Monday, August 1, 2011

Answering your Assistive Technology Questions (That You Didn't Even Know You Had)

By: Anna Colley

Think about a typical day in your classroom. You may stand in the front of the room and lecture, show a slide show, have students come to the board for interactive white board activities, ask students to work together in groups, and give reading assignments. You probably have directions, labels, and signs posted around your classroom. If you’re like most of us, you probably talk quite a lot during a typical day, and you ask your students to talk to you, to the whole group, and to each other. Your students probably put pencil or pen to paper several times throughout a day or class period.

All of this can be broken down into a typical model for learning that looks something like this:

Now ask yourself: What if a student does not have easy access to the input or the output?

Assistive Technology, or AT, is defined by the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 as “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.” The oversimplified translation: AT helps students to receive the input or deliver the output.

What’s the difference between assistive technology and plain-old technology?
They may look exactly the same! AT is not so much defined by what the technology is as by its purpose. Is the technology being used as an enhancement, or as a necessity? As Mary Pat Radabauer so aptly put it, “For people with typical abilities, technology makes doing things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes doing things possible.”

So what is it, exactly?
The answer to that is very complex, because AT comes in such a wide variety of forms. Generally, it can be grouped into 4 categories: no-tech, low-tech, medium-tech, and high-tech.

No-Tech AT consists of procedures, services, and environmental conditions that do not require special equipment or devices. Think about services such as speech therapy, and accommodations such as preferential seating in this category.

Low-Tech AT would involve the use of devices or items that are simple and non-mechanical in nature. For instance, adapted spoons, no-spill cups, tinted transparency overlays for reading, clipboards, and Velcro can all be used for assistive purposes.

Medium-Tech AT are relatively complicated mechanical devices, like walkers and wheelchairs.

High-Tech AT uses electronics to provide assistance. This would include computer software, specialty digital devices, and consumer devices like iPads.

What can AT devices help people to do?

The tasks aided by the use of AT can be grouped into 10 categories, with some overlap between them.

  • Daily living aids help people perform everyday tasks such as eating, sitting, moving, or toileting. Examples: adapted spoons, no-spill cups, adaptive toilet seats
  • Assistive listening and amplification devices help individuals to hear or to attend to audio. Examples: Portable FM systems, hearing aids
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices are used for communication for individuals who have no speech or limited speech. Examples: Tech Talk 8, Little Step by Step Communicator with Levels, DynaVox
  • Computer access devices and software provide assistance for using computers. This includes hardware that help individuals access the computer physically, and software that helps a person accomplish tasks on the computer. Examples: adapted mouse, trackball, or keyboard, PixWriter software, JAWS Screen Reader
  • Environmental control devices allow a person to control some aspect of the environment, such as adjusting a thermostat or controlling the TV with a special remote. Examples: oversized TV remote, talking thermostat
  • Mobility aids include walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, and crutches.
  • Recreation and leisure aids are used to assist persons in participating in leisure activities, such as listening to music, watching TV, or reading a book. Examples: adapted toys, page fluffers, iPod remote control, adapted bowling
  • Seating and positioning aids help individuals to maintain a certain position, or to be more comfortable or safer in a given position. Examples: scooters, pillows, adapted chairs
  • Aids for vision impairments include a very wide variety of devices, adaptations, and software to help people with low vision or blindness to perform everyday tasks. Examples: Web Anywhere mobile screen reader, tactile learning materials, electronic magnifiers
  • Cause and effect training devices help those with severe and profound disabilities, and very young children, to learn that their actions can change the environment and the behaviors of those around them. This is a necessary first step in teaching someone to use other devices such as switches or an electric wheelchair. Examples: switch-activated lights, switch-operated toys, devices for making choices
What AT are you likely to encounter in a school setting?
Low-tech and no-tech AT are in use at virtually every school, and many teachers use them every day without even realizing they are doing so! Any time a teacher allows an ADHD student to stand while working, provides extended time for an LD student to complete an assignment, hands out a pencil grip or lined paper to help a student improve handwriting, or gives a primary student a “spaceman” word spacer, the teacher is using AT. 

Medium- and high-tech AT are less prevalent, but you are likely to see mobility aids such as wheelchairs, AAC devices for communication, a variety of switches that are used to interact with anything from computers to electric pencil sharpeners, and specialized software. You’re more likely to see AT in a regular education classroom if you happen to have a student with a hearing or vision impairment, or if you have a mainstream student from a self-contained classroom.

How can I learn more?
I highly recommend the A.T.TIPScast podcast for easy ideas for implementing AT solutions in your classroom. Rather than focusing on specialty devices that most of us don’t have access to, podcaster Chris Bugaj helps teachers address the needs of students in regular education classrooms with tools and materials that are readily available to anyone. What’s more, he strives to do so in an entertaining way and in a short format of about 10 minutes per episode. He often highlights the use of Web 2.0 tools within the classroom, and that alone is reason for every educator to check it out! The podcast will be useful for any teacher who works with students with learning disabilities, attention issues, or students who read below grade level.

For those that provide professional development, check out Chris’s easy to implement PD solution! He’s provided all you need to create self-study AT courses for teachers in your school or district with his free PD Kits—13 courses in all! I am excited to be using these at my school this year and providing participating educators 2 hours of staff development credit for each course completed. Chris is also available to teach workshops. His information is available on the website.

If you are interested in going deeper with assistive technology, you may want to check to see if your district has an AT department. Contact your district’s special education department to inquire. Our district’s AT department (which I never knew existed until a year ago) provides a monthly newsletter with ideas and training opportunities, and anyone in the system can request to be added to the distribution list.

Other resources are listed below.

Related Links:
Anna’s Prezi presentation for this topic: Feel free to use it for professional development or reference

AT.TIPScast blog: For regular, quick and easy tips to implementing assistive technology in every classroom. The blog also provides links to download the podcasts.

ATiA—Assistive Technology Industry Association: Includes information about their annual conference, as well as other resources.

The Practical (and Fun) Guide to Assistive Technology in Public Schools by Christopher Bugaj and Sally Norton-Darr: The authors of this book use pirates, monsters, and monkeys to keep you engaged in the topic of AT, but don't sacrifice the tips, strategies, and insight that will help improve your AT program. Assistive Technology page: Overview of applicable U.S. laws related to AT, a list of categories, guidelines, and standards, and a list of links to other resources.

ISTE—International Society for Technology in Education: Search for assistive technology or RTI.

Many U.S. states and regions have educational technology associations which put on annual conferences, and many of these include AT resources. Try a Google search for educational technology conference and the name of your state to find one near you.

By: Anna Colley

Related Products from Teachers Pay Teachers

AT Solutions for the 21st Century Classroom, $5.00
ADHD…Or is it? Presentation, $3.00
Charting Behavior, $2.50
I’m Getting My Work Done! Work Completion Chart, $1.00
5 Little Monkeys Interactive Circle Time for Autism, $3.99
Social Skills Booklet for Autistic Students Transitioning to High School, FREE
IEP Modifications and Accommodations, $1.50
Teaching Strategies for Learning Challenged Students, $1.00
Community Skills Checklist, $2.00


  1. Wow. Great info here. Thanks so much. I am sharing this article with my team at school.

  2. Thanks Jason! There's a Prezi linked in there too, if you want to use it for professional development.

  3. Thanks for the nice comments on the A.T.TIPSCAST! I'm so glad you like the podcast and the PD idea! Thanks for the great blog post. Lots of useful information here!


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