Benefits of Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities

Boy with Cerebral Palsy smiling with his mother who is sitting next to him with her arm around him. She is looking at him and smiling.

What is Assistive Technology?

In a very broad sense, most of us have used some kind of assistive technology (AT) during our lives. Consider eyeglasses, contact lenses, or hearing aids. Wheelchairs and grab bars, a must for many individuals with physical disabilities, are also considered assistive technology. These items are critical to meeting career, academic, recreational, and self-care needs.

When it comes to education, assistive technology is a definite game-changer for students with developmental or intellectual disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines assistive technology devices as items, equipment, or systems that serve to “…increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”

Often, we think of assistive technology devices as complex and expensive electronic systems or computer software. Although this is true in some cases, there are multiple types of assistive devices that are simple to use, inexpensive, and easy to obtain.

Types of Assistive Technology

For kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities, assistive technology can take a variety of different forms.  A lot of these tools are considered low tech, and often already available in teachers’ classrooms. Here are a few examples:

  • Pen and pencil grips 
  • Large-print materials
  • Adaptive pencils – e.g. weighted, fat, skinny, triangular

Even some of the more complex AT is likely to be available in most classrooms:

  • Audio books
  • Tape recorders/other recording devices – some of which can play back at varying speeds.
  • Word processors
  • Graphic organizers and outlining programs – software programs that assist in creating outlines for writing assignments.

We are living during an innovative and exciting time in the development and acceptance of assistive technology for people of all ages and types of disabilities. There are many high tech assistive devices in existence today that have had a major positive impact on younger students, teenagers, and those attending higher education institutions.

  • Speech-to-text software – assists those who have visual impairments, dexterity, or mobility problems.
  • Screen readers – these programs use an audio interface to inform students what is on a computer screen. These are also wonderful for students with visual impairments.
  • Alternative input devices – They include touch screens and modified keyboards for word processors. Students can even operate joysticks and levers with other body parts (such as the chin) to complete word-processing assignments.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) – allows students to scan printed material onto a computer or handheld device, which is then read aloud through a screen-reading system.
  • Talking calculator – helps kids with visual impairments and cognitive processing difficulties with math skills.
  • Microphones – teachers may wear specialized microphones for students with hearing impairments (that aren’t distracting to other students).

Augmentative Communication Devices

Augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC) can be low-tech as well as high-tech. According to the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association, children who may have communication challenges can learn to share their ideas and feelings in ways that require no technology whatsoever through:

  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • Pointing to letters or words
  • Photographs or pictures

Some high-tech options can include apps or iPads. For students with certain speech impairments, computers also have “voices,” also known as speech-generating devices. Essentially, AT is going to be anything that assists the user in a variety of tasks. For students, it’s something that helps them to learn, study, explore, and communicate. Let’s not forget the need for all students with disabilities to play and participate in extracurricular activities of their choice. To put it simply, assistive technology helps students enjoy being kids!

What are the Benefits of Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities?

Assistive technology support services help students with disabilities achieve their fullest potential in academic performance. We don’t often realize that the school years (even in early childhood) are pivotal to the development of social skills, self-confidence, independence, and self-empowerment. The appropriate assistive technology can meet the specific needs of students with virtually any type of disability.

  • Students with physical disabilities benefit from steadying devices that help them use word processors, laptops, and other computer technologies.
  • Kids experiencing autism spectrum disorders can utilize technology to communicate with others and manage sensory overload.
  • Students with learning disabilities, cognitive challenges, visual impairments, and language hindrances can achieve learning goals with technology that includes brighter colors, voice-prompts, or textured materials.

Undoubtedly, the possibilities of what can be done with the appropriate assistive technology are truly endless!

Why is Assistive Technology Important?

A Path to Equal Opportunity

Education advocates emphasize that the United States education system is all about the democratization of knowledge. In 2011, 22% of adults with disabilities had less than a high school education. The adoption of appropriate assistive technology for students leads to increases in academic performance, independence, and opportunities for competitive employment.

A systematic review of studies conducted between 2009 and 2020 revealed that a steady increase in the use of AT in education began in about 2017.  Although research on assistive technology has received world-wide attention, it’s been pursued mainly in the US, followed by Brazil and Turkey. This systematic review documented several positive impacts on students with various types of disabilities:

  • Academic engagement
  • Autonomy and participation in activities
  • Social skills
  • Motivation and attention
  • Academic performance

Thankfully, the above benefits expand beyond students in K-12 classrooms. Even college students with disabilities have reported many psychosocial benefits of access to AT:

  • Educational engagement
  • Well-being
  • Self-efficacy
  • Competence
  • Adaptability

As Always, it’s a Collaborative Effort

The facilitation of the appropriate assistive technology devices takes a true team effort. Not only do our DSPs advocate and provide training in assistive technology, but professionals in our local school districts play a pivotal role in giving people with disabilities every possible opportunity to move forward in life. The advances in various digital tools over recent decades have occurred in school districts throughout the United States school systems, including in higher education institutions. It’s now quite common to see entire classrooms of students who freely use laptops and iPads.

An important distinction needs to be made, however, that when a student who has a disability is otherwise prevented from making academic progress without the iPad or laptop, then that device becomes a form of assistive technology that’s necessary for academic performance. This is why ALSO readily partners with children’s support systems to form what’s known as an IEP Team, which stands for Individual Education Plan. The IEP Team includes virtually anyone who could have a positive impact on the student’s life, for example:

  • Educational professionals
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Speech-Language pathologists
  • Mental and behavioral health professionals
  • Direct support professionals (DSPs)
  • Family members
  • Guardians

This blog was reposted from the ALSO Organization. To see the original blog post, please click here.