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Opening doors: how new media helps kids with developmental disabilities

By Deena Larsen - posted Monday, 31 March 2003

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 children?

"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 University.

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.

Voyager Software has adapted a computer desktop tailored to people with developmental disabilities. IBM's "Watch Me Read" has been adapted to use with students with developmental disabilities.

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 opposites?

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 word recognition.


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 rationale).

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.

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This is an edited version of an article published in Fine Art Forum. Click here for the original article.

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About the Author

Deena Larsen is a new-media writer with numerous disk-based and web publications. Her works are used in university and high-school courses internationally. As a technical writer for the U.S. government, Deena develops web-based data applications, creates online multimedia manual and training materials, and designs websites.

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