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Assistive technologies have long enabled people with disabilities to participate more fully in all aspects of life: think of canes, wheelchairs, and hearing aids. According to the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, “The term assistive technology device means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.”

Along with the mandate from the federal government to provide appropriate assistive technology devices to students with disabilities, we have also seen a proliferation of technologies developed either for education, or that can be used in education. (Think of SMART boards, computer learning games, and now iPads.)

Although among some experts in technology and assistive technologies, debates often ensue about the lines of demarcation between generalized educational technologies and assistive technologies, we think teachers do not receive much guidance from this debate. Rather, and in accordance with the law, we advise that the IEP team carefully consider what technologies, assistive or general, a learner may need to fully access the general education curriculum. It is then imperative that the individual student and the student’s teachers receive strategies and support so fully utilize these devices.

But teachers do not need to wait for an IEP team to assess an individual child’s need for a specific device before they bring technologies into their classrooms. Whether it is a software program to support organization of writing (such as Co-Writer), the text to speech feature of Microsoft Word or NaturalReader, or voice to print dictation software (such as Dragon Naturally Speaking), teachers can bring technologies into the classroom for any child in the classroom.

And these technologies need not be the high-tech that we first think of. Teachers must also consider simple low-tech devices such as highlighter pens, pencil grips, line guides, or seat cushions. Low-tech systems do not require batteries.

  • Low-tech systems typically consist of a way to record speech and/or have a touch display, switch access, or adapted keyboards. Examples include Alphasmart, calculators, or tape/digital recorders, enlarged keyboards.
  • Mid-tech systems are communication aids and simple software such as video cameras or a Kurzweil reader.
  • High-tech systems typically require training and support and involve complex voice output systems and computers with adaptive hardware.

Getting started:

  • What do you already have in your classroom? Take a full inventory of all of the technology you already have in your classroom ranging from post-its and pencil grips to computers and Smartboards. Do you have internet access? Headphones? What software is already installed on any working computer? What other toys may be floating around your school?
  • Consider the needs of the students you teach and match the necessary technology: A student who struggles to write (spelling, small motor skills, etc.) may benefit from recording his spoken language before writing it, using a co-writer, typing, pen v. pencil, grips, slant boards. Knowing his specific learning needs will help you match the specific assistive tech.