Assistive Technology in Education

Assistive technology (AT) refers to assistive technology devices and assistive technology services. An assistive technology device is any equipment item or product system that is utilized to help maintain or increase the functional capacity of a child who has a disability.

Assistive technology service is a service that helps a child who has a disability choose, acquire and utilize an assistive technology device. Assistive technology service includes the needs evaluation of a child, selection of an appropriate device and training and technical assistance to the family, teachers and other professionals who work with the child.

In 1975 the US government first enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law ensures educational services to children with disabilities throughout the country. The law has been amended many times since its first enactment.

IDEA designates that assistive technology be provided to students with disabilities when necessary. IDEA additionally designates that disabled students must be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE); when appropriate, students with disabilities must be educated with peers who do not have disabilities. Assistive technology devices can be utilized to ensure that students with disabilities are able to function in the LRE.

In 2004, the IDEA widened the pool of students eligible for assistive technology devices by changing one word of the law -- "requires" -- to "needs." The categorical difference between the two words highlights the degree of the student's needs. Limited numbers of students "require" assistive technology in order to reach their highest level of educational performance. However, there are many students who "need" various high-tech and low-tech devices to reach their maximal level of performance. For instance, there are many students who need a pencil grip to improve their handwriting.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act further clarifies that public school districts are obligated to provide assistive technology devices to their students for maximal participation in after-school and other extracurricular activities.

The appropriate educational strategy for individual students with disabilities is usually designated through their Individual Education Program (IEP). This program should include any necessary assistive technology. The IEP program is determined by a committee, generally comprised of a homeroom teacher, special education teacher, parent or guardian, and relevant therapists. At least one member of the committee, often the special education teacher, should have expertise in assistive technology.

The committee considers the student's needs and suggests appropriate assistive technology. Their deliberations should include an accurate assessment to determine which device can best help the individual student. A plethora of devices are available, ranging from cheap and low-tech to expensive and high-tech. An assistive technology device can be something as simple as a larger pencil and paper with raised lines or as high-tech as a personal laptop computer. It is important to choose the device that will most benefit the student.

Once an appropriate assistive technology device has been selected, the committee must decide how the device will be funded. The issue of funding is one of the biggest obstacles to the implementation of assistive technology services. Sometimes, the public school will be obligated, and able, to make the purchase. On other occasions, the committee must look for other sources of funding such as private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, disability and charitable organizations or even family and friends. AT recycling programs is an innovative, practical way for providing devices to needy children. Local business organizations and engineering clubs refurbish AT devices, providing a cost-efficient way to provide ownership of AT devices for those who need it.

In addition to funding, professionals must consider the family, culture and socioeconomic background of the child with disability when making decisions about assistive technology. Some families may not be willing to allow their child to utilize a device that will draw attention to his or her disability. In addition, families from a low socioeconomic background may be focused on providing their family's basic needs such as food and clothes and may therefore have different priorities than the professionals working with their child. The parents of these children may not have the interest in or time for attending AT evaluation and training sessions.

To increase family involvement, it is important to empower the families by involving them in the selection of the AT device and working with them to enable them to attend meetings and training sessions. This can be done by providing alternative meetings sites and designating training sessions for after-work hours.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Assistive Technology: What Every School Leader Should Know
Dyal, Allen; Carpenter, Laura Bowden; Wright, James V.
Education, Vol. 129, No. 3, Spring 2009
Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Netherton, David L.; Deal, Walter F.
The Technology Teacher, Vol. 66, No. 1, September 2006
Computers, Curriculum, and Cultural Change: An Introduction for Teachers
Eugene F. Provenzo Jr.; Arlene Brett; Gary N. McCloskey.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Technology for Inclusion"
The Impact of Assistive Technology on the Educational Performance of Students with Visual Impairments: A Synthesis of the Research
Kelly, Stacy M.; Smith, Derrick W.
Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Vol. 105, No. 2, February 2011
Accessible Education through Assistive Technology
White, Elizabeth A.; Wepner, Shelley B.; Wetzel, Donna C.
T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), Vol. 30, No. 7, February 2003
Assistive Technology and Access for All: A Slight Revision to Existing Legislation Has Expanded the Base of Students Eligible to Receive Assistive Technologies, Creating Major Changes in Their Implementation
Demski, Jennifer.
T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), Vol. 35, No. 12, December 2008
What Middle School Educators Should Know about Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning
Zascavage, Victoria; Winterman, Kathleen G.
Middle School Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, March 2009
Toward True Equality of Educational Opportunity: Unlocking the Potential of Assistive Technology through Professional Development
Stead, Jonathan.
Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer 2009
Rethinking Professional Issues in Special Education
James L. Paul; Carolyn D. Lavely; Ann Cranston-Gingras; Ella L. Taylor.
Ablex Publishing, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "The Use of Educational Technology and Assistive Services in Special Education"
Assistive Technology Service Delivery in Rural School Districts
Ault, Melinda Jones; Bausch, Margaret E.; McLaren, Elizabeth M.
Rural Special Education Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 2013
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