Difficult Decisions

    I saw this message posted today on one of the support groups I follow on Facebook. It illustrates one parent's dilemma with assistive technology, but it also mirrors many of the emails I receive from parents and school colleagues who are working with young people using eye gaze technology.

    ""We fought forever to get our Dynavox with eye gaze. But now, I feel it's causing more issues than it helps. So many technical issues. Sometimes it works great, sometimes not so much. My son has pretty good use of his hands although he is not accurate in pointing or hitting targets, which is why we wanted to try eye gaze, but now I'm thinking we made a mistake in getting the eye gaze. He WANTS to USE his hands... and HE CAN -- kinda... though not always accurately. So I'm stuck... do we focus on learning eye gaze, or focus or helping his hand accuracy improve? I literally have to hold his hands down when we work on eye gaze, and that feels wrong to me too? So I'm just not sure where to go from here."

    With regard to the technical issues, if we are ever to succeed with assistive technology it has to work. No ifs, no buts and it has to easy enough for the people supporting the young person to learn, use and adapt to the changing needs of the user.

    The family here chose an eye gaze machine for their son because it seemed the logical choice for a young person who experiences difficulty moving their hands and yet the young person is clearly demonstrating that they want to use their hands to access the device. Many of the responses to the original post focused on behavioral strategies to discourage the child from reaching out for the screen.  I was a little taken aback. It's difficult to imagine any scenario (outside of heath and safety) where I could recommend strategies to forbid a young person with Cerebral Palsy from exploring the world around them with their hands. We want them to use their hands and in the process develop their gross and fine motor skills.

    Whenever I read things like this I'm reminded of the wonderful Joy Zaballa and the SETT Framework which encourages us to start with the needs of the young person, their environment and those that support them before we make decisions about which assistive technology may be the most appropriate. Technology is wonderful, eye gaze is especially wonderful, but the technology has to meet the needs of the young person not the other way around. Technology must 'fit' the young person... the young person shouldn't have to 'fit' the technology. 'Listen' to what the young person is telling you. Explore all options, open all the doors and give them time to play. It's not a race, it's a journey and one that for the young person, will last a life time. If the young person sees value for them in using the device they will, however they chose to access it.

    These parents face a difficult decision. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how to help them.


    Christmas is coming

    It's almost that time of year again when our schools resonate to the joyous sounds of Christmas music. Here at SENICT, we've putting together a collection of Christmas themed activities for those in your school who are learning to use a switch, touch screen, pointing device or eye gaze system.

    The activities will be available online from the 1st of December. Don't forget to download the PECS choosing cards to support independent choosing.


    October Newsletter

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness ... and a very busy time here at the SENICT office. This month we have information about a brand new course for schools, an update on the launch of our 'Assess and Make Progress' web site and our usual round up of assistive technology news and free resources.

     Cause and effect or as we prefer to describe it, 'understanding that you are able to extend influence and control over your immediate environment' is the cornerstone upon which all future learning and communication is built. Our new course for schools explores the process of developing this understanding and moving beyond it toward independent control over the immediate environment and those in it.

    We'll look at using technology to stimulate the senses and show you how to assess the access needs of your students in preparation for them taking control. We'll explore access devices such as switches, touch-devices, communication aids, pointing devices and eye gaze systems and show you how to teach with them. Finally we'll give you the tools and skills to set targets and record progress with a system that can be quickly adapted to meet the needs of your school and make it your own.

     'Extending Influence and Control' is a whole day course which can be delivered to small groups or the whole school. Schools booking this course will receive a comprehensive handout package which includes free cause and effect software, teaching guides and NEW progression maps covering switch, touch, mouse and eye gaze skills which can be personalised and edited to reflect the needs of your school or centre.

    SEN Switcher is back
    After the sad demise of the Northern Grid for Learning a couple of years ago, their web site and the amazing resource 'SEN Switcher' went offline last month. Some of you may know that Ian Bean designed SEN Switcher back in the early 2000s and wrote the web site and teaching guides that accompanied it. SEN Switcher went on to be arguably the most popular online software for early switch and touch screen users around the world.

    After receiving hundreds of emails from all around the world from colleagues and parents desperate to have their favourite resource back, Ian used his archived development files to get a working version of SEN Switcher back online. You'll find it in the Member's Area of our web site. If you're not already a member of our web site along with hundreds of other useful resources. Joining our web site takes just a minute and is completely free.

    SENICT does not own or make any claim to the the copyright to SEN Switcher which remains with the Northern Grid for Learning. We created this version simply to meet the needs of the many teachers, therapists and parents who rely on this resource.

    Once upon a midnight dreary ...
    If you're planning something spooktacular for Halloween in your class this year, don't forget about our free Halloween resources for switch, touch-screen, mouse and eye gaze users. You'll find them and hundreds of other free activities in the Member's Area.

    New Web Site Launch Delayed

    Due to work commitments, we've had to put back the launch of our new 'Assess and Make Progress' web site until later this month. Our new web site features carefully designed online teaching activities and assessment materials for young people who are learning to extend influence and control over their world with switches, touch-screens, pointing devices and eye gaze systems. We hope you'll find the wait worthwhile.

    Eye Gaze Progression and students with PMLD

    We've been looking closely at the eye gaze software currently available for students with profound and multiple needs and how they may contribute to a young person making progress with their access skills. The results were surprising. While many of the activities in these software packages provide a motivating way to engage young people with the eye gaze process, not all of the activities achieve the stated goal, that of developing and extending eye gaze skills with this specific user group.

    Over the coming weeks, we'll publish our findings on our web site together with some useful suggestions on how to get the best from these software packages. Schools keen to develop their eye gaze provision for students with profound needs may be interested in our half-day eye gaze consultancy, where we'll work hands-on with your staff to help extend their skills and providing a more in-depth understanding of what eye gaze progression for these very special learners looks like.

    Who uses our free online activities? 

    The number of people using our free resources continues to grow with an average of a thousand people from around the world joining our web site every month. Each day thousands of children in homes and classrooms as far apart as Alaska and Australia use our activities to support their learning and communication needs.

    The transition to the members area of enables us to better tailor the experience of using these activities to meet the needs of young people with severe and complex needs. All of the activities on our accessible portal are free now and always. Thank you for using them and helping to make them a success.

    Our Man Abroad

    This month has seen Ian travel to Zagreb in Croatia to speak at the ATAAC conference then on to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to work with teachers, therapists and assistive technology specialists to help them extend their skills and knowledge. Ian has delivered invited keynotes, workshops and presentations at special needs events around the world. If you want more information about having Ian share his knowledge, experience and unique presentation style at your event, please use the button below.

    Our next newsletter will be published in November.

    If you want more information about our work or have any questions or comments simply reply to this email. If you want access to even more free resources, you can also follow Ian on many social networks by clicking the buttons below.

    See you all next time.

    Ian Bean
    Special Needs ICT Consultant and Teaching with Assistive Technology Trainer




    SENSwitcher is back online

    Sad to hear that the Northern Grid web site has now gone offline and with it SENSwitcher, the program for children with complex needs that I designed almost 20 years ago. When we first made SENSwitcher, we also created a version which will run offline.

    SENswitcher Offline

    SENswitcher Offline

    UPDATE: I have created version which should now run in your browser as before. Don't forget to press F11 to maximise the window when the activity loads.

    Use SEN Switcher Online

    Hope this helps.


    Computing and Additional Needs


     Since the roll-out of the new curriculum, I've met many teachers who seemed genuinely worried that they didn't have the skills or experience to teach this the computing strand and those who quite rightly asked me the more pertinent question, “What will my students get from learning this?”

    I've thought long and hard about that last question. Anyone who knows me or has heard me speak anywhere in the world will know that for me, ICT has to be meaningful to our students. It has to be delivered at their level, drawing on their real life experiences and teach skills that have value both to them and to the world around them. I still remember meeting three students who had been taught to copy type despite the fact that they couldn't read even a single CVC word … or the class from a special school in the UK who were video conferencing with a class in Norway. Sadly, when I asked "What is Norway?", none of the students could answer the question. I don’t use technology for the sake of it or to tick the ‘ICT included’ box on lesson plans. I use technology for lots of reasons, none of which is ‘because I can’.

    So what can our students with severe and complex needs learn from the computing curriculum? What skills will they acquire from learning about algorithms, programming statements and debugging? In my opinion, there are some important skills we can teach here. Not for everyone of course. Anyone that tells you they can differentiate programming languages for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties is quite simply deluding themselves. For me, our students will learn important and transferable problem solving skills.

    Let’s look at what writing a program entails:

    Analyse the problem
    What is it that we need to do?

    Devise a solution using algorithms

    How might we do it?
    Are there any rules we have to follow?
    Break the task down into smaller steps we can give as instructions.

    Write the program using statements
    Put the instructions into the right order.

    Test and debug the program
    Did it work? If not did we get something in the wrong order? Could we try different instructions?
    The only thing we may not have come across before is the computing terminology. Here’s how I would define those words.

    Programming Statement
    An instruction we can give to somebody or something.

    A set of instructions or rules to complete all or part of a task.

    A sequence of instructions.

    Checking that your instructions are correct and in the right order.

    I don’t think there is anything new here for teachers in special schools… giving and following instructions, sequencing etc are all part of what we do each day. Here’s four statements from two very different computer programs. The first is from visual programming language called Scratch and makes a cat move across the screen before saying hello.

    The second was written using photographs by some youngsters from a special school.


    They are both valid programs. Each has a sequenced set of statements designed to complete a task. Each has been debugged. One of them has a complicated ‘IF THEN ELSE’ statement. Did you work out which?

    IF the toast pops up THEN butter the toast ELSE wait until it pops up.

    With some careful thought and planning, there is so much that our students can learn from the computing curriculum. They can learn to identify problems and come up with workable solutions by breaking the task down into smaller steps, then sequence, test and refine their solution. We can teach them in a way which has meaning to our students. Sure some of our students will LOVE the real programming tools, but some will need a less abstract approach and lots of real life examples they can practice. As ever, we are led by the needs of our learners.

    I’ll post more about the computing curriculum and the training I am able to offer special schools who are keen to get involved with it. I’ll finish today with the funniest moment from the video conferencing lesson with the school in Norway. One of the UK students turned to their teacher and asked; “Can we turn it over and see what’s on BBC?”


    Transformational Technology

    Remember when interactive whiteboards transformed teaching and learning for students with severe and complex needs? When Pokemon Go had all of our students who were on the spectrum out in the community socialising with others or when eye gaze taught us all we needed to know about our students with profound and complex needs. Me neither!
    Technology is an important tool in our toolbox. For some it provides a voice, for others it helps make accessible a world littered with cognitive and physical barriers. It helps motivate and enthuse students on their learning journey, but it is just one piece in the sometimes complex puzzle of how best to reach our students.
    Some years ago I said that the best app you could have on your iPad was an interested and informed educator, therapist, parent or carer who knows what to use and when to use it... or not. The technology has changed but what underpins that statement is the same now as it was in 2010.