Debbie Malone has been training adults with special needs for 20 years. Malone herself is visually impaired and instructs computer skills courses to both sighted and visually impaired students.
In preparing for a class for visually impaired students, Malone obtains detailed information about the needs of the students so that she has appropriate materials available. Initially, she prefers to provide one-on-one time with students so they become familiar with the materials and learn shortcuts.
Modifications such as screen readers and/or screen magnifiers are commonly used, as well as learning materials in alternative formats such as Braille, large print, digital or tape.
“When instructing blind students, it is also important to be descriptive, since teaching the blind is auditory rather than visual,” Malone said.
The major barrier Malone sees in training people with special needs is the unwillingness of organizations to pay for accommodations such as materials or equipment, no matter how inexpensive or simple.
Cheryl Johnson — another trainer who works with special needs audiences — has delivered training for such clients as the Utah, Wyoming and Idaho departments for rehabilitative services and has taught individuals with a wide variety of disabilities, some with a combination of needs requiring more than one instructional approach.
“I consider all learners to have special needs,” Johnson said. “I believe it is an integral part of my job as a trainer to determine how each student best learns and to adapt my instructional approach to their unique style.”
According to Johnson, the majority of modifications for special needs students come through the use of assistive technology. However, her instructional approach generally only changes if the student has a learning disability. “Then I would modify the content to make sure it was appropriate for their level of understanding and their physical ability to access the information,” Johnson said.
“The primary barrier to accommodating people with special needs is people’s attitude,” she added. “There seems to be a general lack of knowledge surrounding the options available to those individuals requiring special assistance, so people tend to shy away from making these decisions. Oftentimes people are uncomfortable around those who do not look or act the way they are accustomed. But within very few minutes of spending time with these people, you find they are just like the rest of us, and that barrier comes down quickly.”
Asked about students with hidden disabilities such as those with learning or behavioral issues, Johnson admits that these are far more difficult to identify without the student disclosing the information.
“However, generally, someone who has been training for a while can pick up on these problems within a few hours of classroom time,” she said. “Everyone can learn. I have never found anyone incapable of learning. But I have seen many classrooms where teachers have found it difficult or impossible to understand the needs of all their students.”
“Trainers need to take a more proactive approach in surveying their students for more than just learning accommodations. If trainers conduct a quality needs assessment of their students, they will not only identify their needs but the unique needs that we all have in learning information,” Johnson said.
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