By Christine Sullivan, EdD
Consider the different types of technology we use in our everyday lives. For example, most individuals use cell phones and computers daily. But did you know that many technology features we commonly use were initially designed for individuals with disabilities? These are called mainstream derivatives of assistive technology (AT). Take your cell phone, for example. Texting was originally intended for people with hearing challenges, and screen enlargement was initially designed for those with vision problems. As the demand for technology has increased, many AT features have become standard for all users.
Individuals with disabilities have the right to access environments that are available to all people. Accommodations are changes to conditions that provide access to the environment. AT devices are examples of accommodations that may be necessary for individuals with disabilities to allow them to overcome or circumvent barriers to their learning and living environments.
AT is defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in two parts: AT Technology and AT Devices. AT identifies the equipment that supports the individual in a specific area (e.g., communication, organization, activities of daily living). AT Services refer to the support or services needed to use the devices effectively. Both are integral parts of AT. For example, an individual cannot benefit from using a computer (AT device) if their caregivers and teachers have not taught them how to use it (AT Service).
The AT continuum consists of No-tech, Low-Tech, Mid-Tech, and High-Tech options designed to meet the needs of all learners:
• No-tech refers to unaided systems where an individual does not require anything beyond their body. Examples of No-Tech AT are vocalizations, verbalizations, eye gaze, or facial expressions.
• Low-Tech devices are generally comprised of materials that are easily obtainable, easy to use, low cost, and do not require a power source. Examples include graphic organizers, visual schedules, post-it notes, and manipulatives.
• Mid-tech devices, not used as often as low-tech or high-tech devices, generally require a power source. A simple switch, digital recorder, or adapted keyboard are examples of Mid-tech AT.
• High-Tech AT options are more complex, expensive to make or buy, and are usually programmable, such as a computer, iPad, AAC device, or electric wheelchair. Currently, much of AT is computerized and requires training to be used effectively.
Which type of AT is right for your child? Consider each level of AT to determine the best and most practical option for your child in their specific environment. The goal is always to foster independence. Ask, “Can your child perform the skill or task without AT?” If the answer is yes, then no AT is needed. If the answer is no, move through the continuum to find the technology that best supports their needs. Remember that high-tech devices are not necessarily superior to low and mid-tech devices. They tend to be costly and are not as easy to modify. A low-tech device is designed with simplicity and can provide users with flexibility and independence. For example, a student may benefit from using a low-tech pencil grip or a finger-spacing tool for writing rather than a high-tech mapping software or smartpen tool. Similarly, a student with organizational challenges and working memory issues may become overwhelmed with a high-tech application found on an iPad or tablet and benefit from a basic, teacher-constructed graphic organizer. In contrast, there are times when a high-tech device is the best AT choice for the learner. For example, a child may require an AAC device or application to communicate and access language.
When choosing a device, consider your child’s individual needs, the device’s practicality, and the user’s preferences and interests. Your child can benefit from using AT as it allows them to build strengths and address challenges. Remember that AT is most effective when learners are excited and motivated to incorporate its use into their learning repertoire.