13-year-old boy al­lowed to use ro­bot for class

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY ALEX SWOYER

A sev­enth-grader in Mas­sachusetts last month won the right to send a ro­bot to class in his stead to in­ter­act with teach­ers and class­mates, as tech­nol­ogy pushes the boundaries of ac­com­mo­da­tions schools must pro­vide to disabled stu­dents.

Af­ter a four-year bat­tle, the Hud­son Pub­lic Schools District agreed to let 13-year-old Kee­gan Con­can­non, who has an im­mun­od­e­fi­ciency dis­or­der and makes it to class less than half the time, use his ro­bot as part of a set­tle­ment un­der the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act.

His mother, Laura, said it shouldn’t have taken a mas­sive pub­lic pres­sure cam­paign and a change in the school sys­tem to win Kee­gan vir­tual class­room rights.

“The town of Hud­son — when they heard about Kee­gan’s story — they were floored,” said Ms. Con­can­non. “Kee­gan’s fight was that no other child would have to go through what he had to go through since he’s been in school miss­ing all the fun activities.”

It’s a fight those in­volved with robot­class­room tech­nol­ogy say is play­ing out in school sys­tems across the coun­try. Some have been quick to em­brace the tech­nol­ogy, but oth­ers have been re­sis­tant.

Un­der the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, a pub­lic en­tity, such as a school, must make rea­son­able mod­i­fi­ca­tions for peo­ple who have dis­abil­i­ties to avoid dis­crim­i­na­tion un­less the en­tity can show the mod­i­fi­ca­tions would im­pair its ac­tiv­ity in some way or could be too costly. Typ­i­cally, if the rec­om­mend mod­i­fi­ca­tion doesn’t work, the en­tity — or school — could sug­gest an al­ter­na­tive solution.

Through third grade, Kee­gan used Skype to keep up with his class­room when he couldn’t be there in per­son. But, by fourth grade his school said it was a dis­trac­tion.

So he was given the aux­il­iary ro­bot, free of charge, by Gra­ham­tas­tic Con­nec­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps connect chil­dren who have ill­nesses with the in­ter­net for ed­u­ca­tion.

But the Hud­son schools su­per­in­ten­dent at the time ruled the ro­bot was also a dis­trac­tion and sug­gested pri­vate tu­tors be sent to Kee­gan’s home in­stead.

That solution didn’t sit well with his fam­ily.

“This is the crit­i­cal time for a child, es­pe­cially any teenage boy or girl with so­cial net­work­ing and emo­tional well­be­ing,” Mrs. Con­can­non said, push­ing for Kee­gan to in­ter­act with other stu­dents and avoid iso­la­tion.

Thus be­gan Mrs. Con­can­non’s pub­lic bat­tle with the school sys­tem — a fight the lo­cal U.S. at­tor­ney took an in­ter­est in.

A big break came in 2017 when Hud­son got a new su­per­in­ten­dent who seemed open to the ro­bot.

Both the pres­sure from above and the change in lead­er­ship helped spur this month’s set­tle­ment, which saw the school district ad­mit it didn’t prove a ro­bot would be dis­rup­tive or bur­den­some. The school sys­tem agreed to ad­mit Kee­gan’s ro­bot, and the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice said it wouldn’t pur­sue a dis­abil­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tion — though it does plan to watch the school sys­tem’s com­pli­ance.

Ms. Con­can­non says her fight has left her de­ter­mined to make sure other stu­dents know their rights. She is plan­ning meet­ings with law­mak­ers and the fed­eral Ed­u­ca­tion and Health de­part­ments to try to get manda­tory poli­cies on ro­bot ac­cess for chil­dren who are in sit­u­a­tions like Kee­gan’s.

For many school sys­tems, com­mon ADA is­sues cen­ter on hear­ing or vi­sion im­pair­ments, and so­lu­tions in­volve mod­i­fied com­put­ers, au­dio texts, or in­ter­preters or read­ers.

Ro­bots are still a rar­ity — though le­gal schol­ars said the law should be able to ac­com­mo­date them.

“As tech­nol­ogy evolves and as more things come into avail­abil­ity, the ADA is flex­i­ble,” said Robert D. Din­er­stein, direc­tor of the Dis­abil­ity Rights Law Clinic at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity.

Les­lie Moris­sette, founder of Gra­ham­tas­tic Con­nec­tion, said Kee­gan’s story isn’t the first time she’s run into a school pro­hibit­ing the use of ro­bots in the class­room.

“We are pleased, how­ever, that cur­rently there are 56 schools that have wel­comed our ro­bots for chil­dren bat­tling cancer or other se­ri­ous ill­nesses,” Ms. Moris­sette said.

Ro­bots, she said, connect those stu­dents to the class­room in a way other tech­nol­ogy can’t. And she said the school sys­tems end up ahead, too.

“Schools are re­quired to pro­vide tu­tors when stu­dents are un­able to at­tend school for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time due to ill­ness. There­fore, schools also ben­e­fit be­cause they can avoid the costs of pro­vid­ing tu­tors for these stu­dents,” she said.

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