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.


AT Tools in the Classroom

Picture above from Popsugar

The 2015/16 school year is around the corner. Many students will be heading to the general education setting with various learning challenges. Having the right tools ready when they walk in the door can help to make everyone more at ease, ready to learn and be more successful. It is important to remember that assistive technology (AT) will not "cure" a specific learning disability but having the right tools available will help them to learn to compensate by using their strengths. AT will allow a student with learning difficulties to demonstrate their intelligence and knowledge through a different means rather than through their specific challenge area. It is also important to remember that it will take trial and error to find a set of tools and techniques for each individual student. Once basic tools and strategies are selected, they can then be tried, discarded, adapted, and/or refined as the year moves forward, as none of us stay stagnant.

Here is my list of tools to consider keeping on hand to pull from as you go through your school year together:
  1. Calculators - Depending on the student's math issues, it might be appropriate to use a basic calculator in class. There are also large-display calculators, talking
    calculator sand other specialized calculators available. (A talking calculator has built-in speech output to read the numbers, symbols and operation keys aloud. If your student is not visually impaired, it may help by confirming that they have pressed the correct key.) For a fun online talking calculator, see PBSKids.
  2. FM Listening Systems - Frequency modulation (FM) systems can reduce background noise in the classroom and amplify what the teacher says. A personal FM listening system transmits a speaker’s voice directly to the user’s ear. This may help the listener focus on what the speaker is saying. The unit consists of a wireless transmitter (with microphone) worn by the speaker and a receiver (with earphone) worn by the listener. This can help with auditory processing issues as well as attention issues. FM systems are also used to help kids with hearing impairment and language-processing issues. FM soundfield amplification systems have been developed which provide a uniform soundfield throughout the classroom and increase the speech-signal:noise ratio. It has been found through studies that FM amplification significantly improved comprehension.
  3. Graphic Organizers - Some students have difficulty organizing and integrating thoughts and ideas while writing. Concept maps and/or mapping software allows for visual representation of ideas and concepts. (Be sure to check out the many free programs available for the computer and tablets.) These representations are
    presented in a physical manner and can be connected with arrows to show the relationship between ideas. These graphically represented ideas can be linked, rearranged, color coded, and matched with a variety of icons to suit the need of the user. Concept mapping software can be used as a structure for starting and organizing such diverse writing projects as poetry, term papers, resumes, schedules, or even computer programs.
    (Concept map to right designed by using Inspiration Software.)
  4. Reading Guides -   Reading guides provide great support for students who have trouble with visual tracking or who need help staying focused on the page. The plastic strip highlights one line of text while blocking out surrounding words that might be distracting. The strip is also easy to move down the page as your child reads. They help to eliminate re-reading lines, squinting, they can provide better concentration and therefore comprehension. A great bookmark to have on hand when the need calls. It is best to have the student try each color until they find the color tat best fits their eyes. They will usually know right away which one works best for them.  
  5. Spelling - People with dyslexia often spell phonetically, making use of word prediction or spell checking software quite challenging at times. Devices such as the Franklin Electronic Dictionaries or software  that delivers phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words may be a useful tool, such as the Ginger Software which is available for all platforms.  Another tool to consider is a smart phone using the speech-to-text option. A student speaks clearly into a text or note app to find the correct spelling of a word, then transfers it over to their document by copying. it. This is a great strategy to learn with the understanding that speech-to-text will not misspell a word but may misrecognize their speech. 
  6. Text-to-Speech - often helps students by being able to listen to the words as they read them on the page. Many e-books have audio files, and computers, smartphones and tablet now come with (or can be added to) text-to-speech software that can read anything on the screen. Researchers have found that the combination of seeing and hearing text when reading: improves word recognition, increases the ability to pay attention and remember information, allows students to focus on comprehension instead of sounding out words, increases students’ ability for reading longer assignments and helps students recognize and fix errors in their own writing.  (Be sure to check out the wide variety of audiobook resources available.)
  7. Timers - From wrist watches to hourglass timers, these inexpensive devices can help students who have trouble with time management. If your child has difficulty
    transitioning from task to task, timers can help students to mentally prepare for ending a preferred task or for making a switch to a different task.
  8. Writing Supports - If your student has trouble with handwriting, try using plastic pencil grips or a keyboard. Basic word processing programs come with features that can help with spelling and grammar issues. For students whose thoughts race ahead of their ability to write them down, different kinds of software may be found helpful. With word prediction software, the student types the first few letters and then the software gives word choices that begin with that letter. Speech recognition software allows a student to speak and have the text appear on the screen. This type of software is often built-in to many smartphones and tablet computers.

This is only a basic, beginning list but it will get you going in the right direction.

Remember: the use of common office supplies such as Post-It Notes and highlighter pens or tape provide a simple means of sorting and prioritizing thoughts, ideas, and concepts for everyone. We don't always have these simple tools, that we use every day, available to our students. Often, tools of one's own choosing provide the most effective and comfortable accommodations for everyone. By providing a well-rounding variety of tools we are allowing everyone to make educated decisions on what works best for them. Provide it and they will come. 

For more information about assistive technology for students with learning disabilities, see blog posting AT for the LD Population (including iDevice Information). 
Shelley Haven's blog provides more in-depth information. Be sure to check it out. Lisa Nielsen did a great job pulling together a listing of assistive technology tools in her blog posting, "25 Incredible Assistive Technologies".