Assistive Technology

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2005), assistive technology (AT) is any device or item, purchased off the shelf or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capacity of individuals with disabilities. The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 is designed to help states in promoting awareness about AT while providing technical assistance, outreach, and ways to foster interagency coordination. The New Freedom Initiative of 2001 earmarked $120 million to promote the development and availability of assistive and universally designed technology to individuals with disabilities.

In addition, the IDEA requires school personnel to consider AT as a related service in developing the individualized education programs (IEP) of students with disabilities. Appropriate consideration of AT occurs when devices and services are matched to the learning characteristics and tasks that individuals are expected to perform. The least appropriate consideration of technology is a prewritten statement on the IEP forms or a check-off box for IEP teams to mark.

Assistive technology includes

  • evaluating the needs of a child with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child’s customary environment; 
  • purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of AT devices by children with disabilities; 
  • selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, or replacing AT devices; 
  • coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with AT devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs; 
  • providing training or technical assistance for a child with a disability or, if appropriate, that child’s family; and 
  • providing training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education or rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of that child.

As such, AT services are those that directly assist individuals with disabilities in the selection, acquisition, or use of AT devices. 

While the definition of AT is broad, generally, there are 10 components of AT: augmentative and alternative communication, adapted computer access, devices to assist listening and seeing, environmental control, adapted play and recreation, seating and positioning, mobility and powered mobility, prosthetics, rehabilitation robotics, and integration of technology into the home, school, community, and place of employment. The function of devices to assist listening, seeing, play, and recreation as well as seating and positioning and powered mobility are sufficiently transparent in terms of what they afford individuals with disabilities to accomplish. Environmental control devices allow individuals with disabilities greater control of their environment through devices such as switches to turn their computers on and off or to open and close garage doors. In an increasingly technological society, adapted computer access, including software programs for reading, mathematics, and writing, are perhaps the most common adaptations that allow individuals with disabilities to participate in the general education curriculum. 

Augmentative and alternative communication devices range in complexity and transparency. An example of a low-tech device is a pointing board with symbols, pictures, and words. In contrast, a high tech alternative communication device is a voice output communication aid (VOCA). A VOCA creates a computer- generated synthesized “voice” that “speaks” for the individual via a computer chip. Augmentative communication devices are designed to mitigate communication challenges some people with disabilities face that prohibit them from meeting their daily needs. 

Interestingly, VOCAs are at the center of a debate known as facilitated communication. Facilitated communication’s most fervent advocate, Douglas Biklen, argues that problems with communication stem not from language disorders or cognitive disabilities but rather from an inability of disabled persons to express themselves. Augmentative and alternative devices, therefore, serve as the vehicle by which individuals with communication problems can communicate with others. The dispute centers not around VOCAs’ usefulness but rather the authorship of the communication via the VOCA, because a number of empirical studies have revealed that communication using voice output communication aids is generated by the assistant who helps the individual with a disability. 

The concepts of flexibility and adaptability are at the core of universal design (UD) principles for AT. UD reflects the idea of proactively designing products at the outset to meet the needs of as many people as possible rather than retrofitting or making accommodations for individuals with disabilities. The automatic door and the curb cut are concrete examples describing universal design principles. Automatic doors remove the barrier of missing limbs to operate a door, while curb cuts allow individuals in wheelchairs to move from the sidewalk to the street. 

Computers and software represent the most flexible and adaptable tools available to mitigate learning differences inherent in individuals with disabilities. WiggleWorks, a program for beginning readers, was the first software designed with UD principles in mind. Staff at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) designed electronic books for Matthew, a student with cerebral palsy who was unable to speak. When other children saw how Matthew was learning, they insisted on using the computer-supported books. Advances in text-tospeech and speech-to-text technology have been achieved since WiggleWorks was designed. Kurzweil 3000, a software text-to speech voice synthesizer that allows users to access text with added visual, audible, and interactive reading aides, is representative of cutting-edge reading technology. 

Assistive technology has the potential to allow individuals with disabilities greater participation and autonomy, but these benefits hinge on access at two levels. To be sure, appropriately trained personnel are needed who can facilitate the process as individuals with disabilities learn and adapt to these devices.

Theresa A. Ochoa

See also Individualized Education Program (IEP); Related Services

Further Readings

  • Fichten, C. S., Asuncion, J. V., Barile, M., Genereux, C., Fossey, M., Judd, D., et al. (2001). Technology integration for students with disabilities: Empirically based recommendations for faculty. Educational Research and Evaluation, 7(2–3), 185–221. 
  • Male, M. (2003). Technology for inclusion: Meeting the special needs of all students. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 
  • Mostert, M. (2001). Facilitated communication since 1995: A review of published studies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(3), 287–312. 

Legal Citations

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.