Approaches used to address the difficulties faced by individuals with learning disabilities fall into two general categories remedial and compensatory. A remedial approach seeks to alleviate a specific deficit or improve an area of weakness. A compensatory approach tries to work-around or bypass a deficit. If a child is having trouble learning to read, a remedial strategy might focus on phonics to improve reading skill. In contrast, a compensatory strategy might provide a book on audiotape or an OCR system so the child could hear the text spoken aloud.
Assistive technology is a compensatory approach. Compensatory approaches are particularly important for adults who may not have the time to invest in remediating a specific difficulty a college student, for example, faced with several hundred pages of text to read in a short period of time. It should also be emphasized that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Providing assistive technology, doesn't mean that an individual can't also receive remedial instruction.
There is also some overlap between these two categories, with compensatory technologies sometimes having a remedial function. For example, there is evidence that students who use speech recognition systems that convert spoken language to text on a computer screen, may also improve their reading comprehension and word recognition skills through use of the system.
It's important to make sure that an assistive technology plays to an individual's strengths. To cite one instance, if someone has a problem writing "their spelling and grammar are poor" but is an articulate speakers, rather than simply getting them a standard word processing program, they might be better off with speech-recognition software, a program that converts the spoken word to text. Or, for another example, if a child is having trouble reading but can easily understand spoken words, then an OCR system with computerized speech that can read a book out loud for them could provide a great deal of benefit.
Even keeping these points in mind, finding the most appropriate assistive technology for someone with a learning disability is very tricky. There are four components to be considered:
- the individual who needs the technology and their specific strengths, limitations, skill sets, knowledge and interests;
- the specific tasks or functions the assistive technology is expected to perform (such as compensation for a reading, writing or memory problem);
- the setting where the assistive technology will be used (school, home, workplace); and
- the device itself considerations such as ease of operation, reliability, portability and cost.
It's also important to keep in mind that assistive technologies are not a panacea but are merely one part of the puzzle of how to deal with a learning disability. And if you're a parent trying to find something to help a child, it's essential to include your child in the selection process, make sure the technology really addresses their needs, that they're comfortable with it and that they know how to use it properly.
Ultimately, an assistive technology should help an individual with a learning disability to function at a level that is commensurate with their intelligence. And though there may have been a stigma attached to using AT some time back, in the last fifteen or so years, our society has become more and more intrigued with technology of all sorts "the latest laptop, the newest PDA, the most powerful MP3 player. And what might have previously been considered an assistive technology's spell checker, a talking calculator, a grammar checker" is now completely within the mainstream. There are more tools for learning now than have ever been available previously; the great challenge is to find the one that works best for each specific individual's needs.
Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D. is a frequent presenter at international learning disability conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well known for his research in assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the lifespan.
For more information on assistive technology, visit the "Technology to Support Learning" section of GreatSchools.net.