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The Future of Inclusive Learning AI Is Almost Here For Those with Special Needs

AI is reshaping special education by tailoring learning experiences to each student's unique needs, especially those with disabilities. This article delves into how advancements in AI, such as speech synthesis, content description for the visually impaired, and innovative tools like Otter.ai and Proloquo2Go, are making education more inclusive and accessible.
Updated October 1, 2023
Image by Anonymousteacher on Midjourney
Image by Anonymousteacher on Midjourney

Artificial Intelligence is more than just a technological trend. It's a tool reshaping countless sectors, including the world of education.

Imagine an education system that adapts to all students. And with all we mean ALL.

A system that considers everyones unique learning style, breaking down communication barriers, and providing insights for educators. That's the promise of AI in special education.

In recent years, there has been a significant focus on inclusivity in education, especially considering the challenges faced by students with disabilities. A study from 2016 highlighted that nearly 20% of undergraduate students in the U.S reported having a disability.

In reality, this figure is likely to be higher, as many students don’t disclose their disabilities. The challenges that these students face translate to higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates when compared to their non-disabled peers.

Historically, AI design and development have been skewed towards the "average user," inadvertently sidelining those with disabilities. For instance, Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) systems, predominantly designed around conventional speech patterns, may not cater to those with unique speech disabilities.

However, advancements in AI offer promising solutions to make education more accessible. There are multiple ways it can aid students, and make education more accessible.

1. Redefining Accessibility in Testing

The development of advanced speech synthesis technologies, grounded in machine learning, is one of AI's most prominent contributions to accessibility. Educational Testing Service (ETS) serves as a prime example, using Amazon's technologies to substitute human-recorded audio with synthesized speech for supplemental test content.

This not only accelerated the production of alternative format materials but also enhanced the quality of text-to-speech interfaces, creating a more natural user experience for students with disabilities.

2. Enhancing Content Descriptions for the Visually Impaired

For students who are legally blind or have low vision, accessing visual content can be a significant barrier. AI is poised to bridge this gap by automatically describing images and visual content. Initially, AI systems can draft descriptions which can later be refined by experts, ensuring the content fits the students' needs.

3. Revolutionizing Webpage Interactions

As the world becomes more interactive, it's crucial to ensure that everyone can engage with online content. AI-based tools, such as Siri and Alexa, are pioneering this by facilitating interactions through spoken dialogue models.

Imagine a "seeing" AI assistant that could help students navigate visually overwhelming webpages. By integrating such functionalities into everyday devices, we can not only enhance accessibility but also reduce the stigma associated with using specialized tools.

And even though some educators hold on to their concerns about students potentially misusing these tools to cheat, the consensus is that completely prohibiting them is not the answer.

James Basham, a University of Kansas professor and an expert in special education, along with his research team, have shared their perspective in their recent position paper.

One idea presented by the researchers, and supported by many educators, is the concept of AI as a "cognitive prosthesis". Drawing parallels to other assistive tools, many teachers see the potential of AI to aid students with cognitive disabilities, just like certain tools assist those with physical or auditory impairments.

However, along with the potential benefits, the issues of consent and data privacy also come into play. Teachers feel strongly about ensuring students are educated about the data collection and sharing processes inherent in AI tools, also calling parents to support in that matter.

There are already many tools out there that are specifically designed to support people with learning disabilities or to generally increase accessibility in education.

Otter.ai

The platform is providing students with real-time transcriptions, enabling them to follow lessons without missing a beat. This immediacy is complemented by interactive features that allow students to elevate their learning experiences.

They can highlight crucial information, embed comments, and even insert images directly into their notes, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of whatever is going on in school.

The stored transcripts, searchable and enriched with keyword highlights, serve as a robust study aid. Encouraging a collaborative learning environment, Otter.ai permits students to tag their peers and ask questions in real-time, fostering a sense of community without interrupting the flow of the class.

Particularly beneficial for video conferences and online classes, Otter.ai facilitates the creation of detailed reports and texts. These generated notes are not only shareable but also integrate with popular platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet.

To ensure a broad user base, the tool is available across various platforms, including iOS, Android, and Chrome devices.

Read&Write

Read&Write emerges as an instrumental tool, addressing the varied needs of learners. The Screen Mask feature acts as a digital line reader, helping students focus on specific sections of text, eliminating potential distractions and proving invaluable for students overwhelmed by dense texts.

The Simplify tool feature enhances reading by decluttering web pages, making content more digestible. Meanwhile, the Talk&Type feature offers a speech-to-text option, granting students the freedom to vocalize thoughts and have them transcribed.

This is especially beneficial for those who find typing challenging, allowing them to work autonomously and with confidence.

Voiceitt

The power of communication is integral to human connection, and Voiceitt is ensuring that it remains accessible to all, irrespective of speech impairments.

It explores the potential of AI to transform the way individuals with conditions such as ALS, stroke, or cerebral palsy, speech disabilities, aging voices, and accents converse with the world.

Understanding unique speech patterns, even when speech is incoherent or inconsistent, Voiceitt accurately transcribes it, converting the input into clear, natural-sounding speech.

Tailoring the experience further, Voiceitt allows users to customize the app based on their specific speech nuances, making it a versatile solution for a variety of speech challenges. It seamlessly integrates with other communication devices like smart speakers.

This not only amplifies the user's voice but also enables them to interact with their surroundings in a more organic manner.

Co:Writer

Co:Writer isn't just any predictive typing tool; it's one that's grammar-smart and inventive spelling aware. It uses features such as Word Prediction and Flexible Spelling, correcting errors into a coherent sentence. With the speech-to-text feature you don’t have to type at all.

Diving deep into niche topics often requires a rich vocabulary; with its collection of over 5 million topic dictionaries, it ensures that users always have the right words for any subject matter.

For those who appreciate auditory feedback, Co:Writer's Text-to-Speech feature allows users to hear their work. This auditory play-back can be invaluable for spotting awkward phrasings or missed punctuation and is especially beneficial for auditory learners.

Proloquo2Go

As an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app, it's tailor-made for individuals grappling with speech difficulties. At its core, it offers a customizable symbol-based communication system, providing intuitive and versatile ways for users to express themselves.

Whether it's younger nonverbal children or older children juggling both speech and physical challenges, this app has consistently proven its worth. For educators, Proloquo2Go becomes an invaluable tool, facilitating clear communication between the teacher and students who rely on its capabilities.

Seeing AI

This AI tool is crafted specifically for individuals who are blind or visually challenged. By leveraging the AI capabilities through your phone's camera, it deciphers and describes the environment around you, opening a universe of information and assistance right at your fingertips.

One exemplary feature is the “Scene” mode. At the touch of a button, the app scans and gives a concise summary of your immediate surroundings, proving invaluable when venturing into unfamiliar terrain or simply getting a sense of a new space.

With its barcode scanning function, identifying and gathering details about different products becomes very simple.

For anyone struggling to access written content, be it because of visual impairment or cognitive challenges, this app rises to the occasion.

It efficiently reads and elaborates on texts found in documents, books, and other print media. And for those who find continuous reading a strain, Seeing AI's voice-guided feature ensures they can comprehend lengthy documents effortlessly.

MindMeister

This mind-mapping tool is designed to assist students in structuring and picturing their ideas. It's ideal for brainstorming sessions, jotting down notes, and crafting study outlines. For those who learn best visually, or easily feel overwhelmed with unstructured information, this could be immensely beneficial.

Social Robots for Autism

While the previously named tools focus more on physical challenges, many people struggle with emotional development and education. With one in every 54 children being diagnosed, there is a lot of research on the efficacy of "social robots" in assisting children on the autism spectrum.

These robots are designed to imitate human interactions, but not come across as judgemental. According to Yale professor Brian Scassellati, children “tend to respond to robots ‘in a way that they don’t to puppets or pet therapies, or to many of the other kinds of things that we’ve tried’”.

Jibo, resembling a table lamp with a swiveling head, facilitated social-gaze behaviors like making eye contact. While playing interactive games with the children, the robot adjusted game difficulty based on individual performance.

Other options for social robots include Kaspar, a child-sized puppet or Nao, a more traditional looking robot. They all are designed to better address autistic children and their learning patterns.

The promise of AI extends beyond mere tools. It signifies a paradigm shift – from viewing students with disabilities as outliers to recognizing their inherent potential when provided with the right resources.

These AI-driven platforms are not just assistive devices; they are gateways to empowerment, inclusivity, and most importantly, equity in education.

As we stand on the brink of an AI-augmented era in education, it's crucial to emphasize collaboration - between students, educators, and parents - to ensure that the power of AI is utilized responsibly and ethically.

With the right approach, AI can truly revolutionize special education, making learning accessible, enjoyable, and meaningful for every student, regardless of their challenges.

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Written by Marei Schiffmann
Marei, a linguistics enthusiast, recently joined the Gold Penguin team as a writer. During her studies on multilingual communication, she discovered her true calling in the world of writing. She developed a keen fascination for AI and technological advancements. As a result, her writing primarily focuses on delivering the latest news in the realm of artificial intelligence.
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