Designing Professional Development on Assistive Technology for Teachers: Findings from a Two-year Study



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My dissertation study followed four New York City educators as they participated in a yearlong inquiry-based professional development group focused on assistive technology. The teachers engaged in a cyclical inquiry process (i.e., investigating a practice, developing an inquiry topic or question, collecting data, reflecting with other professionals, taking action within the classroom, and sharing knowledge). This process led each teacher to problem solve issues of inaccessibility for students with and without labeled disabilities using technological tools.

During the experience, teachers first examined their instructional practices in relation to focal students with disabilities then, in later rounds of inquiry, they widened their gaze to others—students without labeled disabilities. Teachers in the study concluded that planning from the outset for all students’ participation – by means of engaging with and constructing varied modes of representation – provided a level of equity and inclusivity that was not attainable without multimodal affordances. This study provides a framework for understanding how we should design professional development focused on assistive technology for teachers. There are four tenets to consider:

1) Long-term, inquiry-based professional development may change practice.

​The findings from this study reinforce the power of long-term, inquiry-based experiences to support teachers in learning about technological integration. In this study, the teachers transformed their conceptions of technology and accessibility through the messy, complicated, and reflective work of inquiry. Throughout the yearlong experience, each participant developed and changed her inquiry questions and topics for a variety of reasons, including: analysis of student data or observations; personal reflections; and suggestions posed by other team members. Over time, using their practice as the site of inquiry, I observed how the process of inquiry compelled each teacher to “invent” and “reinvent” frameworks for decision-making surrounding students’ technology use, participation, and engagement. These results were possible because of the long-term nature of the experience. The implication is that both time and method are critical factors in the design of professional development focused on assistive technology.

2) Focus on the complexity of student learning, not solely on the tool.

​Professional development should highlight for educators that when selecting and integrating technology with a student, teachers’ primary focus must be on the complexity of student learning—not solely on the tool. As participants delved deeper into their inquiry projects and made new decisions regarding the use of technologies with students, their decisions focused less on devices or “the stuff of assistive technology,” and more on the learner, the desired learning outcomes, the classroom context, and relationship among the three.

3) Accessible technology can be a pathway towards access for all.

The participants in this study were interested in learning about technology, but they questioned whether they belonged in an “assistive technology” professional development team. Ultimately, the process of inquiry pushed teachers to make decisions beyond disability labels, and to consider the positioning of other students in the classroom by the curriculum, pedagogical methods, and instructional demands. Reframing professional development from a focus on assistive technology to “accessible technology” may provide a context for learning about “disability and technology more fluidly and responsively” (Foley & Ferri, 2012, p. 196). The concept of accessible technology rejects a dual-system of technology—technology for non-disabled and people with disabilities—and calls for a “more inclusive view” (Foley & Ferri, 2012, p. 193).

4) Classroom teachers are implementers and interpreters of policy in their professional practice.

​The findings of this study reveal educators’ lack of familiarity with local policy and federal law concerning assistive technology. School leaders must be responsible for fostering teaching learning and supporting collaboration among professionals for effective use of technology in schools. This underscores the need for administrators to ensure that at a local school level all professionals engage with policy and professional development surrounding the use of assistive technology with students with disabilities.

For the teachers in this study issues of access for individual students and their legal rights to assistive technology served as an impetus for utilizing technological tools with specific users. As teachers taught and used their inquiry projects to reflect upon and make changes in their use of assistive technology with students, they were highly motivated by the affordances technological tools provided a larger number of students. The use of technological tools with all students became a deliberate part of the teachers’ pedagogical decision-making since without them curricular accessibility no longer seemed possible.

As the professional development progressed, by way of their decisions, the teachers acted as if technological integration for curricular accessibility was a matter of social justice, since it is not a legal right for all students. Participants’ decision-making facilitated greater levels of access, opportunities for learning, and overall inclusivity of students, and in turn, strengthened participants’ commitments towards educational equity for all. It was a privilege to bear witness to this thoughtful and invigorating work.


Foley, A., & Ferri, B. A. (2012). Technology for people, not disabilities: Ensuring access & inclusion. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 12(4), 192-200.