What is Assistive Technology?
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).
Basically, AT enables independence and function for people with different abilities. There’s an often-re-quoted statement that I often use to explain why technology with a defined purpose is so life-changing for people with disabilities:
“For most of us, technology makes things easier. For a person with a disability, it makes things possible.”
Assistive technology makes things possible. We all benefit from technology but people with disabilities may require technology to participate, show what they know, or be more independent!
Who Conducts an Assistive Technology Evaluation?
So, you know you have the need to consider assistive technology - maybe your “why” is due to motor, visual, auditory, cognitive, language, or social-emotional difficulties that limit your abilities. Before you identify the appropriate assistive technology tools, it is important to thoroughly explore all of the factors related to why you are looking at AT in the first place! That’s when you consult an assistive technology evaluator.
An assistive technology evaluation is typically conducted by an Assistive Technology Practitioner (ATP), AT Specialist, or AT Consultant. The last two terms are not regulated by licensure or credentialing so requesting additional information about the evaluator’s background and training is important to better frame their level of expertise in regards to what you’ll need out of an AT evaluation. Some AT specialists or consultants are clinicians with backgrounds in other areas like speech and language therapists, special education teachers, or occupational therapists who have additional training in assistive technology.
Clinicians who are designated as Assistive Technology Practitioners, or ATP, have demonstrated competency with the clinical standards set forth by the Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). Along with this competency comes expectations for professional development to keep current on AT trends, product innovations, and research supported interventions. ATPs can also be OT, speech, special education, or rehabilitation-based clinicians.
Regardless of whether you find an ATP, AT Specialist, or AT Consultant who does assistive technology evaluations in your area, it is important to know your “why” and to find an evaluator whose expertise matches your needs. Some AT evaluators are specialists in mobility, seating and positioning, communication, access and design, educational AT applications, and/or sensory systems (vision, hearing). You wouldn’t see your ophthalmologist for tooth pain, so make sure you select your AT evaluator with an idea of the problem in mind - and whether or not they have the skills to help you!
What is an Assistive Technology Evaluation?
A thorough assistive technology evaluation will take a holistic, team approach throughout the process. Assistive technology services do not end when the evaluation report is submitted, so the input and collaborative approach to the evaluation helps to define meaningful goals and appropriate tools and services needed. An AT evaluation can include input from doctors, teachers, speech therapists, rehabilitation engineers, OT’s, and other related specialists - all of their data and expertise helps to form a complete picture of the person, his/her strengths, and barriers to independence or performance.
There are a few frameworks that advise the AT evaluation process - for more information, read this article here. The person’s needs and skills should advise the selection of the appropriate evaluation tool so regardless of what framework is used, AT evaluations are comprehensive in identifying the person’s strengths, weaknesses/barriers to performance, needs, environments, tasks, and routines. An evaluation may or may not include additional assessments for related skills such as language or motor skills testing (depending on the evaluator’s expertise and file review history).
Only after the data has been collected, observations and AT trials completed, and thorough evaluation process completed, does the conversation about specific assistive technology tools happen. The recommended AT tools should be specific to the student’s abilities, needs, tasks, and environments where the AT tools are being used.
Assistive Technology Tools
It’s impossible to list all of the tools that can be characterized as assistive technology. It’s best to think of it in terms of the quote mentioned above: is it necessary for one or is it beneficial to all?
An example of this is a trampoline in a preschool classroom. You wouldn’t look at the trampoline as being out of place in the classroom - little ones all enjoy jumping and it helps them to get the wiggles out! All children in the class are benefitting from the movement opportunities that the trampoline provides. However, that same trampoline may be the equipment that allows one little boy to self-regulate in order to complete tasks at the table with his peers, or join his peers sitting on the carpet for a class lesson. In this case, the trampoline is his AT tool and without it in his classroom, the little boy would not be successful in managing his self-regulation needs.
When you consider that example, the possibilities for what may enable function for a person with disabilities could potentially be endless. So, here’s what you need to know about assistive technology tools:
AT tools can range from low tech to high tech
(i.e. pencil grip, reading window, adapted spoon versus computer-based software, voice-output device, motorized wheelchair)
AT tools can be off-the-shelf products or customized to meet individual needs.
The AT tools selected should match the needs, tasks, skills, and priorities/goals of the person using the assistive technology.
More than one assistive technology tool may be recommended!
More Resources on Assistive Technology
Know your “why” in exploring assistive technology and check out some of these additional resources for finding AT specialists, exploring exciting products, and reviewing new research. The field of assistive technology is comprised of innovative professionals who are dedicated to maximizing the independence and capacity of people of all abilities!
RESNA - Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America AOTA - American Occupational Therapy Association ASHA - American Speech and Hearing Association CEC - Council for Exceptional Children