’ve got students who may have a learning disability—these students have moved so many times and the curriculum has been different in every school,” Kathy says. “You have this huge mix.”

This diversity creates a vibrant and beautiful student population with many different perspectives and abilities to contribute to the community, but it also poses the question:

How do overwhelmed educators and practitioners find the time to scaffold learning for this diverse population of students, each with different individual learning needs?

The answer? They don’t have the time to meet every single student’s needs, regardless of how much effort they put in. “Put simply: there are too many kids and not enough me,” Kathy says, reflecting the sentiments of many educators, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and administrators.

Sound familiar?

For Janesville, where Kathy worked, that’s where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and district-wide assistive technology implementation came into play.

In this article, we’re going to explore how Kathy and her team were able to get buy-in for universal assistive technology and successfully implement it district-wide, to the great benefit of both educators and students.

See how uPAR had a huge impact on learning outcomes in Janesville

The efforts of Kathy and her team to integrate UDL and assistive technology allowed for the kind of rich inclusive environment where different learning needs were intrinsically supported by the environment, saving teachers a lot of time and effort in the end because the accessible learning tools help students access the curriculum independently—reducing the need to modify materials to meet a wide variety of individual needs.

And it was this environment that drove inclusion outcomes by allowing more special education students to stay in general education classrooms in Janesville.

We probably don’t have to tell you this, but inclusive classrooms provide multiple benefits to all students, not just those with an IEP. Inclusion and diversity absolutely go hand-in-hand!

Check out this great article from Understood.org that gets into deeper explanation about what the particular benefits of inclusion are.

Student working on a computer and a student with a book representing an inclusion classroom

How Universal Design for Learning promotes diversity and inclusion in the classroom

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes the benefits of inclusion a step further: UDL is rooted in the idea that when you provide multiple points of access to learning for all students, everyone benefits, not just students with disabilities or who have an overt and obvious need.

Here are some examples of Universal Design for Learning in action:

  1. Kathy had a student with dyslexia who struggled a lot with reading and writing in elementary and middle school, to the point where his mother wasn’t sure he was going to make it to college. Once he had access to assistive technology, everything changed. His writing and creativity flourished. He is now an engineer.
  2. Another of Kathy’s students was a middle schooler who couldn’t read or spell, and because of this his family said he could have a career working on the family farm. But he wanted to be a computer programmer. With the help of assistive technology, he graduated not only high school but college as well, and now spends his days working his dream career.

“We caught a lot more kids who needed help that way,” Kathy says.

How to use assistive technology in the classroom to drive inclusion outcomes

Okay, so we know the benefits of universal assistive technology, but how do we get buy-in from administrators, educators, and students? And how can we teach them to use it, without a ton of extra effort?

Kathy White and her team implemented a process that worked. Here’s how she would approach universal implementation in any district, based in her experience doing the same in Janesville:

1. Identify the need and gather data on student progress

Nothing is going to convince administrators that a purchase is worth the money more than proof of concept.

Initially, Kathy says that in the early days, Janesville had a hundred copies of Co:Writer (on desktop computers), and it was very difficult logistically to keep moving them around to the students who needed them. And she constantly had general ed teachers asking her for Co:Writer access for students that the technology could help, but who didn’t qualify for services.

Kathy would gather data on student performance with the tools: for example, she had students use Co:Writer and over a period of several weeks collected data on their scores, which improved exponentially from week to week.

Want to gather data for proof-of-concept but don’t have access to the tools?

2. Universally available Assistive Technology (AT)

Kathy presented her data to administrators and proposed the idea of universal implementation. Universal implementation is rooted in UDL principles, and by making the tools available to all students, Janesville saw an opportunity to fill the needs of even more learners which supported better outcomes. She also emphasized that it was more affordable to purchase the tools district-wide as opposed to individual licenses for each student that needed accommodations, and her administrators were convinced.

Once the district purchased the tools, Kathy and her team started introducing them to classrooms. These were the tools they used:

  • Co:Writer: This writing software easily integrates across platforms including Google Chrome, and offers a plethora of options that benefit writers: word prediction assisted by Topic Dictionaries, speech-to-text and text-to-speech playback with highlighting to make editing easier, the capacity to annotate PDFs, etc.
    Why did Kathy choose Co:Writer over other assistive technologies that help with writing? She had the chance to try out many different tools through the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative, and this is what she found:
Co:Writer word prediction in a google doc

“Co:Writer is probably one of the best word prediction programs out there. I’m a very phonetic speller. I used to spell the word elephant l-f-n-t. And there isn’t anything else out there that would catch it.”

Topic Dictionary Example Zoo Visit Selected

Co:Writer’s word prediction is very accurate on its own, but the Topic Dictionary feature brings in a whole set of vocabulary centered around whatever topic (or topics) a user is writing about.

“If you turn on the zoo visit Topic Dictionary in Co:Writer, all kinds of animals and terms will be available to students,” Kathy says.

Screenshot of Co:Writer talking about a zoo visit
  • Snap&Read: Snap&Read was created to help people comprehend text with a variety of features: a text-to-speech tool, a tool that removes distractions on a webpage, digital color overlays, the ability to grab text for note-taking purposes and automatically cite sources, a text leveling tool, and translation capabilities.
  • uPAR: uPAR is a simple evaluation tool that identifies how learners best comprehend text. It shows the differences in grade-level reading comprehension across eye-reading and various reading accommodations (computer-read and human speech). Over 50% of students reading below grade level can comprehend text at or above grade level with a reading accommodation, and uPAR helps educators identify which students.
Student next to uPar data

Kathy and her team would screen entire grades with uPAR, and it allowed them to identify which students would benefit from a read-aloud accommodation. Students responded positively to the uPAR reports that showed so many students that they could comprehend text at a grade level much higher than their eye-reading grade level. In other words: it provides a concrete readout of their potential.

Want to try PAR with one of your students?

“I would show them the uPAR report and they’re like, ‘I really am smart!’” says Kathy. “And I would say, ‘I’ve been telling you that for years!’ but this gave them the opportunity to really see it.”

3. Reframe assistive technology for classrooms

Assistive technology, or just technology?

Kathy and her team would introduce Snap&Read and Co:Writer to entire classrooms (including the teacher, to save time by training all of the students and their educator at once), not just to the students who she had on her caseload. And when she did so, she refrained from using words like “assistive technology,” or singling out individual student needs, but instead told the class: “we’re going to give you tools to become better readers and writers.”

“Change the focus,” Kathy says. “Don’t make it a special ed thing.”

This UDL approach allowed all students to benefit from tools meant to fill the needs of a few.

When you can teach a whole class how to use the tools, Kathy says that most often, the kids who needed the tools the least were eager to adopt them because they saw an opportunity. They would use Snap&Read to cite sources, or Snap&Read to multitask, and even in a few cases, listen to a reading assignment while running track.

“It changes the whole dynamic, because then the students who really need the technology are like, okay, if the smartest kid in the class is going to use this tool, maybe I should use it too,” Kathy says. “It makes a huge difference. They don’t feel embarrassed or singled out.”

4. Fold AT into the curriculum so students learn to use it effectively

With her many years of experience in implementation, Kathy developed a number of tips and tricks for teaching classrooms of learners how to use their reading and writing tools:

  • Make it a game!
    “For my younger students, I give a couple kids a regular old dictionary, and some kids get a computer with Snap&Read, and I challenge them to see how fast they can find a definition and pronounce a particular word correctly. The kids with the tech win 99.9% of the time!”
  • Incorporate AT into assignments
    Kathy would give assignments that directly involved the tools. For example, part of a typical assignment would require everyone in the class to cite their sources using Snap&Read, or complete assignments within a Snap&Read outline. In this way, the entire group became accustomed to using various features and would be more likely to use the tools on other assignments.
  • Frame AT as a tool to keep you organized and save time
    To “sell” the tools to classrooms of learners, Kathy would point out features that help learners save time. For example, she would highlight how quickly Snap&Read could help learners know how to pronounce a word and access a picture-supported definition, or how they could highlight text and organize notes in the sidebar while reading digital text.

Bring AT to your students with reading difficulties.

5. Train the trainer: Assemble a team to disseminate information

The last five years that Kathy worked in Janesville, she and her AT partner Sara Vold ran an assistive tech UDL team that included staff from most schools in their district: special education teachers, general education teachers, librarians, etc.

The team would meet four times a year and talk about Universal Design for Learning, and each member would carry that information back to their schools to work on implementing it. The team members participated when Kathy and her team taught AT to entire classrooms so they could learn how to teach the tools in the same way. This helped to streamline training, save time, and create systems that supported universal AT in schools.

In Janesville, general education teachers learned about the tools when the AT team visited their classrooms, and incorporated them into assignments and general curriculum. What they found is that overall, the tools ultimately saved them time. Because of the efficient way Kathy’s team taught teachers and students together, their students were becoming more independent, which reduced the amount of scaffolding needed to meet learners’ various needs. Students were able to better access grade-level materials independently.

Screenshot of the Learning Academy Portal

The Learning Academy is a fantastic free resource with content-rich video instruction that walks through different aspects of each tool. Short modules are designed to take less than 10 minutes to complete and are developed specifically to onboard students and educators. At the end of each module, a certificate of completion and badge can be saved or printed.

6. Celebrate victories!

Celebration may seem like a small or unnecessary step to universal AT implementation, but Kathy emphasizes that it’s actually one of the most important things to build into the process.

In Janesville, Kathy would make a point to celebrate student gains with both the student and the administration. Celebrating and sharing positive outcomes reassures administrators that universal AT is working, and helps students feel good about using their tools, and builds their self-esteem!

“Instead of pointing out to a student that they got an F on a paper, I would say ‘You can now use speech recognition to type correctly with no errors and read three paragraphs faster than I can type them!’” Kathy says.

With administrators, she would relay victories to educators and administrators in quick passing exchanges. For example:

“Hey! I saw [student name] this morning, and he was able to write six sentences on his own using the tools!” or “I have a student who has never read a book on his own and now he’s using Bookshare and reading 30 books a month.”

“Those are huge wins,” Kathy says.

UDL Project data infographic

Kathy points to how a UDL approach to assistive technology improved student outcomes in Janesville:

“They stayed in school, they graduated, truancy went down, inner office referrals went down. Once they could access reading and they read independently more often, comprehension and vocabulary improved. And all those successes are connected to future successes–to career successes.”

When learners are empowered with knowledge and tools and choices that allow them to learn the way they learn best, gain access to the curriculum, and engage in school, they’re going to do better. They’re going to be successful. They’re going to be able to advocate for the accommodations that work for them, even into adulthood.

Student on a chromebook using snap&read

And when every student is able to access these tools, that means outcomes will improve across the board, and not just for the students that have IEPs. And universal implementation will benefit students with IEPs, 504 plans, and those not yet identified far more so than individual implementation.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Kathy says.

See how universal implementation can serve all learners in your district

Learning Academy