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Assistive Technology - Making Good Decisions for Your Student

Assistive Technology for Students-Assistive Technology for ChildrenReflecting back on my time as a rookie junior high school teacher in the mid-1970s, I remember regularly asking my LD Resource Room students to reflect (we called it “constructive complaining”) on what they could do, both in school and at home, to complete their assignments, be more productive in their studying and time management, and of course, get better grades. Countless hours were spent making lists, organizing notes, and creating homework assignment sheets, the very types of features that are built into almost all of today’s desktop and mobile devices. My students wanted to be faster and better at completing high-quality work assignments, and one even said that he wished that someone would "invent a machine" that could help him be more independent and not need so much help all the time with reading, writing, and spelling.


Fast forward 40 years. Students today are using smart phones, laptops, iPads, optical scanning pens and cameras, and have easy access to digitized texts, text-to-voice read-aloud programs, a vast and ever-expanding menu of video and audio resources, virtually unrestricted access to data (think wireless networks, the “cloud”,….) and limitless storage capacity for saving and cataloguing knowledge.


With so much technology available to everyone for practically any purpose, what makes assistive technology (AT) unique?


What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology refers to any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the ability of individuals (with a disability) to perform specific tasks. AT products help users become more independent in school, on the job, and in activities of daily living. These products range from very low tech (e.g., colored highlighters) to hi-tech (e.g., optical scanners and speech synthesizers), and can cost little or be very expensive. They also vary considerably in term of whether they require training to get started or are “plug-and-play.” Keep in mind the following:


  • Does every student with special learning needs require the same types of learning accommodations? No.
  • Will all students with LD benefit equally from assistive technologies? No.
  • Is there a definitive body of research that tells us which students will benefit from what types of assistive technologies? No.

How then do we make good decisions? The answer is to be an informed consumer. Think about the learning disability, understand the features and limitations of each AT product, try them out (and be sure to ask for help if needed), and personalize the application to address your specific LD-related needs.


What Assistive Technology Can and Cannot Do 

Assistive technologies can:

  • minimize the extent to which individuals with LD need to ask for help (enabling them to be more independent learners)
  • improve the speed and accuracy of work
  • reinforce effective classroom instruction and strengthen skill development
  • help students to 'fit in' with classroom learning and routines
  • motivate students with LD to set high goals for themselves and to persevere


Assistive technologies cannot:

  • compensate for ineffective teaching
  • make a learning disability go away
  • be expected to provide the same benefits to different users
  • automatically promote positive attitudes toward learning

It is critical to keep in mind that AT is meant to "assist" and not replace intentional, well-designed and implemented instruction. It is often the case that students who use AT tools like screen readers and calculators show some improvement in their reading and math skills over time. This may be in part due to their added exposure to and practice with the very skills that, without AT assistance, would cause them to fall behind.

A sometimes overlooked benefit of AT is that it can help to reduce the enormous stress that is often experienced by students with LD. Struggling to stay current with assignments, needing personal assistance from parents, teachers, and tutors, and the frustration of not being in control can (and often does) contribute to feelings of helplessness and threats to self-confidence and self-worth. AT can be very effective in bolstering student's positive self-image and helping to empower them to compensate for specific disability-related limitations.


Deciding What AT Applications are Best for You

Here are some great questions to guide your decision-making.


  • What specific needs would you like to be addressed by your choice of AT tools?
  • Are the devices you’ve chosen a good match with your child’s specific learning needs??
  • How interested (and motivated) is the student in using AT?
  • Where will the AT tools be used? (home, school, work, social settings)
  • Will this AT tool be needed for use in more than one place?
  • How easy is this AT application to learn and to operate?
  • How reliable is it? And it is easily replaced or repaired?
  • How well does it work in combination with other technologies?
  • What kind of technical support does the AT manufacturer offer?
  • What types of support will you need to make sure that your AT tools are working well and are helping your child to succeed?

Finding the right match between assistive technology tools and the needs of individuals with LD will take some work, but if done thoughtfully, can be invaluable in promoting successful learning and independence.



Helpful Resources

The Family Center on Technology & Disability
The AIM Explorer
National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI)
Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd)