ExceptionAlly helps parents navigate the special needs education labyrinth

The challenges faced by parents of kids with special needs are always unique, but in one way they are surely much alike: making sure the kids are getting what they need from schools is way harder than it ought to be. ExceptionAlly is a new startup that aims to help parents understand, organize and communicate all the info they need to make sure their child is getting the help they require.

“There are millions of parents out there trying to navigate special education. And parents with special needs should have access to more information than what one school tells them,” said ExceptionAlly co-founder and CEO Rayford Davis. “Those with the means actually hire special education attorneys, but those are few and far between. We thought, how can we democratize this? So we’re trying to do what TurboTax did for CPAs: deliver a large percentage of the value for a small percentage of the cost.”

The company just emerged from Y Combinator and is pursuing full deployment ahead of this school year, with a visibility push during the usual back-to-school dates. It’s still early days, but Davis tells me they already have thousands of users who are taking advantage of the free and paid aspects of the service.

Just because a parent has a kid with dyslexia, or a hearing impairment, or a physical disability, doesn’t mean they suddenly become an expert in what resources are out there for those kids — what’s required by law, what a school offers voluntarily and so on. Achieving fluency in these complex issues is a big ask on top of all the usual parental duties — and on top of that, parents and schools are often put in adversarial positions.

There are resources out there for parents, certainly, but they’re scattered and often require a great deal of effort on the parents’ part. So the first goal of the service is to educate and structure the parents’ information on the systems they’re dealing with.

Based on information provided by the parent, such as their kid’s conditions or needs, and other information like school district, state and so on, the platform assists the parent in understanding both the condition itself, what they can expect from a school and what their rights are. It could be something as simple as moving a kid to the front row of a classroom to knowing how frequently the school is required to share reports on that kid’s progress.

Parents rarely know the range of accommodations a school can offer, Davis said, and even the schools themselves might not know or properly explain what they can or must provide if asked.

For instance, an IEP, or individual education plan, and yearly goals are required for every student with special needs, along with meetings and progress reports. These are often skipped or, if not, done in a rote way that isn’t personalized.

Davis said that by helping parents collaborate with the school and teacher on IEPs and other facets of the process, they accomplish several things. First, the parent feels more confident and involved in their kid’s education, having brought something to the table. Second, less pressure is put on overworked teachers to produce these things in addition to everything else they have to do. And third, it either allows or compels schools to provide all the resources they have available.

Naturally, this whole process produces reams of documents: evaluations, draft plans, lesson lists, observations, reports and so on. “If you talk to any parent of a child with special needs, they’ll tell you how they have file cabinets full of paperwork,” Davis said.

ExceptionAlly will let you scan or send it all these docs, which it helps you organize into the various categories and find again should you need them. A search feature based on OCR processing of the text is in development and should be in place for the latter half of the coming school year, which Davis pointed out is really when it starts being necessary.

That, he said, is when parents need to keep schools accountable. Being informed both on the kid’s progress and what the school is supposed to be doing lets the resulting process be collaborative rather than combative. But if the latter comes to pass, the platform has resources for parents to deploy to make sure the schools don’t dominate the power equation.

“If things progress that way, there’s a ‘take action toolkit’ to develop communications with the school,” Davis said. Ideally you don’t want to be the parent threatening legal action or calling the principal at home. A timely reminder of what was agreed upon and a nudge to keep things on track keeps it positive. “It’s sort of a reminder that we should all be on ‘team kid,’ if you will,” he added.

Schools, unfortunately, have not shown themselves to be highly willing to collaborate.

“We spent about six months talking to over a hundred schools and districts. What we found was not a lot of energy to provide parents with any more information than what the school was already providing,” Davis explained.

The sad truth here is that many schools are already neck-deep in administrative woes, the teachers are overworked and have new responsibilities every year and the idea of volunteering for new ones doesn’t strike even the most well-intentioned schools as attractive. So instead, ExceptionAlly has focused on going directly to parents, who, confidently and well-armed, can take their case to the school on their own.

“Listen, we’re not getting ready to solve all of education today with our solution. We’re going to find that one mom who says, ‘I know there’s more out there, can someone help me find it?’ Yes, we’re going to help you do that,” he said. “Could that put pressure on the system? As long as it does it legally and lawfully, I am perfectly okay with advocating for a child and parents’ legal rights and putting pressure on the system to give them what they by law deserve.”

After the official launch ahead of this school year, the company plans to continue adding features. Rich text search is among them, and deeper understanding of the documents could both help automate storage and retrieval and also lead to new insights. At some point there will also be an optional program to submit a child’s information (anonymously, of course) to help create a database of what accommodations in which places and cases led to what outcomes — essentially aggregating information direct from the source.

ExceptionAlly has some free content to peruse if you’re curious whether it might be helpful for you or someone you know, and there are a variety of paid options should it seem like a good fit.

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain

Prosthetic limbs are getting better and more personalized, but useful as they are, they’re still a far cry from the real thing. This new prosthetic ankle is a little closer than others, though: it moves on its own, adapting to its user’s gait and the surface on which it lands.

Your ankle does a lot of work when you walk: lifting your toe out of the way so you don’t scuff it on the ground, controlling the tilt of your foot to minimize the shock when it lands or as you adjust your weight, all while conforming to bumps and other irregularities it encounters. Few prostheses attempt to replicate these motions, meaning all that work is done in a more basic way, like the bending of a spring or compression of padding.

But this prototype ankle from Michael Goldfarb, a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt, goes much further than passive shock absorption. Inside the joint are a motor and actuator, controlled by a chip that senses and classifies motion and determines how each step should look.

“This device first and foremost adapts to what’s around it,” Goldfarb said in a video documenting the prosthesis.

“You can walk up slopes, down slopes, up stairs and down stairs, and the device figures out what you’re doing and functions the way it should,” he added in a news release from the university.

When it senses that the foot has lifted up for a step, it can lift the toe up to keep it clear, also exposing the heel so that when the limb comes down, it can roll into the next step. And by reading the pressure both from above (indicating how the person is using that foot) and below (indicating the slope and irregularities of the surface) it can make that step feel much more like a natural one.

One veteran of many prostheses, Mike Sasser, tested the device and had good things to say: “I’ve tried hydraulic ankles that had no sort of microprocessors, and they’ve been clunky, heavy and unforgiving for an active person. This isn’t that.”

Right now the device is still very lab-bound, and it runs on wired power — not exactly convenient if someone wants to go for a walk. But if the joint works as designed, as it certainly seems to, then powering it is a secondary issue. The plan is to commercialize the prosthesis in the next couple of years once all that is figured out. You can learn a bit more about Goldfarb’s research at the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics.

AirPods to get Live Listen feature in iOS 12

Apple has one hardware-specific feature planned that wasn’t announced at Monday’s WWDC keynote. In iOS 12, users will be able to use Live Listen, a special feature previously reserved for hearing aids certified through Apple’s Made for iPhone hearing aid program, with their AirPods.

After enabling the feature in the iPhone’s settings, users will be able to use their phones effectively as a directional mic. This means you can have AirPods in at a noisy restaurant with your iPhone on the table, for example, and the voice of whomever is speaking will be routed to your AirPods.

Live Listen is a feature Apple developed and eventually launched in 2014 that allows iPhone users with hearing aids to hear people in noisy environments or from across a room, such as a crowded restaurant or lecture hall. If a compatible hearing aid is paired to a user’s phone, there are options to turn Live Listen on and off, adjust volume and even set it as their preferred Accessibility Shortcut.

Live Listen support in AirPods is key. The inclusion of this feature makes AirPods more capable and more alluring; it’s significant given they are almost universally hailed as one of Apple’s best products in years. Soon, anyone — particularly someone with limited hearing — will have access to this feature without needing to buy dedicated hardware to get it.

Still, it’s critical to note AirPods with Live Listen is not a full replacement for a hearing aid. It’s obviously best to speak with your audiologist to determine the best solution for your ears.

HoloLens acts as eyes for blind users and guides them with audio prompts

Microsoft’s HoloLens has an impressive ability to quickly sense its surroundings, but limiting it to displaying emails or game characters on them would show a lack of creativity. New research shows that it works quite well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions.

The researchers, from CalTech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it, right?

Crunching visual data and producing a map of high-level features like walls, obstacles, and doors is one of the core capabilities of the HoloLens, so the team decided to to let it do its thing and recreate the environment for the user from these extracted features.

They designed the system around sound, naturally. Every major object and feature can tell the user where it is, either via voice or sound. Walls, for instance, hiss (presumably a white noise, not a snake hiss) as the user approaches them. And the user can scan the scene, with objects announcing themselves from left to right from the direction in which they are located. A single object can be selected and will repeat its callout to help the user find it.

That’s all well for stationary tasks like finding your cane or the couch in a friend’s house. But the system also works in motion.

The team recruited seven blind people to test it out. They were given a brief intro but no training, and then asked to accomplish a variety of tasks. The users could reliably locate and point to objects from audio cues, and were able to find a chair in a room in a fraction of the time they normally would, and avoid obstacles easily as well.

This render shows the actual paths taken by the users in the navigation tests.

Then they were tasked with navigating from the entrance of a building to a room on the second floor by following the headset’s instructions. A “virtual guide” repeatedly says “follow me” from an apparent distance of a few feet ahead, while also warning when stairs were coming, where handrails were, and when the user had gone off course.

All seven users got to their destinations on the first try, and much more quickly than if they had had to proceed normally with no navigation. One subject, the paper notes, said “That was fun! When can I get one?”

Microsoft actually looked into something like this years ago, but the hardware just wasn’t there — HoloLens changes that. Even though it is clearly intended for use by sighted people, its capabilities naturally fill the requirements for a visual prosthesis like the one described here.

Interestingly, the researchers point out that this type of system was also predicted more than 30 years ago, long before they were even close to possible:

“I strongly believe that we should take a more sophisticated approach, utilizing the power of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of detailed visual information in order to substitute for the missing functions of the eye and much of the visual pre-processing performed by the brain,” wrote the clearly far-sighted C.C. Collins way back in 1985.

The potential for a system like this is huge, but this is just a prototype. As systems like HoloLens get lighter and more powerful, they’ll go from lab-bound oddities to everyday items — one can imagine the front desk at a hotel or mall stocking a few to give to vision-impaired folks who need to find their room or a certain store.

“By this point we expect that the reader already has proposals in mind for enhancing the cognitive prosthesis,” they write. “A hardware/software platform is now available to rapidly implement those ideas and test them with human subjects. We hope that this will inspire developments to enhance perception for both blind and sighted people, using augmented auditory reality to communicate things that we cannot see.”

For Apple, this year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day is all about education

Following Apple’s education event in Chicago in March, I wrote about what the company’s announcements might mean for accessibility. After sitting in the audience covering the event, the big takeaway I had was Apple could “make serious inroads in furthering special education as well.” As I wrote, despite how well-designed the Classroom and Schoolwork apps seemingly are, Apple should do more to tailor their new tools to better serve students and educators in special education settings. After all, accessibility and special education are inextricably tied.

It turns out, Apple has, unsurprisingly, considered this.

“In many ways, education and accessibility beautifully overlap,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives, said to me. “For us, the concept of differentiated learning and how the accessibility tools that we build in [to the products] help make that [learning] possible is really important to us.”

Apple’s philosophy toward accessibility and education isn’t about purposely targeting esoteric use cases such as IEP prep or specialized teaching methodologies.

In fact, Apple says there are many apps on the iOS App Store which do just that. The company instead believes special education students and teachers themselves should take the tools as they are and discover creative uses for them. Apple encourages those in schools to take the all-new, low-cost iPad and the new software and make them into the tools they need to teach and learn. It’s a sentiment that hearkens back how Steve Jobs pitched the original iPad: It’s a slab of metal and glass that can be whatever you wish it to be.

In other words, it’s Apple’s customers who put the ‘I’ in iPad.

In hindsight, Apple’s viewpoint for how they support special education makes total sense if you understand their ethos. Tim Cook often talks about building products that enrich people’s lives — in an education and accessibility context, this sentiment often becomes a literal truism. For many disabled people, iOS and the iPad is the conduit through which they access the world.

Apple ultimately owns the iPad and the message around it, but in actuality it’s the users who really transform it and give it its identity. This is ultimately what makes the tablet exceptional for learning. The device’s design is so inherently accessible that anyone, regardless of ability, can pick it up and go wild.

(Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Apple’s education team is special

At the March event, one of the onstage presenters was Kathleen Richardson, who works at Apple on their ConnectedED program. She is one of many who work on the company’s education team, whose group is tasked with working with schools and districts in evangelizing and integrating Apple products into their curricula.

I spoke with Meg Wilson, a former special education teacher who now works on education efforts inside Apple. A former Apple Distinguished Educator, Wilson is the resident “special education guru” who provides insight into how special education programs generally run. With that knowledge, she provides guidance on how Apple products can augment the process of individualizing and differentiating educational plans for special ed students.

A focus of our discussion was the Schoolwork app and how it could be used to suit the needs of teachers and support staff. One example Wilson cited was that of a speech therapy session, where a speech pathologist could use Schoolwork not necessarily for handouts, but for monitoring students’ progress toward IEP goals. Instead of the app showing a worksheet for the student to complete, it could show a data-tracking document for the therapist, who is recording info during lessons. “What we need in special ed is data — we need data,” Wilson said. She added Schoolwork can be used to “actually see the progress” students are making right from an iPad without mountains of paper. A key element to this, according to Wilson, is Schoolwork’s ability to modernize and streamline sharing. It makes conferring with other members of the IEP team a more continuous, dynamic endeavor. Rather than everyone convening once a year for an annual review of students’ progress, Wilson said, Schoolwork allows for “an amazing opportunity for collaboration amongst service providers.”

Wilson also emphasized the overarching theme of personalizing the iPad to suit the needs of teacher and student. “When you are creative with technology, you change people’s lives,” she said.

To her, the iPad and, especially, the new software scale for different learners and different environments really well. For special educators, for instance, Wilson said it’s easy to add one’s entire caseload to Schoolwork and have progress reports at the ready anytime. Likewise, the ability in Classroom to “lock” an entire class (or a single student) into an activity on an iPad, which takes its cues from iOS’s Guided Access feature, helps teachers ensure students stay engaged and on task during class. And for students, the intuitive nature of the iPad makes it so that students can instantly share their work with teachers.

But it isn’t only Apple who is changing education. Wilson made the case repeatedly that third-party developers are also making Apple’s solutions for education more compelling. She stressed there are many apps on the App Store that can help in special education settings (IEP prep, communication boards, etc.), and that Apple hears from developers who want to learn about accessibility and, crucially, how to make their apps accessible to all by supporting the discrete Accessibility features. Wilson shared an anecdote of an eye-opening experience for one developer, who expressed the idea of supporting accessibility “didn’t even occur to him,” but doing so made his app better.

One “big idea” that struck me from meeting with Wilson was how diverse Apple’s workforce truly is. Wilson is a former special education teacher. Apple’s health and fitness team reportedly is made up of such medical professionals as doctors and nurses. Apple’s education team is no different, as my conversation with Wilson attested. It’s notable how Apple brings together so many, from all walks of life, to help inform as they build these products. It really does intersect liberal arts with technology.

Apple makes learning code accessible to all

In early March, Lori Hawkins at the Austin American-Statesman reported on how Apple has made its Everyone Can Code program accessible to all. Hawkins wrote that representatives from Apple visited Austin’s Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to teach students to fly drones with code written in the Swift Playgrounds app. As you’d expect, Swift Playgrounds is fully compatible with VoiceOver and even Switch Control. “When we said everyone should be able to code, we really meant everyone,” Herrlinger told the Statesman. “Hopefully these kids will leave this session and continue coding for a long time. Maybe it can inspire where their careers can go.” Herrlinger also appeared on a panel at the SXSW festival, where she and others discussed coding and accessibility pertaining to Everyone Can Code.

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day this year, Apple has announced that a slew of special education schools are adopting Everyone Can Code into their curricula. In a press release, the company says they “collaborated with engineers, educators, and programmers from various accessibility communities to make Everyone Can Code as accessible as possible.” They also note there are “additional tools and resources” which should aid non-visual learners to better understand coding environments.

In addition to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin, Apple says there are seven other institutions across the country that are implementing the Everyone Can Code curriculum. Among them are two Bay Area schools: the Northern California campuses of the California School for the Blind and the California School for the Deaf, both located in Fremont.

At a special kick-off event at CSD, students were visited by Apple employees — which included CEO Tim Cook — who came to the school to officially announce CSB and CSD’s participation in the Everyone Can Code program.

Students arrived at the school’s media lab for what they believed to be simply another day of coding. In reality, they were in for a  surprise as Tim Cook made his appearance. Members of Apple’s Accessibility team walked students through controlling drones and robots in Swift Playgrounds on an iPad. Cook — along with deaf activist and actor Nyle DiMarco — toured the room to visit with students and have them show off their work.

In an address to students, Cook said, “We are so happy to be here to kick off the Everyone Can Code curriculum with you. We believe accessibility is a fundamental human right and coding is part of that.”

In an interview Cook told me, “Accessibility has been a priority at Apple for a long time.” He continued: “We believe in focusing on ability rather than disability. We believe coding is a language — a language that should be accessible to everyone.” When I asked about any accessibility features he personally uses, Cook said due to hearing issues he likes to use closed-captioning whenever possible. And because he wears glasses, he likes to enlarge text on all of his devices, particularly the iPhone.

Accessibility-related Apple retail events

As in prior years, Apple is spending the month of May promoting accessibility and Global Accessibility Awareness Day by hosting numerous accessibility-centric events at its retail stores across the globe. (These are done throughout the year too.) These include workshops on the accessibility features across all Apple’s platforms, as well as talks and more. Apple says they have held “over 10,000 accessibility sessions” since 2017.

Today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2018, Apple is holding accessibility-related events at several campuses worldwide, including its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, as well as at its satellite campuses in Austin, Cork and London.

What Apple’s education announcements mean for accessibility

From an accessibility news standpoint, this week’s Apple event in Chicago was antithetical to the October 2016 event. At the latter event, Apple began the presentation with a bang — showing the actual video being edited using Switch Control in Final Cut. Tim Cook came out afterwards to talk some about Apple’s commitment to serving the disabled community before unveiling the then-new accessibility page on the company’s website.

By contrast, the education-themed event in Chicago this week went by with barely a mention of accessibility. The only specific call-out came during Greg Joswiak’s time on stage talking about iPad, when he said “accessibility features make iPad a learning tool for everyone.”

That doesn’t mean, however, accessibility has no relevance to what was announced.

I was in the audience at Lane Tech College Prep on Tuesday covering the event. As a former special educator –and special education student — I watched with keen interest as Apple told their story around education. While Apple is targeting the mainstream, I came away with strong impressions on how Apple can make serious inroads in furthering special education as well.

It’s Called ‘Special’ for a Reason

Apple is obviously—rightfully—building their educational strategy towards mainstream students in mainstream classes. It’s a classic top-down approach: Teachers assign students work via handouts, for such activities as writing essays or completing science projects. This is the entire reason for Apple’s Classroom and Schoolwork apps. However well-designed, they lack an element.

Where they lack is there is nothing afforded, at least in specific terms, to teachers and students in special education settings. Apple’s strategy here is defined, again, by the classic teacher-student relationship, without any regard for other models. I’m not levying a criticism on the company; this is the reality.

At many levels, special education classrooms do not function in a way that’s conducive to Apple’s vision for learning at this time. In the moderate-to-severe early childhood (Pre-K) classrooms I worked in for close to a decade, the structure was such that most, if not all, activities were augmented by a heavy dose of adult support. Furthermore, most of our students were pulled out of class at certain times for additional services such as speech services and physical/occupational therapy sessions.

In short, there were no lectures or essay prompts anywhere.

This is where accessibility comes in. There is enormous potential for Apple to dig deeper and expand the toolset they offer to educators and students. To accommodate for special education is, in my view, akin to accommodating disabled users by offering accessibility features on each of Apple’s software platforms.

Special education is special for a reason. It involves ways of teaching and learning that are unique, and the people who work and learn in these environments deserve the same consideration.

Accessibility is Apple’s Secret Weapon

Leading up to the event, there was much talk in the Apple community of writers and podcasters that Google is eating Apple’s lunch in the schools market because Chromebooks are dirt cheap for districts and most everyone relies on Google Docs.

I’m not interested in the particulars of this argument. What I am interested in, however, is simply pointing out that despite the perception Apple products are too expensive and less capable, they are better in one meaningful sense: accessibility.

Consider Chromebook versus iPad. In many levels of special education, an iPad is far superior to a Chromebook. The tablet’s multi-touch user interface is far more intuitive, and more importantly, iOS is built with accessibility in mind. From VoiceOver to Dynamic Type to Switch Control and more, an iPad (or an iPod Touch, for that matter) can provide a far more accessible and enriching learning experience for many students with disabilities than a Chromebook. And lest we forget the App Store effect; there are many outstanding apps geared for special ed.

This is a crucial point that many technology pundits who lament Apple’s position in the education market always seem to miss.

Making Special Educators More Special

One area where Apple can greatly improve the lives of teachers is by broadening the Schoolwork app such that it makes IEP prep easier and, playing to Apple’s core strength, more modern. Historically, even today, IEPs are planned and written using stacks of paperwork. Goals, assessments, and consent forms are handwritten (sometimes typed) and stapled together. And being a binding legal document, teachers must ensure there are the proper signatures on every page, or else be dinged for being out of compliance with protocols. In sum: the IEP is the bane of every special educator’s existence because they take so much time.

To this end, Apple could do special education teachers a grand service by adding a module of sorts to its Schoolwork app that would allow them to more easily create and track a student’s IEP. There could be charts for tracking goal progress, as well as ways to collate and distribute documents amongst the IEP team (SLPs, OT/PT, etc) and of course parents. Teachers could even send an email to parents with any consent forms attached and encourage them to sign with Apple Pencil on their iPad, if they have one.

At the very least, it would make IEP prep infinitely more efficient, and perhaps alleviate some of the stress at the actual meetings. Digitizing the process would be game-changing, I think.

Bottom Line

The ideas I’ve outlined here are well within Apple’s wheelhouse. They would likely need to collaborate with special educators and districts on things like IEP forms and policies, but it is certainly within them to do so. They can do this if they want.

To reiterate an earlier point, special education deserves just as much thoughtful consideration and innovation as the education industry at large. Given Apple’s unwavering support of accessibility, this is an area in which they can surely improve.

Google adds a wheelchair-accessible option for transit maps

Google Maps has a pretty solid set of data for taking transit from here to there, but anyone with a physical disability knows it isn’t quite that simple. Some stations may be wheelchair-unfriendly, have out-of-service elevators, that kind of thing. A new update to the service adds an option for you to specify a wheelchair-accessible route — though that’s just a start on what’s really needed.

Transit riders in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston and Sydney will now have the option to select “wheelchair accessible” in their route options in the same way they might opt to have fewer transfers or minimal walking. More are on the way.

No doubt this will make life easier for disabled folks, people with strollers or even anyone lugging around something heavy.

But maps, even Google’s extremely detailed ones, are still extremely short on information critical to anyone with a physical disability. Walking routes that take into account sidewalk condition and grade, curb cuts, pedestrian crossing zones or buttons, wheelchair-accessible entrances to buildings and much more could be better integrated into the world’s most popular mapping platform.

We know it can be done because a handful of students did it on their own for a summer project. AccessMap uses a combination of manually generated and publicly available data to label sidewalks as safe or risky for people who have trouble getting around. It’s limited to Seattle at present (can’t expect undergrads to map the country) but the concept is more than sound.

Here’s hoping Google dedicates a bit more of its considerable resources to improving this aspect of the product. Millions will thank them.