Assistive Technology: A Game Changer for Students with Disabilities
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
"Ask the Advocate" is our forum to bring you answers to questions that are timely and important to families of students with disabilities. Each month I will ask Lorraine Hightower, Dyslexia Advocate and Consultant, your top questions and bring her answers to YOU!
What is Assistive Technology (AT)?
Assistive Technology is often the game changer for students with disabilities. It is the missing piece that allows a child the ability to access the curriculum and show their strengths.
I will get into the definitions of assistive technology, but to begin with just imagine a child with dyslexia who is asked to write a story by their teacher. Most children love to make up stories and this child has one made up in his head and would love to share it! They have learned in class about how to write a story with descriptive adjectives and to make the reader “see the setting” and they are to highlight their understanding of these topics in this story. This child can see the setting of his story and wants to share this with their classmates!
Now, imagine the frustration of being able to have all of this inside your mind, knowing that you would wow your teacher and classmates with this story and vision in your head, but then to hit the wall of getting all that is in your mind written down on paper. As the child begins to write he is corrected over and over again for his handwriting and spelling, told just to try harder or focus. He sees his peers turning in completed papers while he still is trying to get through his first paragraph. He is struggling with every letter he writes, so he decides to write less and less...not really painting that picture he sees in his mind and not really nailing the assignment to write with descriptive words.
Now let’s add Assistive Technology. Let’s say this student has been provided the service of training in how to use the device of a Voice to Text feature installed on his computer. Now this child can speak into his computer and get all of the detail he sees in his mind onto the paper for his teacher to read. With the use of an electronic graphic organizer and editing software, he can complete his assignment. The teacher is now appropriately informed as to this child’s strengths and needs… while this child still needs reading and spelling remediation, he is able to show his vocabulary and ability to write with descriptive words. He just nailed the assignment! He can feel successful and proud of his accomplishment! By adding assistive technology we took down the wall that limited this child from showing what he CAN do.
Federal regulations define “assistive technology” as both a device and a service.
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Virginia Regulations for Governing Special Education Programs for Children with Disabilities, an assistive technology device is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”
IDEA also defines an assistive technology service as “any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.” Some examples of assistive technology services include: an assistive technology evaluation to identify devices needed, AT training for students, parents and teachers, as well as repair of a broken AT device.
How do I know what AT is appropriate for my child?
The first step in figuring out what the best solutions may be for your child is to determine how your child’s disability impacts their learning.
Does your child need help accessing and understanding grade level written text?
Or does their below grade level spelling skills prevent them from communicating their knowledge in writing?
Perhaps they understand grade level math concepts but their disability prevents them from automatically recalling their multiplication facts?
In each of these examples, an assistive technology tool (i.e. audio book, speech to text software and calculator) could make a significant difference in both their academic performance and dependence on someone else to assist them.
Remember that there is often a lot of trial and error in selecting the right service or device for your student. Your child’s IEP team is a great resource for you to discuss what you can try and to help you monitor how the technology is working for your child. They can also help you attain a formal assistive technology evaluation. This can also be helpful in determining the functional performance of your child when using certain assistive technology tools and help you determine the best services and devices for your child.
What would you say to parents who are afraid their child would be embarrassed by using something different from their peers?
First, I think it is important to acknowledge that accepting any ‘difference’ can be challenging for our kids. Depending on their age, sometimes fitting in with their classmates is more important to them than being able to show what they know on a class assignment or assessment.
At the same time, it is important for parents to model acceptance and pride in their child’s differences and positivity about services and solutions to help them learn. When approaching the idea of a new tool with your child, be sure to focus on the positive outcomes that are possible with this tool. “You are going to be a storytelling rock star when you use voice to text!” Some children love the idea that they have “exclusive access” to a tool. Find the positive message that works for your child. Children pick up cues of shame or disappointment from adults very easily, which is why we encourage parents and teachers to approach every child’s difference as a piece of the puzzle that makes our world a better place.
Parents can also take comfort in knowing that most modern classrooms are set up beautifully for differentiated instruction and learning. There are often groups of students working on different assignments, working in different areas of the classroom, and with different types of technology. What may seem to a parent as a tool that would stand out in a traditional classroom may not be noticeable at all in a modern class. Students may not see any stigma at all in using a different or new tool! As we are all in our separate “classrooms” now during distance learning, it is a great time for children to become accustomed to using new tools in the privacy of their homes.
Melissa, who is a part of the team at Lorraine M. Hightower, LLC, had this poster in her classroom to help children understand what fair really means. It opened up discussion about what we all need to help us do our very best in the world, and how we all need support in different ways.
Download and print or share this sign to help encourage your child and others to get what they need to be successful!
Visit the Resource section of our website to learn more about Assistive Technology!
How does Assistive Technology help during virtual learning?
During the recent pandemic, almost all academic content was provided in a virtual classroom. Therefore, it was critical that students with disabilities have the assistive technology tools that they need. While some students may be back in school for in person learning, others are still learning virtually. Many school systems across the country are discussing the use of virtual classrooms in the future as a way to deliver instruction during inclement weather or other emergency situations. Virtual learning may well be a part of your child's life to some extent in the future. While thinking of assistive technology in a virtual classroom, online tools and software are the first supports that come to mind. For instance, spell check, Grammarly, text to speech services, audio text and others help a student write and read on a computer.
But let’s not limit our students to tools on the computer. Assistive Technology devices come in many forms. Some students benefit from other assistive technology such as manipulatives, fidget devices, pencil grips, or special seating. If your child needs math manipulatives to help them in math class or a pad for their chair to help with sensory needs teachers can provide these devices to their students. It is possible to ask your school team to pick up these devices for use at home. We have had clients successfully receive computer monitors, multi-sensory learning tools, and more from their schools. You may also want to seek out Assistive Technology services, such as training in the tools and devices that your child may need to use. Now that parents are in the front lines of education, it is imperative that they understand how to use the technology provided to students.
Should I expect the school to provide AT or is that my responsibility?
If your child has been found eligible for special education services under IDEA, IEP teams are required to consider the assistive technology needs of your child. For many students with dyslexia, assistive technology tools such as audio books, electronic text, speech to text, word prediction software, calculators, etc., are the only ways that they can access the grade level curriculum and show what they know.
If the IEP or 504 team determines that your child does require assistive technology tools or services, the school district will provide them for your child. As members of the IEP team, parents and students, when age appropriate, should be involved in the decision making process of which assistive technology tools are most beneficial.
For 504 Plans, while parent and student input may be considered, it is not required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That said, the need for assistive technology as it relates to equal access and progress in the general education curriculum should also be considered by 504 teams.
You can also look to resources available through your state’s Department of Education website. If you are from Virginia, you can find out more about Virginia’s Assistive Technology plan at this link.