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.


Tools to Assist Students with Dyslexia

From light tech to high tech, assistive technology tools can be crucial for supporting and promoting independence. 
Dyslexia is not a prediction of failure. Dyslexia is quite common, and many successful individuals have dyslexia. Research has proven that there are different ways of teaching that can help students with dyslexia succeed.As Understood.com shares with us: "A good way to understand dyslexia is to establish what it is not. It’s not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It’s also not due to poor vision. It’s a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. Dyslexia is primarily associated with trouble reading. Some doctors, specialists and educators may refer to it as a “reading disorder” or a “reading disability.” But it can also affect writing, spelling and even speaking. People with dyslexia can still understand complex ideas. Sometimes they just need more time to work through the information. They may also need a different way to process the information, such as listening to an audio book instead of reading it."

Assistive technology is defined as any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass or compensate for an individual challenge. Many more options exist today to help students with learning differences make the most of their abilities. Assistive technology is not a cure for dyslexia, but it can provide alternative strategies for students to compensate for areas of weakness and capitalize on their strengths

Assistive technology for students with dyslexia may include supports such as text-to-speech, speech-to-text, word prediction, graphic organizers, tools that support note taking and study skills.  In addition to the accessibility features of various operating systems, there are many desktop programs, web-based tools, Chrome apps and extensions, iOS and Android apps that are beneficial to students with dyslexia. Assistive technology offers a way for students to save time and overcome some of the issues they may encounter because of their dyslexia, such as challenges with note-taking or illegible handwriting. Technology can really help to open doors and help students to demonstrate their knowledge in creative ways. Technology is only going to get better. If you have a student who has dyslexia, really encourage them to become comfortable with technology as it can be a real game changer. Below are some ideas and suggestions to explore.

Handwriting/Writing Supports
If a student has trouble with writing, try using Pencil Grips or a word processor. 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 apps or software programs may help. With word prediction software, the student types the first few letters and then the software give word choices that begin with that letter. Speech recognition software allows a student to speak and have the text appear on the screen. These kinds of software are built-in features on many smartphones and tablet computers.

Speech-to-Text (S2T) converts spoken words to printed text. It's not as easy as just speaking into a microphone, but it can be very helpful for students who really struggle with writing. Do your research before you begin! Since accurate dictation relies on context, this technology works well for students who are able to formulate phrases and sentences in their minds before dictating them. The leading speech-to-text programs are Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows and Dragon for OS X but most programs and operating systems have programs built in and it is not necessary to purchase S2T any longer. Students can dictate on their tablets and smart phones with the integrated dictation of mobile operating systems. If they struggle with writing or taking notes, an audio recorder can capture what the teacher says in class so your child can listen to it again at home.

To further support writing, consider:
  • Electronic graphic organizers (see separate posting on Graphic Organizers) allow students to organize information visually while completing writing assignments, taking notes on textbook chapters, and studying for tests. There are many different designs you can also just print out that can help a student organize his thoughts for a writing assignment. Electronic examples include Inspiration, Mindomo, and Popplet. Inspiration Maps (app and software) lets you develop concept maps electronically. The importance of brainstorming and building up linkages between your ideas is an under appreciated part of writing a coherent paper. All students, but especially dyslexics, need to be explicitly taught how to transform apparently random ideas and thoughts into meaningful structure. This is a perfect application for doing just that. Inspiration Maps allow users to brainstorm, plan, organize and build thinking skills. Diagrams and idea bubbles can be turned into a report/paper outline that can be further developed and exported to a writing program.
  • Word Processors such as the Forte to support Handwriting and spelling challenges by providing a tool for typing, which can include word predication and text-to-speech. The Forte was designed by educators specifically to build digital writing skills and provide support for the struggling writer.
  • Ghotit Real Writer and Reader software assist in correcting badly spelled words, homophones, grammar, punctuation and more to assist learners with writing.It is designed for "People with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Other Learning Disabilities".
  • Ginger Software is a contextual spell and grammar checker that have become quite popular in the AT Lab.  Rather than checking for isolated errors, it checks entire sentences, allowing it to correct homonyms, subject-verb agreement, and phonetic misspellings.  It is an invaluable tool in the writing and editing process.
  • Kurzweil 3000 is a reading and writing program. Kurzweil is a high-end program which can provide a lot. Sometimes more than what is needed, but consider that with Kurzweil students can read scanned and digital documents with high quality text-to-speech and synchronized highlighting. This gives students with reading difficulty the ability to listen to text and improve comprehension. Kurzweil also allows students to annotate documents using text notes, audio notes, highlighting, and circling. Test taking is also a breeze with Kurzweil thanks to its “fill in the blanks” function which allows students to answer test question directly on the digital document. Kurzweil 3000 is not only for reading help but also includes a number of helpful writing features such as mind mapping and word prediction.
  • Livescribe smartpens are a computerized pen designed for note taking. With the Wifi Smartpen students can take notes on specialized notebook paper and have the written notes synchronized with audio recorded from class. The synchronized audio and written notes help students to review and fill in gaps of information that they may have missed while trying to quickly record information. The Smartpen also automatically and wirelessly synchronizes notes in Evernote. Another useful feature of the Smartpen is the ability of one assigned note taker to wirelessly transmit digital notes and audio recordings to students who need notes provided.
  • Word Predictions programs, such as Co:Writer and WordQ both have exceptional word predication capabilities that can help struggling spellers. Co:Writer’s most unique and noteworthy feature is the ability to use topic dictionaries to improve word prediction based on the topic a student is writing about.  Word prediction anticipates and predicts the correct words after only a few characters are typed.

It may help to be able to listen to the words as your student reads them on the page. Many e-books have audio files, and smartphones and tablet computers come with text-to-speech software that can read aloud anything on your student’s screen. Text-to-speech (T2S) technology converts printed text into spoken words using synthesized voices. All modern computers come with a synthetic voice that can read out any text on the screen using the right software, app or built in program from most operating systems. All tablets and smartphones have the ability to read text and they come with very high quality voices.

One of today’s most prevalent assistive technologies, it is built into computer operating systems, mobile devices, e-book readers, and websites; it is also an integral part of standalone applications. Examples of tools that feature T2S are NaturalReader, Read and Write, and Voice Dream Reader. Be sure to check out Read:OutLoud and Snap and Read as these are both wonderful programs by Don Johnston.

Using T2S has other advantages:
  • Listen while text is being highlighted and improve your reading and spelling.
  • Save any text as an audio file and listen to it as you would music or an audio book.
  • Choose a voice to suit your preferences.
  • Listen at a higher speed to read more in short time.
Research has shown that using T2S improves reading and writing skills and leads to improved results on exams for students with dyslexia. To find out more about how making your technology speak, see Dyslexia Action.

To further support reading, consider:
  • Audio books feature recorded human narration. (See separate posting on the audio books for links.) They are available in different formats, including audio CDs and MP3 files. They are a good option for students who have not become comfortable with the synthesized voices of text-to-speech over the course of an entire book. Two good sources of audio books that can be played on multiple devices are Learning Ally and Audible.
  • BeeLine Reader is said to make reading faster and easier by using a color gradient that guides your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Available in different platforms. Any ebook you buy from Amazon or borrow using OverDrive you can read with BeeLine. Just install BeeLine in your desktop browser and it will color any Amazon or OverDrive book you read.
  • Colored Overlays (tinted plastic that you place over a page of text) are assistive technology, even though they can't plug into the internet. There are many dramatic anecdotes out there about the effectiveness of using colored filters, and I have seen a few myself. If it helps, why not? The scientific theory behind the filters (and this is controversial) is that they remove or alter wavelengths that are causing visual processing impairment in the brains of the reader. Therefore, different readers may find different colors helpful. The kit, See it Right, allows you to explore the different colors until you find the one or combination that works best for you.  Also, explore the Reading Guide Strips. Reading guides are good tools 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 student reads.They come in various colors and are easy to slip in a book like a bookmark.Will color overlays will not fix, if it helps, what can I say?
  • eReaders - Reading starts with listening. That’s how we learn the sounds of the words we need to learn to read. Dyslexic readers often need more help with linking the text to sound. Even when they can read the words, it is often more slowly and with more effort, meaning comprehension is often lost. Being able to listen to texts, makes it possible for someone with dyslexia, once they become comfortable with the process and the voices, to access as much text and as quickly as someone without any reading difficulties.(Also, see posting on eText resources.)
  • CNet provides information to help you compare different ereaders.
  • Learning Ally creates human-narrated audio textbooks, literature and educational solutions for students with print and learning disabilities including dyslexia.
  • OCR - Prizmo and ClaroSpeak Plus are optical character recognition (OCR) apps for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The apps give students the ability to take a picture of a text document and have it read back to them using text-to-speech in seconds. So if students come across a document that they can’t read they can use the apps to quickly take a picture and have it read back to them. Prizmo can also act as a portable scanner that can convert printed document into a digital PDF format. With Prizmo, users can scan in any kind of text document and have the program read it out loud, which can be a big help to those who struggle with reading. Compare the two but also know that similar formats are available in other formats.
Podcasts and TED Talks are powerful auditory and visual tools to provide information. Be sure to tap into these wonderful alternatives!

Math (See posting Math, Math, Math for more information and links.)
  • ModMath is a free math iPad app to help students with dysgraphia challenges do math problems, from multiplication and long division to variables and quadratic equations.   
  • Panther Math Paper lets you do math without holding a pencil using "digital paper". Math Paper offers the foundations to learn simple arithmetic, and the power to do complicated equations, for people with motoric challenges.

  • Cram is a flashcard app. They have a wide selection of flashcards for you to study, memorize, test yourself on, and more. You can practice a foreign language, practice your multiplication table or a spelling test. Whatever it is you want to learn, Cram has you covered. Flashcards are effective because they are founded on the principles of rote and memorization. Cram has a web-based flashcard maker to create your own set. Once you create your online flashcards, you will be able to study, export or even share it with classmates.
  • Rewordify simplifies text. Enter hard sentences (or whole chapters) into the yellow box at the top of the page. (You can also enter a web site URL.) Click Rewordify text and you'll instantly see an easier version, for fast understanding. The reworded words are highlighted— click them to hear and learn the original harder word. You can change how the highlighting works to match the way you learn.  
  • Quizlet is a virtual flashcard service on the web and for iOS devices and Android devices. The Quizlet app for iOS includes text-to-speech which can read all text on the flash cards. If you use a popular vocabulary book or textbook, it is likely that another Quizlet user has already created a flashcard set for that book. Using the search function students can access these flashcards created by other Quizlet users. This gives students all the benefits of studying from flash cards without the hassle of creating them.
  • Notability is a note taking app for iPad.You can type an essay, create an outline, fill out an application, make a list, illustrate, annotations, and import forms, contracts, worksheets, documents, presentations, and even books. For detailed information on how this app works, see BDMTech's blog review.

Further Resources:

There are different apps and extensions for basically every platform, including Chrome, Firefox, Android, iOS, Windows. If you have a need for a specific platform, do a little research and you just might find it. It it isn't here today, check tomorrow!!!