“Impaired” to Empowered: MATN Celebrates its 25th Annual Spring Institute

By Gennarose Pope

“Every single one of you is an incredible part of this network,” Jacqueline Nunn, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology in Education (CTE), told the crowd. “You bring opportunity and empowerment every day to students who have been historically disempowered. And of course, you empower each other.”

Nunn was addressing approximately 200 assistive-technology (AT) providers and educators who form the backbone of the Maryland Assistive Technology Network (MATN)—experts whose work can help transform the lives of people with disabilities.  The group gathered at the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Columbia, Maryland, campus on May 30 for MATN’s 25th annual Spring Institute.

Over the past quarter-century, MATN has brought together education leaders to discuss how to create a more accessible, equitable world through effective use of assistive technology. From specialized learning materials to systems that track eye movement, AT helps people who have disabilities around speaking, writing, seeing, hearing, learning, and even remembering. Experts in the AT field are often on the cutting edge of research applications in human-machine interface design, prosthetics, voice recognition, and other technologies.

At the Spring Institute, AT experts had the chance to exchange breaking trends and best practices through sessions such as “Fast, Easy Solutions for Students with Reading Barriers” and “Switch Accessibility, the iPad, and Computer Access.” The event also gave Nunn and other longtime educators and providers a sterling opportunity to reflect on a quarter-century of progress in the field.

MATN is the result of a partnership between the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services and the Johns Hopkins  Center for Technology in Education. It was formed in 1994 to meet a pronounced need for support for assistive technology professionals at a time when there were fewer than six experts in the entire state of Maryland.

Nunn approached Carolanne Baglin, then assistant state superintendent of MSDE’s Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services (DEI/SES), who agreed. Today, the network they launched boasts nearly 1,400 members.

“Ensuring access to maximize learning is what comes to mind when I think of assistive technology,” said Marcella Franczkowski, current DEI/SES assistant state superintendent, who headlined this year’s Spring Institute and received an award for her commitment to narrowing the education gap for students with disabilities. “MSDE congratulates the 25-year milestone partnership with MATN and remains committed to create tools and resources as we build the capacity for service providers and families to accelerate student progress.”

Both the School of Education and the Center for Technology in Education’s ties to assistive technology were forged over a decade prior to MATN’s founding. In 1981, the United Nations declared an “International Year for Disabled Persons,” and shortly thereafter, Johns Hopkins launched its first national search for computer-based technology that would help people with disabilities gain more equitable access to education, recreation, employment, and a higher quality of life.

It brought both technology providers and members of the disability community together from around the nation in locations such as the Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation Center and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and over 900 entries were submitted.

The search not only inspired hundreds of new technological innovations for people with disabilities, but it helped shed light on the need for assistive technology, and how drastically accessibility and quality of life could be improved for those who might use them. It inspired its continued development and set the stage for the advances made in the decades since.

After the search, the Johns Hopkins School of Education and Applied Physics Lab joined forces to continue working toward more equitable opportunities for people with disabilities. The collaboration produced the first educational software designed to help special educators tailor lessons to the individual needs of students with disabilities, known as the Microcomputer Software for Individually Managed Instruction: MultiSensory Authoring Computer System—or MACS.

One of the first pilot locations to test MACS was in a Fairfax County, Virginia, school where Nunn was principal. The federal government wanted to explore the educational uses of this software and awarded three grants: one each for elementary, middle, and high school. The School of Education won the elementary school grant, which allowed for the founding in 1986 of the Center for Technology in Human Disabilities—now CTE.

Today, MATN’s original mission to provide equal access to education to all learners is still going strong.

“MATN has an enduring legacy of providing high-quality professional development in a variety of forms,” said CTE’s coordinator of assistive technology, Jeanne Dwyer, who has led the growth and development of the network for the past 15 years. “However, our greatest resource is our members who work tirelessly every day to bring access to students with disabilities.”