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What Is Assistive Technology?

What do Velcro, large button calculators and computers have in common? Let me give you a clue: what happens when they are grouped together with a pencil grip, a tape recorder, and a talking alarm clock? From name stamps to laptop computers, these items reflect a small sample of tools or devices that "assists" a person with a disability to do something that might not otherwise be possible. The more formal name for these tools and devices is assistive technology.

Assistive technology sounds complicated, scientific, and expensive. Is this always true? In most cases, the answer is no. Many assistive technologies are commonly available in places like your supermarket or stationary and hardware stores. Here are a few examples that may be useful to students in your schools:

  • PostIt flags can be used in textbooks to mark important information.
  • Remote doorbells found in hardware stores can be used to get someones attention in another part of your classroom or school building if you need assistance.
  • For some people, an inexpensive electronic organizer from a stationary store can make all the difference in their ability to independently keep track of their daily responsibilities in school.
  • A trackball may be just the right tool to support a student who is having difficulty with a traditional mouse.

These kinds of solutions are simple, easy to find, and can easily be incorporated into the classroom. While these solutions are simple, they also represent a more proactive approach to meeting the needs of diverse learners, particularly when incorporated into a districts pre-referral process, general education accommodations, or in support of a 504* plan.

What are some of the other components of supporting students with assistive technology? With changes in the federal special education law, IDEA 97, all students must be "considered" for an assistive technology evaluation. Many districts in Massachusetts have responded to this mandate by forming assistive technology assessment teams. These teams meet with the teacher, the students educational team, the student and their family to identify appropriate technologies that support the students access to and progress in the general curriculum. Some of the team recommendations will be no-tech, low-tech solutions like pencil grips or large button calculators; but for some students, more complex solutions may be needed. Some of the more complex recommendations may include the provision of text in digital format, an alternate keyboard, or word prediction software. Whether the recommendation includes an off-the-shelf device from your local hardware store, or a sophisticated computer system, there are a few important things to keep in mind. The student using the technology needs to be actively involved in the technology decision, and trained in the use of the technology. Ongoing maintenance, repair, and upgrading are also services that must be made available to the technology user and their family.

This may seem overwhelming, but there are local resources available to help you explore all of your options, identify new alternatives, and connect with other users.

Written by:

Susan Cusack