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Weekly Trend: Is Edtech Overlooking the Special Education Market?

In 1978, 8 percent of public-school children were enrolled in special education programs. Over the next 30 years, however, that percentage steadily grew. Now, federally supported special education programs support nearly 14 percent of students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

More students served means more resources required—and government spending subsequently increased over the same period. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that federal grants to states for special education rose from “under $250 million in 1977 to $5 billion in 2000 nearly $12 billion in 2005.”

Unfortunately, software and education technology haven’t exactly followed suit yet, even though this represents a billion-plus dollar market opportunity. Furthermore, a Software and Information Industry Association survey on the edtech market indicates that “revenues from special education products were highest, showing significant growth year over year.”

In many ways, though, developing edtech for special needs students doesn’t require substantial research or deep classroom experience. According to EdSurge, some of “the most successful assistive technologies for special education students in the general classroom largely involve innovative uses of everyday tools.” Similarly, EdTech Magazine notes that mobile devices unlock possibilities for speech recognition, text-to-speech programs, closed-captioning applications and speech-recognition tools—to name a few.

“Such technologies not only help students better understand concepts and keep up with their peers, they also allow the school to better and more easily integrate special-needs students into general education classes,” EdTech Magazine states.

It’s also worth noting that special needs kids may benefit from the recent trend toward blended learning: They have a leg up since so many of them respond well to the consistency of technology, especially though with Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to The Hechinger Report. “Unlike earlier technologies for students with special needs, the tablets and laptops are portable and indistinguishable from devices used by other students,” letting everyone have an independent, personalized experience without feeling alienated.

And that’s exactly the idea behind some of the special-needs edtech startups that do exist. For example, LocoMotive Labs designs games to “empower students with special needs to be independent learners.” Started in 2012 by two parents, LocoMotive Labs worked directly with speech and language pathologists, therapists and other professionals to develop their apps. The purpose? To foster both independence and inclusion.

“Learning independently is an empowering experience for any child, but especially for those with special needs,” LocoMotive Labs states. “By prioritizing children with special needs during the design, development and testing processes as well as by using independence and inclusion as guiding design principles, we produce high-quality engaging learning apps that change children’s “I can’t do it” educational challenges into ‘I did it!’ successes.”

Similarly, ExecpApps team says they decided to build software for special-needs children when they “realized that families with special needs deserve resources that either do not exist or need improvement.” One of their first products, Color Countdown, helps children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and other intellectual disabilities.

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Melissa Steffan

Melissa is the former assistant editor for 1776, where she worked on the media team to create compelling, idea-driven content and reporting. A Seattle native, she graduated from Seattle Pacific…