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The Promise of Technology for People with Disabilities

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

By Drs. Jamie Basham, Sean Smith, and Jason Travers

The United Nations has declared December 3rd to be the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme is, “Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.” Technology innovation has altered how we interact with others, learn new things, navigate worlds, keep track of our fitness, and find new experiences. Technology is increasingly integral to our daily lives. In today’s world, current mobile technology has far surpassed the computing power of common desktop computers of just a decade ago. As we look toward the future, the exponential rate of development means technology will become faster, more specialized, and so deeply integrated into our lives that wearable (e.g., on the wrist, in clothing) technology will be ubiquitous. Although some may find this technology intrusive, the integration of these technologies will support a more efficient and productive lifestyle. In that way, technology has the potential for positive and transformative impacts for people with disabilities.

When available and used, tablets, mobile phones, wearable technologies, and traditional computers have a multitude of applications that confer benefits to people with an array of disabling conditions. Technology serves as augmentative and alternative communication devices for people who have limited speech. Students who are blind or have vision impairments use devices to describe objects and guide them in physical and digital environments. Children and adults with learning or cognitive disabilities can access digital systems to support autonomy including independent learning, decision-making, daily functioning, and on and on. For individuals with disabilities, accessing and learning to use technology has life changing effects. Indeed, technology and the associated skills are basic blocks for building independent, healthy, and a meaningful life filled with personal meaning.

Unfortunately, many students and adults with disabilities do not have access to these technologies, are not taught requisite skills, and are not provided with necessary supports to benefit from the unlimited potential of the available and emergent technology. Although some in the technology industry have made great strides in developing Universally Designed systems that enhance access and use for all individuals, other companies are not making this same investment. Moreover, in the education space, service providers (e.g., educators, support personnel) remain unaware of the ways technology can be used in concert with specific skills to provide the quality of life of individuals with disabilities. For instance, many educators lack the knowledge and skills to conduct needs assessments to inform ways technology could be used to support students with disabilities. A collective effort is needed to develop sustainable and universally designed systems as well as skilled service providers who can purposefully integrate technology. Globally, technology development and educations systems should be focused on improving the quality of life for all individuals, especially those with disabilities.

On December 3rd, we urge leaders in the technology sector, service providers, and specifically educators to consider how current, innovative, and conceptualized technology can be used to support persons with disabilities. The power of technology can serve as a tool that provides for inclusiveness, equity, and a quality of life we all deserve. As a global community, we must consider how technology can support communication, learning, independence, productivity, and social interactivity necessary for a meaningful life.

Good Jamie

James D. (Jamie) Basham, Ph.D., is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. He earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Basham’s research is focused on student learning in modern learning environments chiefly related to the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). He is well published, has given numerous talks, and has served as a consultant for school districts, universities, state agencies, and corporate entities on modern learning environments, Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) education, big data, personalization, and UDL. Dr. Basham serves on editorial boards for various journals and was a co-guest editor for the Journal of Special Education Technology topical issue on STEM education for individuals with diverse learning needs. Beyond journals, he serves on the ISTE SETSIG executive board and the SXSWedu Advisory Board. Finally, Dr. Basham is a cofounder of the global UDL Implementation Research Network (UDL-IRN).


Sean J. Smith holds the rank of Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Smith has a background in the area of special education and technology, specifically towards the integration of technology across teacher preparation programs. He has authored and presented a number of articles and papers dealing with special education technology and is currently a Project Director on several US Department of Education program initiatives seeking to further the integration of technology components across teacher preparation programs and into the lives of students with disabilities as well as the development of a virtual social skill training experience for students with Autism. Dr. Smith has served as an associate editor for the Journal of Special Education Technology and currently serves as an Associate Editor for Teaching Exceptional Children. He is the proud parent of four young children, one having an intellectual disability.


Jason Travers is an assistant professor in the special education department at Kansas University. Jason earned his doctorate at University of Nevada Las Vegas and is a former public school special educator for learners with autism. He researches the effects of shared active surface technology on academic, communicative, and social-behavioral skills of learners with autism. Additional research interests include trends in racially disparate identification of students in the autism eligibility category, equitable access to early intervention, comprehensive sexuality education for learners with autism, and evidence-based practices in special education.

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