Family and Cultural Alert! Considerations in Assistive Technology Assessment

Article excerpt

Imagine yourself as a special educator in San Francisco who comes across his student and her family in a restaurant. You are excited that your student has such a wonderful chance to use her new augmentative communication device, but you are disappointed to see that it is nowhere in sight, and that her father is speaking for her.

Or, imagine that you are a special educator teaching at the high school level in San Antonio. One day you learn to your dismay that your student with severe mental retardation, who in your opinion had been making excellent progress in using her electronic communication device, is no longer using the device. Her parents have apparently and suddenly become discouraged and disinterested in its ongoing use.

These and similar professional disappointments are inevitable if we as special educators are not sensitive to family and cultural issues in assessing technology needs of students with disabilities. In the first example, the girl's family is uncomfortable with the way the device draws attention to them, and so they prefer not to take it out and use it in public. In the second example, the teacher failed to realize that the Hispanic girl had just had her quincancera, a celebration of her l5th birthday. In the Hispanic culture, this frequently serves as a milestone to demonstrate the growing independence of the girl, and marks a significant transition on the way to adulthood. Her failure to use the device has resulted from her parents' viewing her as an increasingly independent adult, and deciding to let her make her own decisions about whether to use the device.

Selecting Assistive Technology Devices

Assistive technology devices are pieces of equipment used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of students with disabilities. Recommendations for these devices are often included in individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities.

Involving Families

While family participation in IEPs is theoretically mandated by law; in reality, the involvement of family members in team decision making is often limited. When we fail to involve the family in decisions about possible uses of assistive technology devices, assistive technology abandonment (Batavia & Hammer, 1989; Parette, in press), a failure/refusal to use the device, can result. Such an outcome represents a waste of increasingly scare fiscal resources available to school systems.

Assessing Students' Skills

Assessment of student skills and abilities in special education has long relied on formal testing procedures, but over the past few years, less formal approaches to gathering information from families for decision making have become more common. Informal assessment strategies are particularly important in assistive technology decision making, because few standardized instruments are available.

Informal information-collection strategies require from special education teachers a high level of sensitivity to families and their needs. In particular, there are three specific needs reported by families as being especially important for professionals to understand in considering technology devices for students (Parette & VanBiervliet, 1995). Specifically, professionals should use the following guidelines:

Understand family needs for information about assistive technology devices.

Recognize the impact on, and changes in, family routines the assistive technology will cause.

Consider the extent to which family members desire themselves or their children to be accepted in community settings.

A research base incorporating data provided by families throughout the United States is now beginning to emerge (Parette & VanBiervliet, 1995). Using these data, we discuss specific and practical recommendations to help teachers become more sensitive to family needs during assistive technology decision making in each of these three areas. …