Summer Institute 2001: Literacy, Technology and Learning Disabilities

The Centre for Literacy of Quebec ran the 2001 Summer Institute in Montreal from June 28 - 30, in collaboration with The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC). The three days were filmed by the National Film Board for their projected website called the Learning Centre ( While several participants commented that the filming made it “quite formal,” Sally McKeown found it to be “an intensive group that reflects and questions and discusses, a group looking for guidance and ideas.” Using pre-set issues as a starting point, participants elaborated and responded based on experience from diverse backgrounds. This section of Literacy Across the CurriculuMedia Focus captures some of the discussion and reflections that took place during the Institute, in the hope that sharing can support others engaged by the same concerns.

Presenters (in alphabetical order) included:

Chris Abbott, King’s College London, editor of Symbols Now (2000)

Jaleh Behroozi & June Crawford , National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), Washington DC, now incorporating the Center for Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities

Nancy Cooper, Field consultant, Native Stream, Alphaplus, Toronto

Elizabeth Gayda, President, The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC)

Pat Hatt, Toronto adult educator, LD specialist

Gill MacMillan, Cambridge Training and Development, UK

Sally McKeown, British Educational Council for Technology Agency (BECTA), author of Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities


How does technology affect adults with LD?

For adults with short-term memory problems, remembering instructions given by a computer on the telephone can be torture. For someone with hand-eye coordination problems, finding keys quickly enough on a keypad can prevent them from using a computerized phone directory. For someone who cannot read letters and numbers, spelling a name can mean the end of the call.

On the other hand, technologies are making learning possible for many who could never sit in a classroom or work in traditional print media. Adaptive technologies hold promise for adults with all types of disabilities. Most research studies have focused on specific adaptations for specific disabilities. But what might be possible if the barriers around specific disabilities were breached, and the adaptations designed for the blind, the deaf, the spastic, the aphasic, the intellectually disabled, were applied more widely?

There is continuing optimism about the potential of new technologies, especially computers and the Web, to increase access to learning for those adults who have traditionally been shut out. The merging of technologies means that televisions may soon be transmitting adapted learning materials directly to learners.

Who will design these materials? Who will assess the adult learners? What roles will teachers play in the process? What roles will volunteers play? Who will pay the bills?

Currently, there are enormous disparities in knowledge and training, even in the same country. In some Canadian sites, on-line curricula are being designed; in others, there are still adult literacy programs without a computer.

How can the field of adult literacy and basic education use the findings from the K-12 and post-secondary education sectors and from the disabilities fields to identify the learning disabled among their clients and to match the technologies we now have to the clients who can benefit from them?

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