Virginia Commonwealth University
May 10, 2010
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By Mona D. Pruett, M.S., OTR

Pick up a newspaper or listen to any newscast today and it will be hard not to hear about a budget crisis in any sector of government. School divisions are not immune to this crisis, as school boards across the commonwealth are struggling to balance budgets. What options do school divisions and families have for providing assistive technology (AT) tools in a low-cost manner? One solution would be the use of portable applications. Portable applications are open source freeware applications that are loaded on a USB drive and run on any Windows-based computer without the need to install additional software. This article will discuss many free AT options that are available as portable applications. The cost to students and families is the price of a USB drive, usually less than $20 for 2GB of storage.

Middle school boy in hallway.

Portable applications are a low-cost option for school divisions and families to provide assistive technology tools to students.

How do portable applications work?

Let’s consider the use of portable applications for students by looking at two students and their individual learning needs. Stephanie is an 11th-grade student who has plans to attend a local community college after graduation.She would like to pursue a degree in elementary education following two years at a community college. She struggles with writing assignments, particularly the planning and organization of ideas and details. She has successfully used word processing with grammar check, spell check, dictionary and thesaurus features, word prediction software and a computer-based graphic organizer program to complete her assignments during her language arts classes. She continues to receive copies of notes for her history and science classes. Her typing skills are well established. She uses an agenda for keeping track of deadlines and activities but she often loses the agenda or forgets to bring it to school. Stephanie has held an after-school job at a local day care center since this summer.

Stephanie’s parents are willing to purchase an inexpensive computer for her to use at the community college but they do not have the resources to purchase any other software programs. They would like to explore options that are available.

Stephanie’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team met to consider Stephanie’s need for AT. The team completed the first section of the AT consideration guide and responded that Stephanie had IEP goals in the areas of writing, spelling and study and organization skills. On the second section of the AT consideration guide, the team indicated the strategies that Stephanie was currently using. The third question on the AT consideration guide asks if the current AT strategies are successful or if there is a change in the student’s functional or academic performance. The IEP team responded that the current strategies were not appropriate since Stephanie would be graduating and needed to have support systems in place so that she would be successful in college. The IEP team discussed the use of open source freeware programs that could be loaded on a USB drive. They offered to explore the options for Stephanie and assist in training her on the use of the applications.

Let’s look further at the programs Stephanie’s IEP team chose to implement. OpenOffice is a suite of programs that contains the same components and appearance of the Microsoft Office programs. OpenOffice offers word processing, database, spreadsheet, presentation and graphic programs. The use of OpenOffice on a USB drive will allow Stephanie to create, edit and save assignments to the USB drive and take her work with her to any available computer. To assist with her writing the IEP team also chose to use TheSage, a dictionary and thesaurus program that looks up words contained within any document. Stephanie also has used word prediction software successfully since middle school. The team decided to try LetMeType, another freeware program with the basic features of a more costly word prediction program.

The IEP team also included FreeMind, a graphic organizer program, on Stephanie’s USB drive. Stephanie’s USB drive was also loaded with the Sunbird application for her calendar and agenda. In addition, the IEP team introduced her to hott notes, which places sticky notes on the desktop of the computer as a reminder system. In hott notes, the sticky notes can be color coded, saved and edited.

Since training is included as an AT service in the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997 and the Regulations for Special Education Programs for Children with Disabilities in Virginia (2002), a member of her IEP team provided training on how to use the software. Because of the similarity of the applications to the programs that Stephanie was currently using, she was successfully using the applications within three weeks of obtaining the USB drive. As an added bonus, Stephanie completed her homework, turned in assignments and required less assistance from her resource teacher once she had all of her necessary AT solutions with her in all of her learning environments.

What other portable applications exist?

Let’s explore the use of portable applications with a middle school student. James is a 7th-grade student who enjoys anything outdoors, especially hunting, fishing and riding his four-wheeler. He also has an avid interest in history and tinkering with small engines. He currently struggles with reading comprehension. During the last school year, he has used a sophisticated text-to-speech program during his language arts class. He has shown positive results with comprehension testing when he receives his novels in this format. However, text-to-speech has not been made available at home or in his other classes. James’ parents and teachers would like to have text-to-speech available in all environments, including his home.

James’ IEP team met to complete the AT consideration guide . After completing the first two sections of the guide and indicating that James has IEP goals related to reading and that he was currently using text-to-speech programs, but only in a restricted environment, the IEP team responded that other AT solutions needed to be considered because James is not being given access to his required AT solutions in all environments.

The IEP team recommended a USB drive loaded with portable tools which James can use in all of his classes and at home. The tools the IEP team chose to implement with James included Balabolka, a text-to-speech program, and TopOCR, an optical character recognition program that allows scanned pages or images of text to be imported and read aloud by the computer.

James’ special education teacher provided him with training. James became so proficient with the tools following two days of training that he was confident enough to train his general education teachers, as well as his parents. James is provided with scanned text or digital-formatted text in all of his classes. He is able to complete his reading assignments independently and is able to keep up the pace with his class peers.

Where can I find portable applications?

If these case studies have piqued your interest in portable applications, then begin your investigation of applications at the AccessApps Web site. AccessApps is a project from the JISC Regional Support Center in Scotland that provides a range of AT solutions to support writing, reading and organization. The JISC Web site contains more than 60 applications that can be loaded on a USB drive. From this Web site, USB drives can be customized based on students’ individual learning needs. Tutorials are also included which demonstrate how to add additional applications from other Web sites.

Further information and additional portable applications are discussed at the Portable Assistive Technology Software SmartDrive® project (PATTS). The PATTS project was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to study the effectiveness of the use of portable applications. They concluded that the use of portable applications improves transition outcomes for AT software users, significantly reduces the cost of providing AT software to students and enables students to use AT software in all environments without limiting installation problems, licensing or compatibility issues.

Ability NetGate. Portable software solutions. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from

Ideal Group, Inc. Portable Assistive Technology Software SmartDrive® Project. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from

Regional Support Centre Scotland North and East. AccessApps. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from



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