Valerie Fasano: Assistive technology to address learning difficulties

January 2, 2019

Assistive technology: Accessible, equitable, empowering

As a person who struggled with learning difficulties for the better part of my life, I've come to value and celebrate all that assistive technologies can help people achieve. Accessibility features create new opportunities and allow people with unique learning and working styles to flourish in whatever task or project they undertake. That’s what I love most: technology can help make the impossible feel possible!

Growing up in a home where we spoke both French and English while attending a bilingual school, I quickly fell behind my peers on learning to read and write. I can remember being deeply upset every night when my parents would sit me down to practice reading my Clifford the Big Red Dog stories. I felt foolish and feared failing because I knew I was not as fast or as clever as my schoolmates. I did not know it then, but I had a form of dyslexia. Today, I look back on that time and wish I could inject my younger self with all the confidence to tackle those hurdles; I know without a doubt that Microsoft’s accessibility toolkit would have profoundly changed the way I viewed my abilities.

Considering my personal trek through learning difficulties, I devote special attention to the assistive technologies in the professional development workshops I offer. As a former elementary educator and current Microsoft trainer, I seek to empower students and instill a keenness to learn. That's exactly what these technologies enable. They're more than just assistive programs. They represent possibility and equity! I strive to be the kind of teacher that supports students in finding their wild, fearless, bold individuality.

From built-in speech-to-text functions, keyboard shortcuts, and language support from the Immersive Reader in Office 365, there are a variety of powerful learning tools that support diverse learners. The goal is to ensure that anyone can create, communicate, and collaborate from anywhere. The glitch is that many Canadian educators have access to these instruments for success, but don't know they exist or don't know how to utilize them effectively.

My personal favourite tool is Dictate, available in Office 365 and OneNote. For students who have difficulty typing due to physical impairments, the voice-to-text feature allows the student to speak, and the text will appear in the document. This feature is available in several languages and will allow students who have difficulty to save time and attain better results.

The Microsoft Word toolbar featuring the Dictate button

That's just one of the tools available through Office 365 and Windows 10. If you'd like more info about how to create a more inclusive learning space in your classroom you can explore the capabilities of Learning tools here. You can also learn more about the built-in accessibility capabilities of Windows 10. And any time you need support, my colleagues and I on Microsoft Canada's Learning Development Specialist team are available to teachers across the country. You can get in touch with us at microsoft.ca/education.

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