Assistive technology is by no means a new concept for special education professionals. But recent advancements in assistive technologies can significantly improve the efficacy of special education practices. In turn, these technologies can help improve the education and lives of students with disabilities, in and out of school.
What Is Assistive Technology?
According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), assistive technologies are “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities.”
Reading Rockets education writers Kristin Stanberry and Marshall H. Raskind explain that an assistive technology device “helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual’s specific learning deficits.” This description focuses on people with learning disabilities. But the same holds true for individuals with disabilities of any sort, whether physical, sensory or cognitive, or any combination of disabilities.
How Are Assistive Technologies Used in Special Education?
Assistive technology selection and integration are becoming increasingly essential components of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a personalized educational plan and roadmap developed for students with identified disabilities. Developing an IEP for each student with special needs and disabilities is mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and includes provisions like prescribed teacher support, modifications of assignments and assessments, accommodations like scheduled movement breaks and additional time to answer and work, and access to technology and other materials to ensure student success.
The purpose and benefits of assistive technologies are simple to understand. They can help students circumvent areas of difficulty or barriers and facilitate learning and experiences essential to reaching their fullest potential. By removing limitations, assistive technology devices and programs assist or augment access to or interaction with educational content, delivery, input and output.
What Are Some Examples of Assistive Technologies Used in Special Education?
Assistive technologies may be low-tech or high-tech and include any device, program, or manipulative that gives students with disabilities access to a general education.
For instance, low-tech assistive technology could be providing a magnifying glass or larger text, designed to help students with visual impairments read and write. A high-tech solution could be modern speech-to-text software or computerized braille embossers, translators and notetakers. These devices give students opportunities to read and write independently, in real time, using refreshable braille displays and interfaces.
Students with auditory impairments or who have trouble focusing when in an over-stimulating classroom environment may benefit from FM listening devices. These systems consist of a transmitter (i.e., a lapel microphone for the teacher) and a receiver (i.e., earphones worn by the student). They can improve the volume and clarity of the teacher’s speech as well as cancel out or reduce ambient classroom noise.
Extremely advanced, modern virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems are useful for students with different or multiple disabilities. Many students with learning disabilities benefit from experiential education combining visual, auditory and tactile delivery and interaction. By using VR and AR systems, students achieve more advanced learning outcomes through augmenting classroom activities with immersive, engaging virtual experiences.
Experiential education has clear benefits in terms of engagement, motivation and learning for all students, including those with severe physical impairments. Mobility devices (i.e. wheelchairs, adaptive exercise equipment, etc.) remove physical barriers to accessing experiential activities. With VR and AR systems, students can interact with fascinating environments in ways their physical impairments may otherwise limit.
How Should Assistive Technology Integration be Implemented?
Studying the practical, appropriate selection and integration of assistive technologies is as important as learning about those technologies. The process of integrating them into the special education setting requires careful consideration and cooperation. A student’s entire IEP team should be involved in the assistive technology selection and integration processes.
Despite the best of intentions, however, not everyone on a student’s team of supporters will be comfortable or familiar with devices and programs that may be suggested or provided. In addition, the student’s own voice must be heard when making decisions. Therefore, it is important to keep several issues in mind:
- Students, teachers, and families or guardians must all be trained in the appropriate use and application of chosen assistive technologies. The training process cannot be left to chance; it must be scheduled and provided at the convenience of each stakeholder.
- Inclusive education classroom teachers are the experts and facilitators in the classroom. But family members and legal guardians understand a student’s home life and environment. They must be willing and able to support the use of selected assistive technology when their students are not at school.
- Students are experts on their own social, physical, intellectual and emotional comfort when incorporating technology into their daily lives. If a device or program is perceived by the student to be just one more barrier to learning, one more indication of “otherness” or one more reason to feel insecure, its use is clearly antithetical to the goals of special education.
Although there are challenges when assistive technology is introduced, they should in no way be treated as reasons to avoid the integration and use or resources that could have such a positive impact on a student’s academic success. Rather, they should motivate a student’s support team to research assistive technologies thoroughly and integrate them intentionally and appropriately.
Preparing to Use Assistive Technology as a Special Education Teacher
The potential benefits of creatively using assistive technology devices in special education are nearly boundless. Special education teachers and administrators with the knowledge, abilities and competencies necessary to select and integrate assistive technologies effectively are in high demand. With the proper education, these professionals can have an immense positive impact on learning and life for their students.
A course in the University of Southern Maine’s Master of Science in Special Education online program, titled Technology for Communicating and Learning, takes an in-depth look at modern assistive technologies. This 30-credit-hour degree focuses on effective instruction and assessment in both theory and practice.
Learn more about the University of Southern Maine’s online Master of Science in Special Education with a Concentration in Effective Instruction and Assessment for Students with Suspected and Identified Disabilities.