Interview | Ruth Ziolkowski: Assistive Technology in Schools—How Far Have We Come?

Ruth Ziolkowski is the president of Don Johnston Incorporated. “We help students with disabilities demonstrate their true learning potential with technology,” says Ruth about her company’s mission. There are students in every school who have physical, cognitive and learning disabilities who are falling behind or who have never been given the tools and strategies they need to succeed, according to Ruth. “Our company is driven to look at these students’ true learning potential and to raise the vision for them to improve academically and even socially,” Ruth says. When it comes to serving children and adolescents with special needs, most educators are already familiar with Don Johnston—no not the penny-loafer-wearing guy in the white suit from Miami Vice—but just as much a celebrity among disability advocates. Don Johnston (pictured below) has dedicated his life to creating a caring company that develops proven assistive technologies that work for lots of students. Ruth began her work with Don Johnston in 1987. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in Occupational Therapy and a Master’s degree from the Keller Graduate School of Management. Ruth has held several positions in the company including VP of Research & Development and is currently President of the company. Ruth collaborates with a variety of experts in the field of educational technology and literacy. She is co-author of the Beginning Literacy Framework with Karen Erickson and Caroline Musselwhite, and served as an expert panel member for the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI). Ruth is also an advisory board member of National-Louis University, Bookshare and the National Center for Accessible Instructional Materials. Here, Ruth reveals some insights into what has driven Don forward, what’s involved in changing perceptions about assistive technology use, and the future of assistive technology in education.

Victor: Why is Don so passionate for kids with special needs?

Ruth: Don could be listed among the Wikipedia group of 89 well-known authors, scientists, journalists and CEOs who have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. (Think of Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab, and Anderson Cooper.) When you ask many of these successful individuals about their school experience, they probably have at least one story of failure in school. This is Don’s story too. His early experience in school helped to create his leadership style and evolve his ideas of how children learn. It’s with this passion that we built our company and that still drives our development efforts of AT products today.  Don knows what it’s like to feel inadequate and different in school and he spent most of his life wanting to change the outcome and remove some of the labels on these kids.

This is the legacy of the family-owned Don Johnston company that Don and I now run together with Don’s two sons, Ben and Kevin. We just celebrated our 31st year in business. Over those years, we have served thousands of districts and tens of thousands of students. We had a nice party with our employees and families; many of whom have also dedicated years to serving children with special needs.

Victor: Don recently wrote his autobiography, ‘Building Wings: How I Made it through School. Any insights on this? 

Ruth: After meeting with struggling learners in dozens of classrooms, Don realized that they experienced the same thing he did when he was in school. These students shared with Don the same feelings of shame, embarrassment and confusion. They were fascinated with his story and inspired him to share a message of hope for other kids—a story that tells them that even though they struggle in school, they can achieve their dreams. Don is living proof and I think that’s why his story resonates with children and adults.

Building Wings is written on a third-grade reading level so that more kids could read and relate to Don’s message. Since it was published, thousands of teachers and administrators requested copies because the book deals with issues like acting out in class due to an underlying learning disability, bullying and how some teachers still have misperceptions of students who cannot grasp knowledge in traditional ways. Don made his book free online. It provides insight into how students with disabilities feel. He also collects letters and videos from students who ask him about his life and who talk about their use of assistive technologies. He replies to everyone who writes to him. In addition to letters from students, he gets lots of letters from teachers, like this one (see letter).

Victor: How do we change perceptions?

Ruth: Getting students to talk about their feelings and learning issues is critical to their self-advocacy. In many schools, there are still those who view technology as cheating.  What is interesting to me is that as an adult, this perception changes. Today, Don is seen as a tech-savvy executive when he uses technology in his business. There is a big disconnect between the school experience and the working world. Some educators view the use of AT as an unfair advantage, especially at testing time. We’ve gotten better at letting students use AT in school, but when it comes to testing and for students to demonstrate what they know obstacles block them from doing so. We would never force a blind person to take a traditional paper and pencil test without an accommodation, but lots of people still feel differently about a student with significant dyslexia, or a learning challenge that is hard to diagnose. Ben Johnston created a short video about this perception called the Case Against AT for specialists and teachers to dialogue with colleagues. You can view the video on Don’s Blog along with comments from educators about the challenges of technology implementation. It’s insightful. I am not sure we will see a change in this learning paradigm anytime soon unless we clarify the skills we want our children to know. And until we shift our perceptions to look at the true potential of these students who can benefit from assistive technologies.

Victor:  How can assistive technology influence the future of learning?

Ruth: On some fronts, we are preparing students for jobs that do not or will not exist in the future. When AT becomes more available and seen as a beneficial tool for teachers, students and administrators, they will better understand how to incorporate the tools into daily mainstream instruction. As this occurs, we’ll raise our expectations for students with disabilities to improve academically and they’ll have a brighter future to look forward to.

In the past, AT has been viewed as a solution for one student at a time. While it is critical to look at each student’s individual need, the AT field has struggled with implementation. Would we have embraced the email revolution if we could only access it from a computer down a school hall or in one office? No. Our use of email has proliferated because it is accessible everywhere. This is where we need to go with AT in schools; more widespread use in school, at home, in libraries and on the go!

If we viewed AT as part of a larger school system, as we now look to smart phones, tablet PCs, smart boards and desktop machines, it will become part of the technology mix.  Some schools are already doing this. They look at their infrastructure and purchase school-wide unlimited licenses of the core genre of AT tools, such as Read:OutLoud eBook and Internet text-to-speech reader and a simple word prediction writing tool, like Co:Writer. This license includes home use. Districts recognize that while many technologies are constantly changing, the best accommodation tools to support students with disabilities remain the same. These core tools like word prediction and text readers are necessary for students to learn and compete in the general curriculum with their peers. As students become successful, they are more engaged and motivated and the labels start to disappear. That’s when expectations change and rise.

When districts approach AT as a “whole-school” technology solution, they truly create the least restrictive learning environments for students. They minimize IT and AT software management time and enable teachers to infuse technology into daily instruction. AT referrals decrease because teachers are handling this on the front lines and students are served more proactively which can also reduce the cost of some special education services. And as importantly home use extends learning time and skill practice.

Victor:  What about professional development for teachers?

Ruth: Once AT is available; we must address teachers’ comfort level using technology.  We operate in a world where for the first time students are typically more tech-savvy than their teachers. They are born with technology all around them. They’ve relied on it to accomplish many tasks. This creates a digital divide in schools and some teachers are reluctant to use technology if they cannot effectively incorporate it into a classroom setting.

In our new professional development program called SHIFT for shaping habits in fellow teachers, we encourage teachers to be champions in their districts and to lead out.

We do this by first providing products that can easily be used with less than 30 minutes of training. Tutorials are free and online. SHIFT incorporates proven adult learning strategies such as role playing and collaborative brainstorming. Often teachers and students will train together where teachers play more observational roles. This puts the ownership of technology “know-how” on the student who is encouraged to take charge of their own self-advocacy for the tools and strategies that can best help them to learn.

We like to involve parents too, because home use is critical as students get older.  Parents who are aware of the benefits of AT for children early on are strong advocates for AT in schools. They are more adept at asking for AT to be a part of their child’s IEP or Individual Education Plan.

Fundamentally, we would like to see a shift to students and empower them to be the drivers. That’s what Don encourages…acknowledge your learning style, find strategies and tools that assist you and ask for what you need to improve outcomes.  Once students understand which tools best accommodate their needs, they can demonstrate their true learning potential and subject knowledge.  This is our vision for them to achieve success.

Victor:  What research demonstrates the benefits of AT in school settings?

Ruth: There are several peer-reviewed journal articles worth taking a look at. Here are a few:

  • American Journal of Occupational Therapy (AJOT) just published a study on the positive effects of AT in public schools, focused on word prediction using Co:Writer. (Jan./Feb. 2010 – Watson, Smith, Andersen)
  • Journal of Special Education Technology (JSET) evaluated word prediction, word processing and talking word processing technology in terms of productivity.
  • A project we are most excited about (now waiting to be published) is a quasi-experimental study performed by Dr. Karen Erickson (University of NC, Chapel Hill).  NCTI awarded her a grant to demonstrate definitive evidence of skill achievement when AT is used with fidelity.  The study demonstrates gains in skills that translate to traditional methods such as writing with paper and pencil. We see this type of data all the time from our customers, but this is the first quasi-experimental and independent study to demonstrate this effect.
  • We also honor the work of Dr. Sally Shaywitz, M.D., a nationally recognized pediatrician, neuroscientist, member of the National Reading Panel, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the NICHD-Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention Deficits. Sally wrote about the issue of intervention versus accommodation in a 2008 article for dyslexic children.

Victor: Tell us about your efforts around accessible instruction materials, the AIM movement? How does it solve problems for students with disabilities?  

Ruth: I’ve been active in organizations focused on disability and access issues like the NIMAC, (National Instructional Center for Accessible Materials.) It has been interesting for me to look at the systemic changes needed in schools to address getting the required curriculum materials that students with disabilities need. We are moving quickly now to alternative formats, which if done well can significantly improve academic achievement for these students and level the learning field.

At the same time, digital does not necessarily mean accessible. Therefore we have to work hard to be as proactive as possible. We view our company role today as helping administrators and teachers lead out critical shifts to serve students with more timely access to accessible instructional materials. We will continue to innovate in this area and will lead change out with new offerings, so stay tuned.

Victor: Who does AT work best for?  

Ruth: AT products meet different types of learners’ needs and we know much more about what works best through our longtime relationships with schools and the ongoing research.

What is exciting is for us to look back at students who were the first users of assistive technology who were thought “not” to be productive members of society. Some of the earliest users of our tools have gone to college and are now working as web masters, newsletter writers, PH.D.s and researchers. Our company culture has always focused on our personal relationships with educators and over the years we have received lots of feedback about the impact of our products for students.  Lately we see more success stories about students with autism making great progress!

Victor: Can you give me an example of this? 

Ruth: Students who use Co:Writer (word prediction) and Write:OutLoud, (talking word processor) are able to engage in writing for longer periods of time. For students with autism or who are echolalic, they find that writing with these tools is a great way to express their thoughts. Without these tools, they would be unable to do this. This is a big breakthrough! Using the speech features and the writing supports of the software, they can hear their own voice. They start to use their voice to express novel utterances. While technology is accelerating, it’s still the tried-and-true core AT (accessible text readers, graphic organizers and word prediction) that makes the largest difference in student outcomes academically and socially.

Victor: What is your company’s vision for the future of education?

Ruth: We’ll continue to support educators and students until they are successful. We fully expect assistive technology (AT) to become more ubiquitous in schools. Accessibility will be built into technologies. Mobile technology and cloud based computing will increase access to technology. Curriculum materials and textbooks will be common in digital formats and this will hopefully decrease and even eliminate the need to scan printed materials. Finally, our students will continue to use technology on their own terms in new ways. At the same time there will be new challenges in schools. Digital text does not mean it is accessible. There are multiple websites that are not 508 compliant and digital files that are not in a format that can be accessed by AT software or devices. We’ve spoken with many districts and states who are still struggling with accessibility in the digital world.

While uncertainty is present everywhere in education, it is a great time for innovation.  Innovation will win out and that will benefit more students with disabilities. As a leader in the assistive technology field, we are excited to demonstrate new uses of technology and to eliminate the challenges and barriers we talked about today. We will do our part in changing the outcomes for students with disabilities. Our hope is that today’s students will write a different story from Don’s and we want to be part of the story where we build students wings and get out of their way as they reach new heights.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

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