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Assistive Technology: Getting the Right Supports for Your Student

Assistive Technology for Students-Assistive Technology for Children icon_podcastsThe following is a transcription of the podcast, “Assistive Technology: Getting the Right Supports for Your Student (Audio).”

In this NCLD podcast, Candace Cortiella interviews Dr. Dave Edyburn, a leading expert in assistive technology (AT) for students with disabilities. Dr. Edyburn is the founder and editor of Special Education Technology Practice, a journal for technology practitioners, as well as many other products focused on using the power of technology in special education and to improve educational opportunities for children, youth, and adults with disabilities. He is also a professor in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.


Candace Cortiella: Welcome, Dr. Edyburn. Can you give us a simple definition of assistive technology (AT)?


Dave Edyburn: That’s a great place to start. And simple would be good, in the sense that we would know it and recognize it when we see it. Almost all of our work is traced back to the late 1980s and the federal definition of assistive technology which talks about devices that improve, maintain, or increase the functional capabilities of an individual with a disability.


The challenge for that is that the core definition now is anything that enhances performance. So that makes it a little difficult in terms of looking at a product or an intervention to say, “Is that really an assistive technology?”


Candace Cortiella: What are some of the most common AT supports used to help students with learning disabilities?


Dave Edyburn: Well, there are many things that could be used, and I think that’s part of what we probably want to talk about today is that students with learning disabilities struggle in many areas. Some common areas would be obviously reading and math, but other issues are things like memory and writing and strategies in terms of how to go about completing schoolwork.


So even though the challenges of learning disabilities are well-known, the connections between appropriate assistive technologies are not as well-known. And so, in many schools we’ll be struggling with [questions such as], “Well, do they need a special word processor because the word processor they are using now doesn’t pick up some of the gross misspellings. If so, what kind of spelling-correction technologies are available?”


So we would hope the basic things like calculators and word processors are provided. Again, all those would be considered assistive technologies, but sometimes they’re overlooked because all of us use tools like that. One of the challenges that we hear about is that “My student’s note-taking skills are so poor and [his] handwriting is so poor, can we do speech-to-text so that my child can just dictate and the computer can type it for him?”


So there’s a lot of hope with things like that as well as text-to-speech products which read [aloud] to a child. So I think [today] we’ll talk about the kind of specialized assessment that’s needed to find the right products.


Candace Cortiella: Last year, the National Center for Learning Disabilities released a report entitled, The State of Learning Disabilities 2009. That report found significant shortfalls in AT use among students with LD. By some estimates, only 25 to 35% of students with LD are using any type of assistive technology to support their instruction. To what do you attribute this significant underutilization?


Dave Edyburn: That’s an interesting statistic because we don’t have good data on how many students are using assistive technology, particularly with mild disabilities, so they tend to be under-referred and have less than optimal utilization of some of these assistive technologies. And I think part of it is because we really haven’t been attending to the issue about how technology enhances cognition.


Historically, the field of assistive technology has been associated with overcoming physical limitations as well as sensory limitations. What I use as a starting point for our work on assistive technology for learning disabilities is the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). If you look at that, we’ve really been at this for less than 15 years and it’s my way of thinking from the evidence I’ve seen is that even though LD is a high-incidence disability, we’re not seeing anywhere near high-incidence use of specialized devices for reading, writing, math, and other ways kids struggle in school.


Candace Cortiella: What role does the school play in ensuring that students with LD get the AT they need to benefit from instruction?


Dave Edyburn: That’s a great question because the federal law [includes a] mandate for IEP teams to consider assistive technology. The operation of that is really at the IEP team level to say, “Look, this child is struggling. We’ve got plenty of evidence that he’s struggling in all these classes. We’re mandated to consider the kinds of assistive technologies that can help.” And that team is also charged with finding appropriate [AT] tools.


Unfortunately, the way it’s been implemented in most states is simply a “yes” or “no” check box [indicating] that assistive technology is being considered. Many teams will simply check “yes” because they thought about AT but [believe the student] doesn’t need it. So it’s somewhat of a denial of the fact that there is a learning problem and that there’s an associated technology that could lessen the impact of that and make the child more successful.


I refer to this as the “consideration paradox” because if teams are not trained and don’t have access to assistive technology evaluation and the types of tools that are out there, they don’t know what’s possible and so they tend to say, “Yes, we considered it, but we didn’t find anything relevant and we didn’t know if anything would be helpful. And we’re going to keep trying to teach and that will work itself out in the end.”


Candace Cortiella: What should parents do when the school doesn’t include a discussion of AT in that IEP process as required by special education law as you’ve just described to us?


Dave Edyburn: That’s a tough situation because suddenly, the relationship becomes adversarial. Often what parents are left to do is to go outside the school and find someone who would be able to help evaluate their child and find appropriate technology tools [and then] to come back to the team and say, “Here’s some evidence and we collected some data. When the child completed the task without technology and did a similar task with technology and did it on more than one occasion.” So we kind of graph these results. What we’re looking for when we graph it is see if there’s a boost, if performance can be better with a different device or tool, and bring that evidence back to the school to say, “Can we consider this?” And it’s been challenging. I’ve been doing more work in the area of advocacy, and it’s hard to get schools to change their perspective about how much support is appropriate.


And so one of the things I encourage parents to do is to continue to seek those tools and to remember that school is six hours a day. If we can find the right tool, certainly there’s no limit on how much it can be used outside of school. And I think that’s an important factor. It circumvents what we’re trying to do with the federal law about consideration and finding the appropriate tools.


But in some cases, it’s an uphill battle to try and change systems and to help educational teams that don’t know about the tools or haven’t been able to figure out how to integrate them or have access to the appropriate tools at the right time. It’s a challenging situation. I guess the short answer is there are no easy answers here other than being persistent.