Think about all that goes into the makings of a successful classroom - somewhere on your list is a creative teacher who uses a variety of materials to teach concepts and reinforce lessons to help students to make connections. It's called differentiation - presenting materials in different ways to meet the individual needs of learners! We don't all think and learn the same and a one-size-fits-all approach in a classroom isn't going to be effective in helping a class of 21-differently wired kids learn!
So, when students have disabilities that limit their ability to access the materials that the rest of the students are using, it directly impacts their ability to learn and show what they know. This is when assistive technology supports are tailored to individual student needs - along a wide range of skills and support tools.
Assistive Technology for Special Education
Assistive technology (AT) is any product, equipment, software program and/or system that enhances learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities. The goal of assistive technology is to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities (ATIA).
In the classroom, assistive technology enables independence, function, and learning for students with different abilities. Assistive technology makes it possible for educational materials, environments, and experiences to be accessible to students with disabilities. It's the difference between general education students benefitting from multi-sensory instructional technology (i.e. math apps on the iPad) to reinforce concepts through games versus a student requiring that technology to participate, show what they know, or be more independent! If your child were to move classrooms or schools and the teaching tools were no longer available to him, would it impede his ability to learn? It's an important question to ask as you look at how your child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is written.
Assistive Technology in the IEP
It's a cumbersome document in very small print, so it's easy to overlook the mentions of "assistive technology" in the pages of other critical information listed on your IEP. The federal law: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your child's IEP team consider assistive technology supports as part of the IEP development process. This resource from the Center on Technology and Disability is a wonderful guide to help parents and educators understand all that goes into truly "considering" whether AT is needed for a student to make progress.
Unfortunately, there can be a lack of understanding on both sides as to what Assistive Technology entails and some parents do not realize or are not told about the possibilities that AT can offer a struggling student. The topic of assistive technology should be one that enters into your IEP conversations at least during the annual review meetings, as students' needs change over the course of their educational careers.
Types of Assistive Technology for Special Education Students
On an IEP, there are primary diagnoses that are listed as the qualifying reason for special education services. There is a wide range and scope of skills within each diagnosis, and that is when the individualized education planning reflects your child's strengths and areas for improvement, as well as the impact of his disability on educational performance. Here are the primary diagnoses as listed on an IEP:
specific learning disability,
specific learning disability/dyslexia,
speech or language impaired
traumatic brain injury
other health impaired
OHI - ADD/ADHD
Obviously, there is no way to account for all of the variability that comes with such a wide range of diagnoses and individual needs within each of those contexts. Just know that, much like the range of skills an IEP can accommodate for, assistive technology services operate along a continuum of supports: from low tech, to high tech, and everything in between.
The possibilities for what may enable function for a person with disabilities could potentially be endless depending on the individual's skills, needs, tasks, and environmental considerations. So, here’s what you need to know about assistive technology tools for special education purposes:
AT tools can range from low tech to high tech - classroom teaching tools like pencil grips, reading windows, and slantboards are great examples of assistive technology that is low tech! More specialized tools like adapted spoons or single message switches are mid-tech tools that require a bit more training and skill. The most high tech tools can include specialized computer-based software, a voice-output device, and a motorized wheelchair. Obviously this list is just an example rather than comprehensive!
AT tools can be off-the-shelf products or customized to meet individual needs - I'll use the example of the classroom schedule in a second-grade classroom: The teacher uses a pocket chart with images of analog clocks and corresponding activity written - 1:30 Math. For a student who has a reading disability, an accommodation might be to adapt that same calendar so a picture of the activity supports the understanding of written text. For a student with a math disability, perhaps the adjustment is to make the analog presentation of time into a digital format. Both adjustments accommodated for the student's disability in a way that made their daily schedule more accessible.
The AT tools selected should match the needs, tasks, skills, and priorities/goals of the student using the assistive technology - consider some of the most common educational tasks like reading, writing, math, keeping track of assignments, managing belongings in a locker/cubby, participating in specials classes, social skill interactions. Kids do a lot in a school day! Assistive technology services support participation across all areas of performance, just as your IEP should.
More than one assistive technology tool may be recommended! - Just as a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn't work for a classroom of kids, one-AT-tool-for-all tasks won't cut it either! An AT specialist can make recommendations that vary based on tasks, environments, and individual preferences and skills.
For more information on assistive technology supports to education, check out our blog at www.adaptandlearn.com/blog.