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Inclusion Rather Than Exclusion: An interview with Simos Retalis on accessibility

By Begum Sacak / November 2022

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Learners with disabilities can face certain challenges that require specific accommodations. In educational settings, most of these accommodations are physical interventions such as creating educational buildings with accessible spaces. Though these interventions address physical disabilities, there are many different types of disabilities that are not adequately addressed such as meeting the needs of neurodivergent learners. In parallel to the growing need for creating accessible places in mainstream educational spaces, educational activities and interventions should also be shifting and include fundamental skills such as cognitive learning. 

In comparison to mainstream learners, learners with diverse special needs require adapted learning approaches with multiple sensory information and modalities. Learners with diverse special needs often need to interact with their environments differently to be able to process and internalize information. A high-quality educational intervention could tap into these learners’ potential by immersing them in an educational experience supported by multimodal learning opportunities with ongoing support from educators. Educational technology tools, such as learning games, could be helpful in introducing learners to different life skills. 

In this interview, Dr. Simos Retalis, professor of design models for technology-enhanced lifelong learning environments and the chief scientific officer of Kinems, shares the approaches and characteristics of educational technology tools that can help accommodate learners with disabilities. He addresses how Kinems, an edtech company focusing on transforming PreK-5 education around the world by offering engaging multisensory learning experiences, provides high-quality interventions for students with special education needs.

Dr. Retalis, how is the generic perception of disabilities limited? Could you elaborate on that?

Until now, when most people discuss disability, they address issues such as sensory disability, multiple disabilities, or people with hearing or visual problems, but disabilities are not limited as such. There are neurodivergent children, children with ADHD and autism, and the number of such disabilities is increasing in the general population. The problem is not only about being able to enter a school building or accessing resources but actually accessing quality intervention or learning sessions. It's not only the physical disability; there are much broader problems with accessibility.

Can you provide some insights into approaches or models that could accommodate learners with disabilities?

I think most of us are familiar with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which essentially means that learning should be provided through multiple representations. UDL is an effective approach for engaging children and helping them become more active, both physically and mentally. However, it is important to utilize tools that are based on Universal Design for Learning principles. There are two other concepts that should be taken into consideration.

One of the key issues with children with disabilities is a lack of motivation. They need to be challenged in a different way. This requires a new type of learning such as learning from games. Not only do they need to play the games, but also, they need to generalize and transfer the knowledge they gain from these games. One key thing about these games is that they should be designed in such a way that learners should be able to acquire life skills.

The other issue is that the effectiveness of these tools and games should be evidence-based. It is not enough to know that a particular learning tool or game works, it is also important to know under which conditions an intervention as such works. Educators need to know which tools are appropriate for learners with special needs. The Kinems platform is a good example of an innovative platform that can address a variety of accessibility needs. Kinems is a multimodal platform, so it is possible to design a learning experience in different ways. Children can play games either on an interactive board, or on their own tablets, but they can also engage in these activities with kinesthetic activities (embodied learning). It is important to have that flexibility from a UDL perspective. In other words, it is very important to find tools as such backed up by research studies that have been proven to be appropriate for learners with special needs.

What could be some challenges in implementing these approaches or tools?

One of the challenges for educational institutions is budget-related problems to acquire such tools or resources. There are also other challenges such as the way the educational spaces are designed. As an example, it is possible to design an educational activity for children where they can work in stations or small groups, but whether there is enough space is a question. There should also be resources for learners such as an interactive board for explaining and practicing different activities.

Another challenge is that not all teachers are willing to address these approaches or tools. There are some educators who are champions in implementing UDL and using innovative tools when it comes to accessibility. It is important to encourage these educators to advocate for such practices, and this effort should first be supported by the schools. Schools can support these teachers by modeling these exemplary practices and trying to leverage the skills for the rest of the teachers.

Educating parents about what to expect also plays an important role in accessibility efforts and can be considered one of the challenges. Parents should be more proactive to evaluate if the accessibility efforts are working. Educational institutions provide checklists and detailed reports to track progress, which can be very helpful, but the parents should be able to see learning activities result in subtle changes. As an example, a child having issues with a grasping object should be able to show some physical improvement at home as a result of certain interventions if the reports indicate that there is an improvement. Parents should observe their children and see if the reports reflect actual progress. 

Earlier we discussed Kinems and its offerings briefly. How does Kinems address accessibility challenges?

Kinems design and offer services mainly to schools and school districts. It's an educational gaming platform for children with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and neurodivergent children, that actually combines academic learning with movement and multimodal representation of knowledge so that each child can learn in different modalities. The content is the same but in presented in a different medium with embodied learning practices, which is lacking in mainstream education. Children need to work on their modal development, and modal development is linked to academic performance. And of course, it includes precise personalization and progress reporting.

Thanks to my team and my business partners, we try to do exactly what we believe in, and we run studies to show its efficacy and effectiveness. There is a dedicated team behind Kinems who work hard to make a positive impact on children with special needs and help them reach their full potential. I previously mentioned the champions in the field who advocate for best practices, and especially in the intersection of educational technology and special education, we need pioneers, and the team tries their best to help children, families, and children.

Could you also explain what differentiates Kinems from other companies when it comes to special education and educational technology solutions?

First of all, it is important to note that the field of special education is a totally different space when compared to general education. Almost all companies involved in this field have the dedication to benefit children, and their teams consist of people who have different characteristics with a passion for making a positive impact. Like other companies in the educational technology space, the Kinems team also employs a different mindset, and the activities are designed differently. As an example, children in special education need some challenging and engaging tasks, but the tasks should be simple, and it doesn’t necessarily mean multitasking. So the team is aware of these challenges, and they design learning experiences with accessibility in mind.

About the Author

Begüm Saçak holds an M.A. in applied linguistics and a Ph.D. from Ohio University Patton College of Education with a focus on instructional technology. Her research interests include multimodal and new literacies, participatory learning and reading practices, instructional design models, and learning theories. She is currently a practitioner, and she previously worked as an instructional designer at Ohio University, Erikson Institute, and Northwestern University. She is also actively involved in other professional organizations, such as AECT’s Design and Development Division, AECT Mentorship Initiative (one of the founding members), and AERA’s special interest groups, such as Semiotics in Education, Design and Technology, and Constructivist Theory and Research. Currently, she works as a learning advisor for Fidelity Investments.

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