School Technologies for Special Needs Children in Very Poor Countries (Harvey Pressman)

Harvey Pressman is President, Central Coast Children’s Foundation. He’s been Technology Editor of Exceptional Parent Magazine, a board member, of the Alliance for Technology Access, an Education and History Professor, and a Peace Corps official. He has written many books and articles about educational technology and the education and employment of people with disabilities, and has directed demonstration programs in these and other areas.

So much writing about technology in poor countries often focuses on the adaptations that need to be made through use of local materials, low-cost or no-cost solutions and cultural changes. We have far too often witnessed expensive failures of technology exports plunked down into environments that simply cannot accommodate them.

Over the past several decades, economically developed nations have made substantial  progress with assistive technology (AT) for people with disabilities and have even met with some limited success in adapting  certain kinds of AT in poor countries. Little or no useful information exists, however, about effective adaptations of low-cost AT in special needs classrooms in poor countries.

Thus we can find lots of examples  in developed countries of ways in which various kinds of AT have helped special needs children improve their literacy skills, communicate more effectively  in their classes and build other basic academic skills, but children with  special needs in schools in developing nations have so far benefited hardly at all from  any of these new ideas or approaches.

Examples of this kind of appropriate AT in schools for children with special needs in very poor countries are still exceedingly difficult to find.

For the past several years the Central Coast Children’s Foundation (CCCF) has been trying to make a small dent in this idea vacuum, by working with teachers of children with special needs in a number of poor countries in Africa and Central Europe, around issues of classroom  communication, development of early literacy skills, and cognitive development.

All of these efforts have had to operate under severe constraints  with respect to the existing barriers caused by underfinancing (Ghana’s special educators get $4.00 per child per year for classroom supplies and equipment), technology complexity, limitations in the  prior preparation of local special education classroom teachers, lack of communication avenues we take for granted (e.g., accessing email at a costly cybercafé that periodically loses electric power).

By trying to respond directly to the specific, expressed needs of a small but growing number of local teachers and principals in a slowly expanding number of poor countries, the CCCF has begun to accumulate a growing collection of ideas that teachers say work to help special needs children with special needs in their classrooms to achieve greater success in developing communicative competence, mastering basic literacy skills, behaving more appropriately in the classroom, and developing basic academic skills.

We have even begun to have some experience exchanging effective ideas between teachers of children with special needs in one country  (e.g., Ghana or Romania) and teachers of kids with disabilities in  other poor countries (e.g., Tanzania or Serbia). Some examples of these ideas are already available in our newsletters and on videos produced by our Ghana partners at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Most of the ideas that work are relatively simple to learn about and implement, and are VERY low-tech:

  • “Word Walls” that help teachers develop sight vocabulary,
  • “Narrative Stories” (based on the idea of Social Stories originally developed by Carol Gray for children with autism),
  • “Market Cards” to enable children with communication difficulties to play traditional roles of purchasing items for their families in the marketplace
  •  “Talking Mats” (imported from Scotland and adapted locally after we co-sponsored a trip by a Ghanaian Special Needs Principal to Scotland),
  •  Teacher-made “Pop-up Books” and  “Paper Engineering” activities introduced  by CCCF’s Senior Representative into Romanian special needs classrooms,
  • Communication books,
  • Visual Classroom Timetables,
  • Communication Passports that enable children with communication disabilities to carry around vital communication information about themselves.

We have been able to find free instructional and tutorial resources on line that provide simply described, useful how-to information about these ideas and techniques, useful templates and examples, helpful hints, etc.

Examples include:

* Communication Passports:

* Social Stories:

* Communication Books:

We hope to find more ways to make these ideas available to teachers of special needs children in other poor countries. We can share, for example, copies of PowerPoint presentations we helped four Ghana Unit School principals prepare for a recent conference in Kenya. We seek to expand our network of collaborative efforts with other groups that are working to adapt useful classroom ideas to special needs classrooms in poor countries, and in finding examples of effective approaches from teachers in other poor countries, in order to add to the collective knowledge.

For further information about ongoing work in introducing  assistive technology and augmentative communication in poor countries, see newsletters we have been publishing on line since 2009, or contact

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

One response to “School Technologies for Special Needs Children in Very Poor Countries (Harvey Pressman)

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