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.


Apps and Special Needs - Wading Through and Finding Just the Right One

This has become an amazing challenge: keeping up with the app explosion in special education. The frequency and rate at which these apps are coming out is just plain overwhelming for all of us. It has to make one question the value of the product with the speed in which we are being inundated with these apps. It is very hard to know exactly what is what and which ones are even worth exploring further. Several sites are trying to wade through the muck and do just this.

Consider this: 75% (this is the last # I heard) of the AAC apps that are developed are not truly AAC apps but are talking pictures.  They are not developed by experts in the field who have researched AAC, have a degree as a Speech and Language Specialist, know anything about how children learn language... so- how does one know a good app from a fly-by-night app?

Research! Don't just grab one because so-and-so told you it was good, or you heard it on 60 Minutes, or read about it in the newspaper. But take some time and research before you buy. When you research an app, it does not mean finding a top 10 list. It means finding a list that not only lists but compares attributes. Watch videos on YouTube so you can experience what the app has to offer.

Jeannette Van Houten, M.ED, ATP suggests a few things to pay attention to when looking for a new app to purchase. No matter how good an app is if you can’t reach the programmer or company to get questions answered doesn’t really make for a happy user.
  1. Look at the date that the app was updated. If it was made a year ago and there are no updates, question the purchase.
  2. Look at the reviews listed with the app with a grain of salt. You want to know what others are saying that is not tied to the app.
  3. Check to see if the programmer can be reached: If the website no longer works, or the email isn’t returned it is going to mean that there is little or no tech support.
  4. Check the Operating System: see what it runs on.

Check out Learning in Hand's posting, "Ways to Evaluate Educational Apps" for a rubric to help you through the process.

As Geoffrey Goetz who wrote, "Beyond App Store search: how to find the iOS apps right for you": "Reviews, releases and rankings are the three Rs of app shopping. One of the first things you should look at is the original release date of the app and how often it has been updated. With services like AppShopper.com, you can also see how often the developer has decided to change the price of the app as well. Apps that are frequently updated likely point an attentive development team and can lead to a better experience overall.

Reviews posted to the App Store can go either way. Give less attention to reviews that complain only about the price rather than features or quality. Just because an app costs more does not make it bad.  You may find value in an app that others may not.  If, on the other hand, you see lots of reviews claiming that the app crashes or is buggy, then you need to look back at the version history to see if the developer is paying attention and trying to resolve the issue.

You also need to consider the total cost of ownership when buying an app, which includes in-app purchases. This is not hard to figure out as each app in the App Store will list its available in-app purchases.  Something to look for is how the in-app purchases are ranked since they are sorted by popularity: if you see high-priced items listed before lower-priced items, then you know that users of the app have found it necessary to buy those in order to use the app."

Following are a few resources I recommend using when trying to find apps that will fit your student's needs, along with keeping the thoughts and forms above in mind:

  • Apps4Stages, recommendations and information gathered here is greatly facilitated by the students and faculty of the Simmons College Assistive Technology and Master of Arts in Teaching Graduate Programs. Specific apps recommendations and tutorials are primarily contributed by students supervised by a well-respected and experienced faculty. Accessibility information comes from a variety of resources, primarily Luis Perez and his remarkable YouTube channel and the incredible effort to organize third-party accessibility tools offered by Jennifer Edge Savage. Pending is the work of Gina Violante who is currently working on a Google Doc detailing iPad peripherals such as mounts, stylus, cases, etc.
  • Apps for Children with Special Needs offers a philosophy of being, "committed to helping the families and carers of children with special needs and the wider community of educators and therapists who support them, by producing videos that demonstrate how products designed to educate children and build their life skills really work from a user perspective. Our aim is that these videos, along with relevant information and advice from an independent source you can trust, provides valuable insight into whether a product is suitable for its intended purpose or not, enabling sensible buying decisions to be made. We hope this site and its content provides a valuable resource to the community that serves our precious children with special needs."  
  • BridgingApps provides a source for "bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities." This is a site worth getting lost in. They have a free book on using iPads and mobile tech for children with special needs along with other wonderful tools. They have a tool called the Insignio App Tool that is an amazing resource worth exploring. It allows you to take individual student needs, language level, motor planning, visual processing and much more. You choose the type of device, and the intent, what you are trying to teach or the function for the student.  In return it provides a list of apps, costs, reviews, and screen shots to learn more about the program.  
  • OT's with Apps is a resource for occupational therapists, teachers, parents and clients seeking tools and strategies to improve the occupational skills of all ages. One of their listings is called: App List for MS thru Adults with Disabilities - that might be helpful.
  • This is a comprehensive site created by OT/ATP Carol Leynse Harpold. Check out their section OT’s w Apps Basic App List for Middle/HighSchool Students and Adults with LD.
  • Tools for Life App Finder by Georgia Tech provides you with a Database of their "Favorite Apps for Living, Learning, Working and Playing!" It is broken down by category, such as Audiobooks, Color Readers, Handwriting, Screen Reader, etc and then allows you to state what type of hardware you need it for.
  • 34 Assistive Technology Apps - reviews and recommendations of tools for education
  • Common Sense Media - Working with kids who face challenges requires lots of time, attention, and patience on the part of a parent, teacher, or other adult caregiver. Thier goal is to offer you a host of fun, well-designed apps that were recommended and tested by field experts. 

Erin Sheldon shares her approach:
My best advice: don't try to follow apps. Just use the SETT process on yourself. Ask:
  1. What is it YOU need to do?   
  2. Who do you need to do it with?  
  3. What technology do you have available?
  4. THEN look at what options meet your specific needs.

My approach is to find a few apps (no more than 10) that can do many things in many contexts with many students. These apps must be robust (reliable) and have strong tech support. I ignore any apps that don't meet this standard and that is 95% of the App Store.

For example, there are a million apps that are a new way to do worksheets, just with bells and whistles on an iPad. I don't think the world needs more worksheets. I ignore any apps that reek of special education or training a response. We can drill-and-kill kids without the cost of technology; worksheets on an iPad are more for us, to contain their behaviors, then for them, and their learning, anyway.

EVERY app has a learning curve. EVERY app has an opportunity cost; we are not doing or using something else if we are instead using the app. So the app had better be worth it.

I ask if the app allows more students to access how information is presented, more students to engage more information or more students to show what they know in more ways. If it doesn't do these things, then it's not worth my time. Really, what I'm seeking is universal design. I only use apps that help me create universal design.

Updated 6/2018