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Gaps in the Special Ed Market and the Innovators Who Are Filling Them

Jessica Berlinski

Chief Impact Officer, Personalized Learning Games

Technology holds much promise for supporting students with special needs. In the past decade, innovations like touchscreen devices and tablets, text-to-speech capabilities and voice recognition have created new opportunities for improving access to learning and quality of life for students with disabilities.

With the marked increase of students enrolled in Special Education programs over the last two decades, government funding to support Special Ed has also skyrocketed. In 1977, government grants totaled $250 million; in 2013, though, they hit $12 billion.  However some point out that software and education technology for this niche market still has yet to reach its potential—with the billion-dollar opportunity in waiting.

If this is the case and there are gaps that need filling, what are they and who are the innovators in Special Ed who are working to fill them? One group of entrepreneurs to watch is U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grantees. ED SBIR provides awards up to $1.05M to entrepreneurial firms best poised to develop commercially viable education technology products.

Here’s a shortlist of innovators and ED SBIR grantees who have identified key gaps, created and rigorously user-tested products designed to fill them:

  1. When Personalized Learning Games’ Melissa DeRosier identified a lack of evidence-based tools for children with autism who struggled with feeling confident in social situations, she created Stories in Motion. The adaptive game-based technology engages 3rd through 5th grade students with autism and lets them create their own tailored narratives to guide them through common social After creating a digital story, the technology allows the student to print out the story in the form of a personalized “comic book.”
  2. Handhold Adaptive’s Rob Tedesco was frustrated that few tools he came across for children with autism coalesced multiple solutions in one easy-to-use tool. His answer is iPrompts PRO, a research-validated suite of technologies that addresses three challenges at the core of the disorder. There are three components: iPrompts, which allows teachers to create visual schedules and timers to guide students’ behavior; StoryMaker, which supports teachers to create social stories to help teach social skills; and SpeechPrompts which enables teachers to provide biofeedback exercises to help students acquire typical-sounding speech patterns.
  3. eTouchSciences CEO Marjorie Darrah saw a paucity of software products that provide math and science content specifically tailored for blind or visually impaired students. She created eTouchSciences to boost these students’ STEM learning. Her technology employs a peripheral device called a haptic force-feedback controller to allow visually impaired students to use virtual touch to explore three-dimensional shapes and receive kinesthetic sensations.
  4. With the introduction of Common Core, Attainment Company’s Carol Stanger identified a need for students with significant disabilities (for instance, those who might have an IQ of 55 or below) to achieve literacy and meet Common Core standards in ELA. Attainment developed and tested Early Reading Skills Builder, which teaches alternate-assessment students how to read, and Access Language Arts, which employs a number of techniques to adapt Common Core ELA content for comprehension by this population.
  5. Institute for Disabilities Research and Training CEO Corinne Vinopol noticed that an abundance of products that teach sign language, but none allow deaf students and providers to create their own unique products. She developed myASL Tech to fill this gap. MyASL is a suite of technologies that allows users to create their own stories, lessons and materials and then share them with other user—almost like a Pinterest for students and providers who use American Sign Language.

Hitting The Market

Some of these products, such as iPrompts, myASL tech and eTouch Sciences, are new in the marketplace, and others, including Stories in Motion and the Early Reading Skills Builder App, are due to launch in the coming months. Although new and emerging, what sets these products apart from others in the field is the rigor of the research behind them. ED SBIR mandates that products are both developed in concert with practitioners to ensure they meet their target population’s needs, and are tested in schools to ensure that products can meet intended outcomes in situ. All companies have published peer-reviewed articles (or are in process of doing so) that detail these findings.

Personal Learning Games’ DeRosier corroborates the importance of this type of research.

“As part of our R&D we work hand in hand with all our stakeholders—educators, students and parents,” she says. “It isn’t enough to have a great idea…if it isn’t affordable to educators, if it isn’t practical to use in the constraints of a genuine education setting (e.g., limited time with students) and if it doesn’t support educators in meeting the outlined goals of the IEP (including substantial data collection and accountability requirements), it’s unlikely to be used.”

But is having a good product good enough to fill a marketplace gap? After all, no matter how effective one’s product is, it won’t make it into the hands of the students who need it if few know about it. All these developers admit marketing in this space is a challenge.

“Often times parents and providers don’t know where to go to find the best products,” says eTouchSciences’ Darrah.

Similarly, Tedesco feels strongly that a clearinghouse is needed.

“The term ‘special education’ invokes a disparate user base with disparate technology needs,” he says. “Right now we have too many technology platforms sold through too many different channels. We need a central endorser and distributor that allows teachers and students to both try and buy research-validated technology.”

Until such a clearinghouse for K-12 products exists, one such place for at least parents to start may Understood.org. The National Center for Learning Disabilities, in concert with 15 national non-profit organizations, launched the site in October 2014 to provide parents with tools, information and advice for children with learning and attention issues. Their hope is to make parents feel more confident and less alone in their journey to support their children. Hopefully an Understood.org for teachers and students—that can drive awareness of these kinds of transformative tools and ignite more innovators to create, test and go to market—in the Special Education domain is not far off.

Jessica Berlinski

Chief Impact Officer, Personalized Learning Games

Jessica Berlinski has over a decade of experience leading organizations dedicated to supporting students through academics and social-emotional learning (SEL), and writes and speaks on SEL and technology nationally.

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