To ensure optimal contributions, learning leaders should make sure employees with special needs have the same development opportunities as everyone else.
With businesses worldwide anticipating the mass retirement of baby boomers, the competition to recruit new talent is fierce. But learning executives open to change and different ways of thinking may find much of the talent they need right under their noses. The individuals who comprise this under-tapped workforce are employees with special needs. The key to accessing this diverse talent, however, requires eliminating internal barriers that may be keeping these individuals from reaching their full potential.
What constitutes a special need? Most envision someone physically disabled, perhaps in a wheelchair or with a guide dog. Rarely does one consider the many other special needs and “hidden disabilities” that are prevalent in the workplace. For the purposes of this article, special needs are defined as those that, when not accommodated for, can disrupt an employee’s ability to learn and/or perform expected job requirements.
Dr. Harry Rizer is the executive director of the National Cristina Foundation (NCF), a charitable organization that has been supplying computers and training to the disabled and disadvantaged since 1985. According to Rizer, “Adults with special needs are growing at a faster rate than the general population, with approximately 58 million Americans having some type of disability.”
So what do learning executives need to know about these diverse learners? And how can they maximize the training experience for all employees, as well as the training ROI? To start, they need to understand which accommodations can help maximize the training experience of learners with special needs.
The Special Needs Learner
Granting all people equal access to training opportunities means ensuring no one is prevented from participating because of a special need. As always, when designing learning and development solutions to performance needs, it is important to consider the intended learners; their learning styles, predilections and motivation; and conditions for optimal learning.
Special needs employees may need assistive devices. They may need tasks repeated, explained or demonstrated more frequently. They may need more time to complete an assignment or require extra assistance from the trainer. The special needs that appear to be most prevalent in the workplace are related to these disabilities:
• Deaf or hearing impaired
• Blind or visually impaired
• Physical disabilities
• Learning disabilities
Universal Design and Differentiated Instruction
Accommodations for these special needs range from alternative instructor methodologies as prescribed by the Universal Design and differentiated instruction approaches to a myriad of assistive technologies and devices.
Universal Design is an approach designed to maximize usability of products, services and environments for everyone: people with disabilities and those without. For example, training materials on a disk can be listened to by students who are blind, physically disabled and by those who have learning disabilities. They also may be listened to by a student while driving.
Differentiated instruction is a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms. These models require trainers to be flexible in their approaches to teaching and adjust the curriculum and presentation of information to learners, rather than expect students to modify themselves for the curriculum.
The following is a short list of potential accommodations to be considered to conform to these practices:
• Choose physically accessible locations for classes.
• Use movable furniture.
• Arrange for transportation to the class.
• Make assistive technology/devices available.
• Offer preferential seating (up close) vs. first-come, first-serve.
• Adjust classroom lighting that may impact
contrast on the board or computer screen.
• Provide a quiet area for reading or test-taking.
• Make instructor notes available before or after class.
• Ask a good note-taker to photocopy and share.
• Offer information in redundant media.
• Prepare trainer notes on a disk and make a copy available.
• Make sure everything you “show” in class, you also “say.”
• Translate important materials to other languages as needed.
• Customize how information is presented.
• Offer multiple ways to interact with and respond to curricula and materials:
• By speaking in class, into a tape recorder, to a computer program, etc.
• By writing and typing
• Control the format of information (type size, font, foreground/background colors, etc.).
• Be cognizant of the pace at which material is presented on a computer.
• Allow more time for activities.
• Provide multiple ways for students to find meaning in the material.
• Apply practices and/or skills to favorite activities.
• Allow students to work independently or as members of a team.
• Offer alternative ways of demonstrating mastery of principles and skills.
Assistive technologies promote greater independence for people with disabilities by enabling them to perform tasks they formerly were unable to accomplish or had great difficulty accomplishing. For example, although one might think the emergence of new technologies and distance learning offer effective ways to train the special needs learner, in fact, the value of distance learning may not be realized by these individuals.
Because the technology required to participate often is created without regard to people with disabilities, it creates unnecessary barriers. The following are a few of the more popular assistive technologies and devices useful in training:
Deaf or hearing impaired:
• Animated signing characters: Technology for displaying signed communication without
displaying a digitized video of a human signer.
• Software that adds sign language to curriculum materials.
• Files that can be exported to a variety of applications across multiple platforms including mobile devices.
Blind or visually impaired:
• Computer screen readers that relay back what the student is typing using a synthetic voice.
• Computer screen readers that output to a Braille device.
• Magnification software products that enlarge content on a computer screen.
• Camera systems that magnify print and text.
• Stickers placed on standard keyboard keys that either present the letters and numbers as Braille or simply increase the size of the characters.
• Larger computers that help with dexterity difficulties.
• Smaller alternative devices to keyboards that require less effort to press the keys.
• On-screen keyboard that enables the use of a mouse to select characters on-screen.
• Alternative devices to a standard mouse for easier control/use (e.g. joysticks, trackballs, etc.).
• Pointers and sticks that can be attached to the head and used to press keys on a keyboard.
• Predictive text (as with cell phones) that increase the rate of typing by giving the user a selection of words to choose from after typing just two or three letters.
The learners in today’s classroom may include people who need extra time and patience, communicate in multimedia other than written text — such as Braille or symbols — and people who communicate through sign language or communication technology. For many of these learners, alternative ways to access the skills and alternative means of demonstrating achievement are required.
Adjusting to meet the requirements of employees with special needs is not simple. However, by providing these individuals the necessary accommodations and fostering a more inclusive corporate culture in which all employees are given the same opportunities for professional growth, you will tap into a broader, more diverse reservoir of talent, capable of strengthening your organization’s performance, competitive position and human capital.Filed under: Technology