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.


Assistive Technology: Information for Parents

"Technology is to be used as a tool to assist in the accomplishment of tasks that would be difficult or impossible without assistance. AT is related to function, not to a disability." (Zabala 1996) 

The term “assistive technology” comes from several laws that address the needs of people with disabilities. Assistive technology includes both the devices and the services needed to use the devices effectively. AT services might include assessing a child’s need for AT and the training the child and his teacher, aide, and family to use the AT.

The federal government recognized the importance of assistive technology for students when it revised the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 and again in 2004. IDEA states that school districts must consider assistive technology for any child in special education. That means that for any child receiving special education services, the educational team must ask if there is a device that will “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities” of that child. 

Legal Terms

Assistive technology devices are identified in the IDEA 2004 as:

Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities. 

As defined in IDEA, an assistive technology service is:

Any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, and use of an assistive technology device. The term includes -

  1. The evaluation of the needs of a child with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child’s customary environment;
  2. Purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices by children with disabilities;
  3. Selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, retaining, repairing, or replacing assistive technology devices;
  4. Coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;
  5. Training or technical assistance for a child with a disability or, if appropriate, that child’s family; and
  6. Training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals or rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of children with disabilities.
Simply Said
Assistive technology (AT) is any device that helps a person with a disability complete an everyday task. If you are unable to hear, a telephone with amplification becomes assistive technology. If someone has poor eyesight, a magnifier is assistive technology. Assistive technology is something that provides access to those things that we otherwise might not be able to do. Assistive technology can be critical for the person using it – if you wear glasses, think how hard it would be to get through the day without them.

Assistive technology includes many specialized devices as well, like typing telephones for people who are deaf and motorized wheelchairs for people who cannot walk. Assistive technology can be “low-tech” (something very simple and low-cost, like a pencil grip), or “high-tech” (something sophisticated, like a computer). For students with disabilities, AT might become the equalizer in a classroom setting. Think of the student who is unable to write but can type- now they might be able to participate more fully and demonstrate their knowledge, where before they were limited by their lack of pencil skills and/or abilities.  

Guidelines for Assistive Technology put out by the State of Connecticut, states: ""Directly and indirectly, through the use of simple or sophisticated devices, technology is playing a continuously greater role in people’s lives. It can increase our productivity and independence by facilitating the performance of routine tasks, simplifying more complex tasks, and allowing us to carry out activities with greater speed and less physical energy. It can increase our knowledge, understanding, and participation by expanding our access to information, places and people. While technology, by definition, is assistive, it is especially important for individuals with disabilities because of its potential to reduce or eliminate barriers that interfere with access to equal opportunities. Technology enables and empowers these persons and their families because it holds the promise of greater participation in meaningful developmental, educational, social, recreational and vocational experiences. With the help of technology, what most of us are able to do quite naturally, and so take for granted, such as moving about, listening, speaking, reading, writing, playing, socializing and working, becomes, at last, achievable for many individuals with disabilities. Technology thus permits us to focus on abilities and possibilities instead of disabilities."

Students with disabilities have greater needs for technology for a variety of reasons such as:

  • Getting into and moving around the school
  • Being comfortably seated and ready to learn and participate
  • Hearing and seeing what is going on in the classroom and school
  • Being able to communicate with classmates and teacher 
and for many other purposes. AT is provided to an individual student to assist him/her to meet the goals of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and to participate in the general school program to the maximum extent possible.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the Federal law covering this area. IDEA was written to cover any need the student with a disability may have in learning and making progress in school including:

  • Development of basic self-help skills
  • Development of appropriate social integration skills
  • Progressing in the general curriculum and achieving IEP Goals
  • Acquiring appropriate pre-vocational skills
Devices and equipment can play a critical role in ensuring the provision of appropriate learning experiences for students with disabilities in public school settings. Students with disabilities need to be provided with support and assistance that will help in meeting these basic goals. The child may be eligible to receive appropriate therapy services, speech therapy, appropriate adaptive equipment, and/or other assistive services based on his/her individual needs. The IEP Team decides the appropriate, specific interventions. 
 (Image from FTCD)

What is the role of the school in providing Assistive Technology?

Federal and state laws require schools to provide students with disabilities with a Free, Appropriate, Public, Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). So what do FAPE and LRE mean:

  • Free means that the education program is provided at no cost to the parents of students having a disability.
  • Appropriate means that the educational program should match the child's strengths and needs, and include a plan so that the child can make progress toward his/her individual goals.
  • Public means that the child should participate and make progress as much as possible in the general education program with his/her classmates.
  • Education means that the child with a disability should have the opportunity to learn skills that will help him/her to be successful in life.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) means that the child with a disability should be educated in a setting that is, as much as possible, within or like a general education classroom.

The process of choosing assistive technology for your child usually starts with an evaluation of your child’s AT needs. The evaluation can be conducted by the school, an independent agency, or an individual consultant. Because the scope of assistive technology is so large, the evaluation will most likely have a focus. For example, an AT evaluation conducted by the school is directly related to achieving educational goals and outcomes. The AT evaluation should address what the child is having difficulty doing.

All students are expected to progress in the general curriculum to the maximum extent possible. This requirement includes students with disabilities. Some students with disabilities will not require the use of assistive devices or services. It all depends on the needs and abilities of the student.  

The child’s IEP Team states the need for assistive devices and/or services. The student's IEP is developed in a meeting of parents, teacher(s), related services personnel, and school administrators. The IEP must show that AT was considered.

Parents have the right to request an AT assessment. Taken from WritesLaw
"If you think your child needs assistive technology, you need to request that the IEP team refer your child for an evaluation by an assistive technology specialist. If the IEP team refers your child, the evaluation is at no cost to you. An assistive technology evaluation may include a functional evaluation of your child in school or at home. Be sure to include the evaluation in the IEP, including the expected date to start and finish the evaluation.

Assistive technology specialists have special knowledge and expertise. If your child's needs are complex or you anticipate resistance, ask the assistive technology specialist to join the IEP team."

When should a student be assessed for Assistive Technology?

A student should be assessed or evaluated for AT when the IEP Team determines that a disability is impacting or will impact the achievement of the student. As stated, every student who has an IEP must be given AT consideration. That consideration must be noted on the IEP. Considerations may be found in the QIAT Guiding Document: Considering Assistive Technology in the IEP. The Center on Technology and Disability also provides a guide: Assistive Technology and the IEP. 


If the team decides an AT evaluation is needed, the evaluation considers the needs by using a SETT Framework which is a guideline for gathering data to make effective AT decisions. SETT is an acronym for Student, Environments, Tasks, and Tools. In other words, they will consider: What does the student need to do, and what type of tools are required for the student to accomplish the tasks?

The Assistive Technology assessment is conducted by a team of people with knowledge appropriate to the needs of the child. The need for AT is decided on a case-by-case basis. It is never a one size fits all as every child is completely different in their personal attributes. An AT evaluation will result in possible recommendations for specific devices and/or services. 

Long-term success with AT involves an ongoing look at need, equipment trial and evaluation followed by maintenance and growing expertise by the user, family, and professionals. It is important to remember that AT needs usually change with time, circumstances, and goals therefore AT should continue to be considered and reconsidered during every IEP.

Further Readings/Resources: 

updated 8/2018