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Column: Using assistive technology to overcome barriers

By Deb Stoll, District 518


WORTHINGTON -- Here are a few questions for you. Do you wear glasses? Use closed captioning on your TV? Have a hearing aid? Use a cane? Own a disability sticker for parking? Increase the font size on your device? Use a remote controller in your home?  

If you have said “yes” to any of these, you are using the benefit of what schools call “assistive technology.” The items listed above are examples of technology many of us use to increase our functioning in our everyday lives. We don’t see well without our glasses, some of us use our aids to hear well and without our TV remote, we would need to get up to turn the channel.  

For students, technology also serves an increasingly important role in educational programming, but nowhere is it more essential as in the education of our students of special needs. Assistive technology (AT) can decrease barriers and allow students to have access to learning opportunities similar to their peers. So, AT is used to increase the performance and functional capabilities of students with special needs.

This idea of AT is not new. In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) addressed AT by guiding schools to increase the effectiveness of education by “supporting the development and use of technology, including assistive technology devices and assistive technology services to maximize accessibility for children with disabilities” (IDEA 2004). Schools have spent years providing the types of technology that allow students to increase performance, long before IDEA was actually the law.

So what type of technologies are we talking about that would make a difference for students? Assistive technology can come in the form of: hearing aids, FM units, classroom speaker systems, slanted boards for students in wheelchairs, pencil grips, walkers, switches or large buttons, communication devices, keyboards with accessibility options, word prediction apps (similar to auto-correct), adapted paper, electronic books, talking clocks, talking calculators, print or picture schedules, grab bars, power wheelchairs, adaptive eating utensils, eyeglasses, screen magnifiers and speech-to-text / text-to-speech apps. AT is divided into low tech and high tech, but all AT has the capability of decreasing the difficulties students may experience due to their disability.

Allow me to create a picture in your mind as to the significant impact AT can make for a child with a disability. Imagine a student with a physical impairment who uses a wheelchair and cannot communicate on their own. The student starts the morning by greeting classmates with a message on a prerecorded device. The student activates a switch or a large button with their hand or their face to instigate a number of activities of learning, looking at books, sharpening pencils, playing music, communicating with her peers and even making popcorn for classmates. As the student brings popcorn into a classroom, the same-aged peers begin to build a relationship and acknowledge a student, peer and friend who is unable to speak on their own.

Assistive technology can increase performance and functional skills, but even more important, AT can give students the ability to participate with their peers and belong to the school environment. This is the power of AT.

Deb Stoll is District 518’s director of special education.