Teenager Tammy jumps up and down by
the computer. "My turn, my turn,"
she cries and expertly flicks the mouse
to choose a link, enthusiastically using
the pictures to read the page. Yet Tammy
has troubles tying her shoes and looking
both ways to cross a street.
Computers have become so pervasive that
mouse and basic navigation skills have
reached almost all levels of Western cultures.
Where we once worried about teaching hypertext
navigation and theory, now the internet
is incorporated into our daily activities
and navigation is no longer questioned.
Can these skills be used to teach students
with developmental disabilities about
life, sequence connections, and even literature?
Can the new media forays into navigation,
imagery, sound, and animation reach these
"Computers, multimedia and the
internet have provided families, professionals,
and people with special needs with an
extremely powerful tool to assist in fostering
independence, increased access and availability
of information," Carl Parson says
in his paper 'Communication Technology
as a Means of Empowerment.' (Journal of
Family Studies, Vol.3, No.1, April 1997).
Parsons is Director of Integrated Services
at Port Phillip's Specialist School and
teaches educational assessment for students
with developmental disabilities at LaTrobe
An impressive array of sites has been
collected to create new applications and
adapt existing applications for working
with students with developmental disabilities.
Teachers and parents use games to foster
interaction and learning. New applications
are being developed as computer scientists
work directly with special education professionals
to develop modules designed for individual
learning styles. Using
Macintosh Computers with Special Needs
Students is a good jumping off point.
Software has adapted a computer desktop
tailored to people with developmental
disabilities. IBM's "Watch Me Read"
has been adapted to use with students
New media has been at the forefront
of new ways of conveying meaning through
sound, imagery, navigation, and text.
Can we use these conventions and insights
to help Tammy and others like her learn
associative linking and relationships
such as causal, sequence, similar, and
To find out, I volunteered for a month
at the Port Phillips Specialist School
in Melbourne, to learn about special education
techniques and to adapt new media concepts
of imagery and navigation for students
with developmental disabilities. I provided
four reading activities with groups of
students who had IQs of less than 70.
Most also had autism or further disabilities
that precluded full reading comprehension
New media writing exercises help students
understand associative linking (how two
activities such as surfing and boogie
boarding are more closely associated than
other activities such as going to school
or eating fish and chips). These exercises
can also spark enthusiasm for writing
and the repetitive reading needed for
reading practice as well as sound and
Seven group members, an assistant, and
I sat in the computer room to write a
story. I suggested writing about the beach,
as this was a familiar place for all the
students. We discussed what the students
liked to do at the beach, and chose seven
sentences. Each student chose one sentence
for another to illustrate.
After the students had drawn their pictures,
we discussed associative linking. For
example, one sentence was "I like
to catch fish in the sea." We asked
what else we did in the sea, and linked
that page to "I swim in the sea."
We also linked to "I like to eat
fish and chips" as this was what
we did with the fish. After reading the
story, several students spontaneously
suggested more links (each with a corresponding
I scanned the drawings and created a
hypertext. Before reading on the computer,
we reviewed our story the next day. Students
chose a different page to read than the
page that they had illustrated, and we
again followed the links. This reading
provided a way to repeat the reading lesson
while keeping the material fresh. Students
chose a different navigation method from
the first reading, so that each page was
read in a different context.