What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


iDevices in the Special Education Classroom

A number of built-in accessibility features, tools, and add-ons are helping to prompt Apple's iPad into the classroom. Now, the push to get textbooks accessed through this device to get rid of all those heavy books, ah, it is happening!! With a text reader and highlighter, this will really be something worth talking about. Students learn in different ways. The iPad can provide visual, audio and tactile learning; reaching many students’ learning styles. With every new operating system, the up-dates added have included various accessibility options. It just keeps getting better and better. But...

Is it the best tool out there? For AT needs, it depends.  For a classroom tool, it depends. We need to look at the concerns and all of our options before we can make that decision. There are pros and cons to everything, even the iPad! It really is not the answer to everything.

Concerns and thoughts:  
In the special education classroom, as a classroom tool, one of the concerns that I have is that the iPad is often used as an individual tool in isolation, not a tool for collaboration and integration. (If we are looking at AT, it is meant to be used in isolation as it is an individualized tool.) However there are wonderful ways to integrate the iPad into the curriculum and the classroom and integrating it we should! Teachers are really starting to figure this out and I have witnessed some wonderful strategies. I have also witnessed the iPad being used as computers often are: the reward, the plug and play strategy, the keep them busy tool, the hand it to them and they will learn strategy. How the devices are used is the key, not if they are used.

Parents are also often using the iPad as a reward and/or keep them busy and quiet tool. Once it is seen as a game, it is often hard to start using it as a tool.

It is important to remember, that all technology is only as meaningful as it's users purpose. iPads are a wonderful tool however consider this: an iPad has no consequences if the user ventures outside the lines. There are still rewards provided with all kinds of visuals, sounds and exciting feedback. We touch and we receive but are we learning or just being rewarded? It is the teacher that needs to teach, the iPad is only a vessel. Please, don't put the child in a quiet place and just hand them an iPad without a true purpose. Most of us will not have enough iPads for all of our students so let's get creative with its use.

How to use an iPad in the classroom with a group? A couple of thoughts -
  • Teacher directs, students watch.
  • Teacher directs, with iPad in the middle of the group and students touch with instruction.  
  • Teacher instructs and iPad is passed between students. Use as part of your lesson, part of your center activity.  
  • Teacher instructs and the students use, independently or in a team situation.   
  • Team learning situations. Hand a group of students an iPad with a purpose.
(The site, "The Single iPad Classroom" is not based on the special education classroom but is full of ideas of how different teachers are handling the use of a single iPad. A good place to glean ideas.)

As with everything, we tend to go to extremes. Remember: It is just a tool. One that should be added to our toolbox not replacing all our other tools. It is a great tool but let's not forget all the other great tools. There is a time and place for everything: iPads/Tablets, iPods, interactive whiteboards, computers, CD players, paper books and even blocks!

As you are reading this consider greatly how to make the iPad a classroom tool or a tool to support an individual's learning needs (AT) but also be careful to not have the iPad become what we have seen so many computers become in education: a glorified toy. As with the computer, so many kids will tell you in Special Education:
Question- "Do you use the computer (or iPad)?"
Answer- "Yes."
Question- "What do you do on the computer (iPad)?"
Answer- "I play games."
Use the iPad as a tool, not a toy - this is a school, a learning environment after all! Technology should not be your babysitter!

"The prognosis for iPad's use in the classroom is good," said Sandra Sutton Andrews, research director in the Applied Learning Technologies Institute at Arizona State University. "The concept is perfect for education--a lightweight computer, relatively inexpensive, capable of being used almost anywhere: in your hands, on a table, attached to a wall, built into a tabletop. So....

What are some of the benefits we are seeing?
  • We are seeing that the iPad often encourages interactivity. Students will share a lot of what they're doing, ask each other "How did you do that?" or, "Oh, look what I did!"
  • They want to problem solve together.
  • It encourages group discussions between the students.
  • They tend to help each other a lot more.
  • It is affordable, comparatively speaking (see below.)  
Working with the devices can help students develop their independence and fine motor skills, and in piquing their curiosity in learning. Often the devices will keep the students engaged and less distracted.

For special education students, some are saying it is the best tool that has ever been designed. Here are a few reasons why we might prefer an iPad over a desktop computer:
  1. Ease of access – no need to be able to operate a mouse, a switch or to need to sit a certain way. The iPad can easily come to the student, be placed where they need it and the touch required is extremely friendly. (Not for all!! Remember, this is very individual.)
  2. Simplicity of programs – from very basic to more complex, many apps are design to be user friendly. For the moderate to severe population of students the amount of simple apps is huge, plus they are extremely inexpensive and visually draw students in.
  3. Simplicity of use - many who cannot understand how to operate a computer, can understand how to operate an iPad. (Even your grandmother!
  4. Low cost of programs – compared to the cost of software programs for a computer, there really is no comparison (unless you consider the abundant amount of free programs available on the Internet. And yes, please continue using those!).
  5. There are apps designed specifically for our population (see other postings to right). Designing apps for education has become quite the market. The amount of apps designed specifically for special education has grown so much that there is now a category for it that stands alone in the iTunes Store.
  6. Assistive Technology and Communication Apps are available that help to make this a tool for access support, not just a tool for learning (i.e. audio books, word prediction, visual prompts, etc.)
  7. It can be loaded with many adaptive technology gadgets and programs, thereby reducing the need for multiple devices. Talk about UDL (Universal Design for Learning)! This is a tool that can level the playing field for many.
  8. There are apps that are inexpensive and exciting to increase vocabulary, sight words, math facts, reading comprehension, organizational skills, and drawing skills, just to name a few.It can be very educational and in the classroom, this is what we want: exciting, fresh, innovative teaching tools.
  9. Built-in accessibility tools such as zoom and high contrast display make this a tool to support visually impaired. The built-in VoiceOver screen reader works as well on the iPad as on the iPhone. For our VI population, the options are growing and growing. (However, consider that it may be the iPhone that is the best solution for those with significant vision impairments.
  10. Programs such as Siri, speech-to-text, word prediction are free, no paper and pencil needed if one can speak clearly or recognize words, for writing text messages, e-mail, maybe documents.
  11. The brilliant screen of the iPad which creates and supports visual interest - with the ever improving HD colors which are bright and the HD video and/or camera- tools at our fingertips that can be pulled into our educational artillery in so many new and innovative ways.
  12. The right case can make it much less indestructible. (Often the case, the right case, stylus and/or mounting system, is what makes it an AT tool.)
  13. More and more tools are being developed to help with access. (See my Pinterest site for specifics.)
  14. Light weight (iPad = 1.5 lbs.)
  15. Instant Response/Instant On/Fast Processor.

Consider this: Combine the touch screen, ease of use, and the cool factor of the iPad and you have a pretty interesting format for communication devices, social stories, e-books, interactive textbooks, art programs, musical instruments, photo galleries, note-taking, and more. It could allow our students to be more independent, to fit in, and to use technology like everyone else. Now that is a wonderful tool!

Is an iPad Considered Assistive Technology?
An iPad itself is not Assistive Technology - but what is AT are the specialized apps, settings and peripherals that we so carefully match to the user.

AT is intended to enhance performance of an individual with a disability.  It is why we have to carefully match what we recommend to the user's strengths and needs.  The iPad cannot do that on its own, it is the recommendation of the appropriate apps that ultimately improve the performance of a student.  Thus, the iPad itself is not the Assistive Technology it is the settings, the apps, the case, the mount, the special stylus, the sound system, that offer enhanced performance. Improving performance of a student with a disability through AT (apps or otherwise) means looking at the student, identifying the task that needs to be performed and identifying where the student will use the AT - the environment.

Video of iPad in Action as AT: Meet Jean! In FCTD's AT in Action video, you'll meet Jean, an engaging 6th grader who uses assistive technology to support learning and having fun with friends and family. Jean's mother and 6th grade teacher, Jacob Westman, provide interesting insights into Jean's technology use.

Gayle Browser has compiled the iPad Features Chart, keeping in mind "What are the essential features of a device that would help this person do things that are difficult or impossible because of their disability?" The chart may help teams identify features when the conversation moves to iPads.

But, and of course there are many buts, always, BUT... if you are planning to have the student do extensive typing- consider the use of a bluetooth keyboard. All of our ergonomic knowledge seems to be lost when it comes to iPads and we are just beginning to see the problems out there that are only going to grow if people don't start using their common sense. Typing on a small keyboard may not be wise unless there are physical (medical) reasons for needing an adapted smaller keyboard. Using what we know about ergonomic positioning is key with all typing set-ups.

This is a list of iPad pros, from a student’s point of view (wish I knew the student’s name so I could reference her. My apologies!):
  1. Less space: I can have my textbook open and my iPad to take notes. When I used the computer, I had to have my aide take my notes because I couldn’t have both in front of me.
  2. I can lift the iPad myself. When I use the computer I have to have someone set it up for me. My iPad can be tucked into the side of my chair and I can reach it.
  3. Power: with my laptop I always had to be near an outlet or make sure the laptop was charged for the classes that didn’t have outlets. My iPad is always ready to go.
  4. Waiting: there is no waiting for windows to start. I slide the bar and I am ready to work.
  5. Independent: because of my fatigue level often I tire out moving the mouse before I am done working. Now I can finish a worksheet because I don’t have to move as much as I did.
  6. Enlarging: I don’t have to worry if the photocopier is down or my aide forgot to change font size, I can enlarge text by dragging the content and scrolling.
  7. Dictionary at hand: All I have to do is tap on the word and my dictionary opens on the iPad. In the past, I had to highlight the word, open IE and then go to dictionary.com and paste my word. Now it is one step instead of 4-5 steps.
  8. Copy and pasting is two easy steps: highlight and copy comes right up. With the computer I need to use the mouse or the keyboard to highlight text, right click or go to edit to copy, open a second document to paste (edit paste or right click and paste), now I can paste to a clipboard within seconds instead of minutes.
  9. Speed: I am faster. I am independent.  I am the student I can be with the iPad.  With the computer I was a student. But I am not independent. I have to wait for someone to assist me. I worked three times as hard with ¼ of the result.
  10. Educational Activities: With the iPad I can have activities that directly support my IEP goals. Practice shouldn’t be boring.
  11. Wireless printing:  No need to connect to a computer or printer to be able to print from across the room.

What would it Cost if Bought Separately vs. on the iPad:
Food for thought- From James Nuttall's point of view, who has been challenged with Dyslexia his whole life, vision impairments later in life and now is experiencing the challenges of ALS:

"My iPhone is Worth $8,700 to Me!"
For those who are blind or have low vision the iDevices now substitutes for many technological items that used to be very expensive. For example blind individuals rarely took photographs with a digital camera. But now that blind individuals have iPhones, they routinely take pictures and even videos. I have compiled a list of items that my iPhone and iPad now replace. More importantly many items on this list were too expensive for me to acquire even though I really needed them.

Items I owned:
  • BookSense (mp3 player/radio/clock/recorder and portable Daisy reading device) -- $449
  • Talking watch - $43
  • Plustek Optibook 3800 scanner -- $269
  • Laptop computer -- $500
  • Digital camera with digital view finder -- $200
  • Video camera -- $200
  • Total $1,161
Items I had at work but could not afford for home use:
  • ZoomText magnifier/screen reader -- $599
  • ZoomText keyboard -- $99
  • Dragon NautrallySpeaking Pro voice recognition -- $599
  • Kurzweil 3000 (scan/read software) $1,395
  • Aladdin Classic video magnifier -- $1,595
  • Total $4,357
Items I could have really used but could not afford:
  • Medical Alert system -- $600/year
  • Handheld digital i-loview magnifier/reader -- $495
  • Trekker Breeze (GPS for blind) -- $930
  • KNFB Reader (portable scanner/OCR) -- $897
  • Voice Mate PDA (calendar, contacts, calculator) -- $260
  • Total $3,182
  • Grand Total $8,700"
Read more about Jim's experiences on his blog.

The article we have all been waiting for: "The Cost and Advantages of Implementing the iPad as a Learning Tool for SLP and Special Education." Written by Barbara Fernandes, the founder and director of Smarty Ears.

iPads 4 Learning states some educational reasons for using the iPad:
  • Users to date are finding that through the use of different apps, students are able to choose the type of product they construct to demonstrate their understanding.
  • The iPad is a personal device and reasonably priced to act as a 1 to 1, anywhere, anytime learning device.
  • The abundance of apps and access to information on a vast range of topics allows students to pursue areas they are interested in learning about.
  • Notes can be kept in one spot, commented on and available anywhere.
  • The touch interface correlates to the technology students use in their everyday life and allows a high level of interactivity.
  • A 10 hour battery life means the iPad can be used throughout the entire school day.
  • The instant start-up of the iPad means greater use of class time for learning.
  • There is anywhere, anytime access to current information that contains text, sound, images and interactivity. Information is represented with rich multimedia and data visualization techniques.
  • Light and portable, easily carried in the school bag and to and from class.
  • Heavy schoolbooks could in time be replaced by virtual eBooks and these can be updated in a timely fashion. Documents and tasks can be uploaded to iBooks by the teacher and downloaded onto the iPad by the student and vice versa. Texts and documents can be annotated and commented on by multiple students and teachers.
  • The iPad is seen to be an intuitive device and minimal technical support is required.
  • The iPad can be used with peripherals. For example the iPad can be slotted into a case which connects to a full size keyboard for extended periods of writing. There are also a number of other docking options which provide access to a full sized keyboard. Voice recognition apps can also be useful for inputting large amounts of text and is another option worth investigating.

Be sure to check out: iPads for Learning Getting Started Guide "Classroom Ideas for Learning with the iPad".  A great resource to download from Call Scotland is this guide: iPads for Communication, Access, Literacy and Learning (iCALL)

iPads with Moderate to Severe Students:
As with anything, to make it a tool, there are skills we much teach. Placing an iPad in front of a student with challenging behaviors or low cognitive abilities is not enough. There are skills that we must teach.

Again, I just have to repeat: iPads/Tablets can be wonderful teaching tools and have been found to be great in the classroom. Kids are really responding to them unlike anything else in some cases. Because of this, many parents are using the tablets as an entertainment or tool for reward. Tablets are colorful and extremely quick to respond, therefore they provide our students with great rewards. It is hard not to feed into this. (I touch, I get____. And, it is cool!) The challenge is, when do we know it is a good working tool for a student beyond just rewarding eye candy? If we use it as a reward and entertainment tool, will we be able to move forward with it being used as a tool?

Here is a list of skills required and a teaching sequence that I hope you find helpful:
  • Experimental - looking, listening, responding
  • Make something happen - touch anywhere, touch somewhere - cause and effect
  • Touching a target - find it, find them
  • Complete simple sequence - all in a line, touch to jump

I hope this provides you with a road map of where to go and what to do with this wonderful tool to help to make it useful, not just rewarding.

Videos worth watching:
  • This video called “Special Education and the iPad” features Dennis Lamme, a special education student who uses the iPad to further his learning. The video was shot and edited on an iPod Touch.
  • The Times tells the story of Owen Cain, who has a degenerative disease called spinal muscular atrophy. He acquired the disease as an infant, and there is no known cure for it. Although his parents bought him a number of computer devices to make his life more pleasant, they were all failures -- until he met the iPad.
  • iHelp for Autism - Autistic children like Leo Rosa are showing remarkable promise on the iPad. Read more about autistic children and iPads in Ashley Harrell's feature story.
  • The benefits of Proloquo2Go on the iPad are not restricted to children, as blogger Glenda Watson Hyatt points out. Glenda has cerebral palsy that affects her motor skills and her speech. She recently bought an iPad and Proloquo2Go.  Watch account of the way it has changed her life.

Articles worth reviewing:

What about the Apps?
There are many sites that specialize is providing lists. On this blog you will find them listed in various places. If you are looking for math apps, please go to the math section, keyboarding, go to the keyboarding section, AAC...The key: look for research-based approaches with the gathering of apps for our special needs.

How to share documents, student-to-teacher/teacher-to-student:
There are many approaches available. Some apps have built in methods, some people just use email back and forth. Some love DropBox but some districts won't allow the use of such programs. Using Google Drive, this is a logical way for the student and teacher to share documents. There are many ways to access Google Drive, including specific apps, the chrome browser, or Safari, all of which are available on the iPad. The student could also create a word document on the computer, and upload to Google drive to submit to the teacher. A wireless printer is not required, go paperless!!

Now go out and make this tool a wonderful addition to our educational world!