Although assistive technology has been in classrooms for many years, recent technological advances have given schools many more assistive technology devices to choose from. The proliferation of this technology has enabled many children to work their way around very specific learning disabilities or weaknesses. Many are now successful when completing academic tasks that were previously inaccessible. Assistive technology can be used in any classroom, mainstream or sheltered, from kindergarten to university.

What is Assistive Technology?

According to the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, an assistive technology device is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

What this means is that assistive technology can be as simple as a pencil with a special grip on it to help children who have difficulties writing or as complex as a specialized input device for a computer to help a severely disabled child communicate basic ideas.

Who Uses Assistive Technology?

Students who use assistive technology range from individuals who struggle with handwriting or organizational skills to children who are severely disabled and need assistive technology to perform very basic communicative tasks.

Sometimes assistive technology can be used to benefit an entire class, whether all of the individuals in the class have a disability or not. An Elmo is a digital capturing device that teachers frequently use. It projects the pages of a book the teacher is reading onto a large screen so that all students can follow along as well as seeing the print better, as it is in a larger format. It can be used to project many other things as well, creating a more hospitable learning environment for students whose primary learning modality is visual.

Assistive technology can benefit all students, whether they are identified as having a learning disability or not.

Types of Assistive Technology

Many assistive technology devices are meant to help students access technology itself. Examples of this are alternative input devices, such as joysticks, touch screens and voice recognition devices. Assistive technology includes programs that check spelling and grammar.

Reading machines and CD players for audio books are invaluable for students who have comprehensive skills yet cannot decode text.

If a student has a writing disability, a laptop can be an assistive technology device used for him to take notes at his desk.

Students who cannot speak are able to use speech synthesizers to make themselves understood.

How Does Assistive Technology Help?

In order for assistive technology to help, a student must first have an identified disability. Otherwise, the teacher will not know which device will help the student.

If a student is diagnosed with a reading disability, there are a variety of assistive technology devices that can help with the physical mechanics of reading, from turning the pages to increasing the legibility of the words. If a student is blind, there are braille devices that will make the schoolwork in a mainstream classroom more accessible to them. There are assistive technology devices available for almost all disabilities.

If a student has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the IEP will specify that the student be provided with the assistive technology device during class. The device is meant to compensate for the disability, allowing the student to perform at a higher level of functioning in the classroom.

How to Get Assistive Technology for Your Child

If you believe your child needs an assistive technology device in the classroom, the first thing to do is ask your child's teacher. It may turn out that the school has the device and can accommodate your request without any special education paperwork being completed. If this is not the case, you will need to begin proceedings to get your child on an Individualized Education Plan or 504 Plan. This process varies from district to district. You may want to begin with your school district's special education office. Be prepared to be persistent. Assisitive technology devices and special education services can be expensive, and many schools make the process long and arduous.

When the IEP or 504 plan is being developed, assistive technology devices that the student needs will be documented. After being documented, it is federal law that they then be made available to the student.

A plan that incorporates assistive technology can be a benefit to students for their entire educational career.

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