George Lucas Educational Foundation
Assistive Technology

Rethinking Assistive Technology

For students with disabilities, assistive technology isn’t a nice-to-have—it’s crucial to their learning and success in school.

February 21, 2019
A close-up on a student's hands holding a tablet computer in a library
©Shutterstock/Ermolaev Alexander

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 says that assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.” It includes both stand-alone devices and software, and encompasses no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech options.

Assistive technology (AT) can be a game changer for students with disabilities—when they’re matched with the right assistive technology tool for them, they can better access curriculum, learning, and opportunities for success inside and outside the classroom.

If AT can be so beneficial and crucial to student learning, why are educators and school teams sometimes hesitant to use it in the classroom? It’s possible that the answer lies in misunderstandings about what assistive technology is and how it functions in education.

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5 Common Misunderstandings About Assistive Technology

1. Using assistive technology is cheating: Do we consider a student who wears glasses to be cheating? Nope. But glasses are an assistive technology; they allow someone with poor eyesight to see better.

Similarly, assistive technology allows students with reading, writing, communication, visual, hearing, and mobility challenges to improve their functioning in the classroom. As Mary Pat Radabaugh, director of IBM’s National Support Center for Persons With Disabilities, said in 1988, “For most people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, however, technology makes things possible.”

2. Assistive technology is expensive: Some AT costs a lot, it’s true—but some is free or very inexpensive.

No-tech devices should always be tried first as many of them suffice to meet a student’s needs. For example, a teacher or occupational therapist can create a slant board to address writing challenges from a large binder—an AT device that only costs $1. Pencil grips and low-tech calculators are also inexpensive. Guided reading strips—which can help students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia—are a few bucks per pack.

Software for computers, tablets, and iPads ranges from free apps to expensive programs. To help offset the cost of potentially expensive AT, many states have AT device loan programs that allow students, families, and teachers to try out devices for free for a period of time so that they can find the right AT before making a purchase. For example, Connecticut has the AT Device Loan program through the CT Tech Act Project. Teachers and families should check with their state to find out more about options like this.

3. AT is more work for the teacher: Incorporating assistive technology into lessons can be done without creating more work for the teacher. For one thing, teachers in special education classrooms are likely already using differentiated instruction and tailoring their teaching strategies to diverse learners.

Assistive technology is simply a tool that teachers can use to deliver instruction. For example, creating centers that give students the option of listening to an audiobook while their peers read silently is an example of how to easily incorporate assistive technology. Another way to work AT into lesson plans is to give students the option of using concept maps to organize their thoughts before beginning a writing assignment.

Graphic organizers can assist all students, and for students with writing disabilities they are an AT tool. Adding captioning to videos shown in class is another easy AT tool. YouTube offers captioning on its videos to make them accessible to all viewers.

4. AT is primarily for students with significant or severe disabilities: AT can benefit all students with disabilities, based on their skill level, environment, or task. We may first think about students who have challenges walking, talking, or seeing as those who need AT the most. However, students with learning disabilities are the fastest growing group to utilize technology tools.

Several guiding questions can be used to facilitate discussions when considering AT for a student with any type of disability: What difficulty is the student experiencing, in school or at home, that the AT is intended to address? What tools has the student already tried? What new technology could be tried? How will we determine whether or not a technology tool is effective?

5. AT can only be used in the classroom: Many AT tools can be used at home as well as at school. AT is used in academics and learning, recreation, daily living activities, communication, mobility, and more. And if students use an assistive technology both at school and at home, their proficiency with it will increase, which leads to more opportunities for learning and success in both settings.

For example, a student who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate in school—such as an iPad with a communication app—can also practice using it in the community when attending doctor appointments, family gatherings, or any other situation in which they have some difficulty communicating.

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