By David Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE
Shh! We don’t want anyone to hear us. Why don’t you come a bit closer into my AT Lab so I can let you in on a big secret about assistive technology (AT)? Can you hear me? Ok, here it is— assistive technology is all around us! I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you’ve used AT yourself today.
You don’t think so? Well, did you turn on the closed-captioning on your TV while you watched your favorite program or movie? Or did you spend time listening to a book while exercising? Maybe you got a text version of a phone message emailed to you or used a calculator to figure out how much to tip your server at lunch. Many kinds of AT are available to us throughout the day.
Assistive technology can be anything that helps us do something that we normally would find difficult or even impossible. While we often think of AT as being sophisticated, expensive, and involving computers, AT includes low-tech solutions such as pencil grips, raised-line paper, and sticky notes. Low-tech AT usually is inexpensive, fairly simple, focuses on a single task, and does not involve electricity (no batteries or cords). Mid-tech AT (e.g., calculators, spell-checkers, and audio book players)costs more, is more complex, usually focuses on one type of task, and involves electricity (i.e., batteries or cords). High-tech AT (e.g., computers, tablets, and smartphones) usually is the most expensive, more complex, often helps with a variety of tasks, and needs electricity.
AT can play an important role in a person’s education. In fact, IDEA (2004) requires that IEP teams consider AT for EVERY student who is eligible for special education services (IDEA, 2004, Sec. 300.324(a)(2)(v)). While this requirement does not mean that every student will receive AT, the team must at least consider the need for both AT devices and services.
Unfortunately, some schools appear not to have understood this IDEA message, especially regarding students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. A few semesters ago, one of my university students working as a paraeducator asked a teacher about appropriate AT for students with learning disabilities. The teacher’s response was that students with learning disabilities don’t need AT because only students with severe and profound disabilities benefit from AT. In my experience, students with learning disabilities are excellent candidates for AT. It can revolutionize their lives.
This leads us to Dr. Dave’s AT Lab Principle #1: Be sure to ask about AT devices and services at IEP meetings.While we don’t normally expect low-tech AT to be included in a student’s IEP, mid- and high-tech AT devices and services should be part of the written IEP. Keep in mind that the IEP may refer to use of a general type of device (i.e., a tablet) rather than a specific device (i.e., an iPad). Participating in trial use of one or more devices or services might be more appropriate than specifying a particular device or service in the IEP. In addition, a low- or mid-tech AT solution might be as or more helpful than an expensive, complicated high-tech one.
What if you encounter resistance to even talking about AT? The best approach may be to ask why AT would not be appropriate for this particular student, and to explain that AT can help people who have problems with reading, spelling, writing, taking notes, staying organized, and numerous other tasks. You might even share with the IEP team some AT examples and resources that you think might be particularly helpful for your student, including Examiner articles (Dr. Cheesman’s App Chat or Dr. Dave’s AT Lab columns) or the special technology issue of Perspectives (Fall 2013).
Deciding which AT to use for a specific task with a particular student can be challenging, which leads us to Dr. Dave’s AT Lab Principle #2: When considering AT, one “size” does not fit all. To be most effective, AT needs to be tailored to both the person using it and the tasks at hand. Selecting the most appropriate AT involves many factors (e.g., the device’s cost, portability, functionality, usability, and available training and other support). Other factors include the user’s physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths, challenges, and preferences. Sometimes a person’s support network and cultural perspectives may play a role in determining appropriate AT. When any of these factors are missing or ignored, the result may be a decision to avoid using AT and to continue an unnecessary struggle.
Involving the person who will be using the AT in the decision process can be especially important to AT success. Besides learning of the person’s preferences, this involvement provides a sense of ownership and self-determination in the process that can lead to a greater willingness to try something new. When suggesting AT to some of my university students, I often share two or three options for them to try. I have found greater success with this approach than telling them to use an AT device or app that I like or think would work well for them.
Low-, mid-, and high-tech AT options are available for many tasks. I recommend trying low-tech options first. The cost is usually minimal, and the AT user does not need to worry about replacing batteries or finding a place to plug in a device or keeping it charged. If the low-tech option does not meet the user’s need, then try a mid- or high-tech option.
Speaking of cost, remember that cost considerations for high-tech devices need to include repair, maintenance, insurance, future upgrades, and replacement. Some high-tech devices, such as computers, require a significant initial investment for the hardware and then ongoing investment in software and apps. However, because many of these high-tech devices help the user accomplish multiple tasks, the cost might be reasonable.
So, yes, AT is all around us, and we don’t have to have a disability to take advantage of it. In future visits to my AT Lab, we’ll cover specific areas and tasks in which AT can make a positive impact, such as reading, spelling, and writing. I’ll talk to you in a few months when you visit my AT Lab again.
David C. Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE, is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University. He has been a classroom teacher, tutor, diagnostician, administrator, and tutor/teacher trainer for over 30 years and is a member of the International Dyslexia Association Orton Oaks. He currently teaches courses introducing preservice teachers to special education as well as instructional and assistive technology, writing,and assessment in special education for preservice special educators and speech language pathologists.
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