Inclusive software: How technology is reducing stigma and creating independence for students with dyslexia

Written by Troy Waller

After teaching in Asia for more than a decade and then returning to Australia to work in primary schools, Troy Waller developed a keen interest in how technology can be used as an aid for additional learning needs.

Now working as Microsoft’s Learning Delivery and Accessibility Specialist, Troy has seen the positive impact that can be achieved when computer software includes tools to support students with dyslexia.

Waller will demonstrate tools such as Immersive Reader and Learning Tools in a workshop at the National Education Summit to be held at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. On Friday 30 August he will present ‘The inclusive classroom: Helping students with dyslexia thrive with technology’ within the Special Needs Symposium, while on Saturday 31 August, he’ll give an introduction to the education edition of the popular Minecraft game within the Digital Classroom Conference.

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We spoke to Troy Waller to learn more about how inclusive design in technology is giving students struggling with literacy the ability to tackle tasks independently at school and reducing the stigma they face in seeking support from a teacher or educational support staff.

The National Education Summit boasts a comprehensive professional development program for teachers, school leaders and principals on Friday 30 August and Saturday 31 August 2019.

What are some of the important messages for teachers in your presentation ‘The Inclusive Classroom: Helping students with dyslexia thrive with technology’?

TW: Perhaps the most important message is that this technology is available now and it’s available freely to students and teachers. A lot of people don’t realise that these tools are even there and don’t realise they have been made available by the Education Departments, by the various Catholic Diocese and even by individual schools. Schools don’t need to pay any money to get these into the hands of the students, into the hands of the teachers, into the hands of the aides. Another thing to stress is that these tools are native to Microsoft Office 365 which means that these are the same tools that students are going to take out into the real world. These are the tools that students are going to take into the workplace. And because these are native to Office 365, this is the same software and same technology that everyone else in the classroom is using, so that’s going to reduce stigma while at the same time increasing independence

In your view, what are the most significant emerging challenges for schools and teachers when considering the impact of dyslexia in the classroom?

TW: The sheer scale of the impact of dyslexia in the classroom. Some of the stats I’ve seen say that the numbers of cases in the modern classroom can be as high as 1 in five kids. Another challenge is the lack of knowledge for teachers about what dyslexia is, how to address it, strategies that kids could use to better cope. A lot of people see dyslexia as a disability but it’s only a disability in the sense that these kids’ brains, and the way they learn, don’t always match modern schooling and the way things are taught. It’s not a lack of intelligence or a lack of capability on the part of dyslexic children at all. They just learn differently. They just see the world differently. I think it’s important for teachers to know and understand all this to be ready to support those with dyslexia.

Drawing from your experience, what are some of the positive outcomes that can be achieved when computer programs support students who struggle with literacy?

TW: Number one is independence. Technology gives students the ability to tackle these issues on their own. It used to be the job of the teacher or the aide to come and sit with the child and help them to apply the strategies: to decode for them; read to them; change the font size and spacing. Now the kids can do this by themselves. Number two is a reduction of stigma. As I said before, because the children are using the same technology and the same software as everybody else in the classroom, as everybody out in the workplace, as everybody at home, it is no embarrassment to be turning on the computer and using the tech to support them in the ways that they need.

In your opinion, what drove Microsoft to lead the access to technology for people with Dyslexia?

TW: In recent years there’s been a real change in the culture of Microsoft. We’ve stepped up in our embracing of inclusive design. There’s a sense of responsibility that’s embedded into our organisational culture. Microsoft signed the Made by Dyslexia Pledge in 2018. We were the first company to do so. We made a decision to see the needs of dyslexics in not only our workplace but also in the tools that we create. So, this is something that is part of who we are as an organisation now and in turn, part of everything that we make and create. Here in Australia we are forging relationships and partnership with organisations that support people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. We think it’s very important that these partnerships bring the best of what different organisations can do. Because in the end we’re greater than just the sum of our parts.

Where would you recommend teachers go to access more information around the technology available for students with dyslexia?

TW: A lot of the peak bodies around Australia such as Education Departments and the Catholic diocese have quality information already available to teachers. Of course, there’s a disconnect sometimes between the schools and their peak bodies which makes it hard for teachers to know where to find this information, but I would scour the website of your own peak body and see what you can find there. Another great organisation to explore is Code Read and another is SPELD. Both have a presence online and you can find them using your favourite search engine.

To register for Troy Waller’s sessions at the National Education Summit, visit nationaleducationsummit.com.au

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