Introduction to AT


This module provides an overview of assistive technology (AT) used by children with disabilities ages 5-11: what it is and how it can be used to promote independent participation in elementary classrooms. As educational reforms include the application of technology to support and expand classroom curricula, assistive technology can provide both routine and customized access to the general curricula for students with disabilities. Although AT increases independent participation in home, school and community environments, we will focus on its impact in the classroom.

Assistive technology has the potential to augment abilities and, bypass or compensate for barriers that disabilities create (Lewis, 1994). This and following modules address the potential of assistive technologies as they relate to specific disabilities and life tasks. For children with disabilities in public school classrooms, assistive technologies are their tools to extend their physical, social and communicative abilities. They also provide the means for academic and cooperative inclusion.

copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project


Defining Concepts

Changing classrooms Computer technology

What Is Assistive Technology?
Assistive Technologies are the tools and strategies that act to liberate
the use of technology for all students as well as to provide new ways to "assist" interactions and learning. They act to "augment abilities and bypass or compensate for a disability" (Lewis, 1994).

AT is anything that makes "it" easier for a student to...

  Turn things on: use an extra large remote to turn the TV on
 Get dressed, eat, or bathe: to get bathed, use an adaptive bath chair
 Read: use a bookholder to read
 Write: use a specialized keyboard to write
 See: use a magnifying glass
 Get around or move: use a bicycle with adapted pedals to get around
 Communicate: use a picture phone to call someone
 Play: use a card holder to play

Changing Classrooms

As we enter the twenty-first century we find that recent legislation and technology innovations are changing the ways teachers teach and children learn. Since 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has mandated that "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities. . . are educated with children who are not disabled".

Over the past 10 years, the percentage of students with disabilities served in schools and classes with their non-disabled peers has gradually increased and continues to grow. In fact, approximately 95.9% of students with disabilities, ages 6-11, receive their education in regular education classrooms/resource rooms (OSEP, 2002). The 1997 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) calls for providing access to the general education curriculum in order to improve outcomes for all students.

The majority of students with disabilities are capable of participating in the general education curriculum to varying degrees with some adaptations and modifications. As inclusive schools become the norm, schools are becoming more accessible to all students; standards are being set and creative designs employed.

As instructional issues arise regarding how to meet the individual learning needs of all students, new tools are being investigated. Educators begin with the curriculum, and then ask how existing classroom tools, materials and activities might be re-designed to assist all students in achieving learning outcomes. School districts are searching for viable tools that will expand access to the general education curriculum for all students.


Computer Technology

Another major classroom change is the use of computer technology. Computers have become an essential literacy tool in our society; its use crucial for future success in the workplace. Over 76% of American students use a computer at school; 83% use one at home for school assignments/word processing (NCES, 2001). Internet access in public schools has increased to 78%, with 27% of classrooms with Internet access (NCES, 2001). However, to best take advantage of the potential of technology, teachers and students must have adequate and equitable access; schools must build the capacity to use technology, develop a technology plan and offer adequate training and technical support; and teachers and students must use technology in effective ways (Jerald, 1998).

With increased access to education technology, it can be used to create more accessible curricular materials in fast and easy ways for students with disabilities (Research Connections, 1999). As classrooms materials are created in digital format, they can then be accessed and manipulated in a variety of ways to be heard, seen and manipulated. For example students can change how they interact with digitized materials by:

  • Enlarging the size of the text
  • Changing the color or font of the text
  • Having the text read aloud
  • Hearing labels read of pictures/simulations
  • Speaking into a computer microphone to write
  • Using alternate input options: trackballs, larger keyboards, touch screens, etc.

Software companies are designing programs that meet a wider range of needs. CD textbooks and e-Books are just two examples. Universal Access features are embedded in programs that present content in alternate ways, with multiple options for student control (i.e. text-to-speech, enlarged fonts and tool bars with large, well labeled buttons) (CAST, 1998). Other characteristics promote student engagement, interest, and motivation. These "built-in" options make learning more relevant.


copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project


Basic Technologies

Access Technologies Adaptive Technologies

Interchangeable terms with assistive technology include assistive devices, rehabilitation equipment/technology, adaptive materials or adaptive technologies. When we apply AT to facilitate the use of classroom technologies and materials by students with disabilities in today's classrooms, AT includes both "access" and "adaptive" technologies.

Access Technologies

Access Technologies include those applications of technologies that provide a way for students with disabilities to better "access" classroom instructional materials provided as part of the general curriculum. These are devices that adapt the tools or activities used by general education students. These products can compensate for limitations experienced by students with sensory, cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Included here are classroom tools/equipment that have been designed with universal features making them accessible to students with physical, cognitive and/or sensory disabilities.


 Alternate Keyboard Alternate keyboards
Alternate keyboards and pointing systems that change how a software program is used. The photo shows an IntelliKeys keyboard (IntelliTools, Inc.) with a modified overlay which makes learning more direct for a student with a disability. S/he simply needs to press a picture key to see the word spelled on the screen or to spell it out with larger letter keys.


 Page Turner

Page Turner
Page Turner: By using this device to hold a book for a student, s/he is then freed to focus on reading & comprehending the material in the book. A page turns when the students presses a switch.


Adaptive Technologies

Adaptive Technologies include customized systems that help individual students move about, communicate in, and control their environments. They are designed specifically for persons with disabilities; devices which would seldom be used by non-disabled persons. Examples include augmentative communication devices, powered wheel chairs and environmental control systems. These assistive technologies are not used exclusively for education purposes, but are used in all of the child's environments.



TTY (teletypewriter)
This device, available from local telephone companies, provides a way for persons with deafness to communicate via the phone. The individual types to send a message and then reads the responses in order to engage in a conversation. A relay service is available if both parties do not have a TTY.


DynaMyte (DynaVox Systems, LLC.)
Portable communication devices, such as the DynaMyte, provide a way for students with communicative disabilities to initiate, respond and converse. As a student selects a sequence of picture symbols, the computer "speaks" the pre-programmed message.



copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project



The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
defines AT as both a device and a service:

Assistive Technology Device
Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customize, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.

Assistive Technology Service
Any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.

What does this mean for students & schools?

School districts are required under law to provide appropriate AT to students with disabilities when it supports their acquisition of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). In order to support the inclusion and participation of students with disabilities in regular education classrooms, all IEP's developed for children identified as needing special education services, must indicate that AT has been considered to "to provide meaningful access to the general curriculum" (IDEA, 1997). More specifically, IDEA indicates that AT devices and services must be made available to a child with a disability if required as a part of the child's-

  1. Special education;
  2. Related services; or
  3. Supplementary aids and services.

There have been several clarifications from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) on the use of AT by students with disabilities. These include:

  • AT must be provided by the school district at no cost to the family.
  • AT must be determined on a case-by-case basis; it is required if needed to ensure access to free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • If the IEP team determines that AT is needed for home use to ensure FAPE, it must be provided
  • The student's IEP must reflect the nature of the AT and amount of supportive AT services required.
  • A parent is accorded an extensive set of procedural safeguards, including the provision of AT to the child.

Keep in mind that AT is any item that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability. For some students with disabilities, AT may be the only way that access to the general curriculum can be ensured!

copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project


Primary Usage

Communication Manipulation Positioning/Mobility Learning

AT use by elementary students with disabilities can be applied within one or more of four functional areas in home, community and school environments: communication, manipulation, mobility, and learning.


Early introduction to spoken communication helps to develop critical language and social skills as well as identification and sequencing skills required for more complex communication devices. A range of devices exists - from single recordable message tools to type and speak units to devices with multiple communication layers or branching systems. This area of assistive technology use is known as "Augmentative and Alternate Communication" as the device acts to compensate for the student's full communication capabilities, including any vocalizations, gestures, signs and aided communication (ASHA, 1991).



Environmental Control UnitStudents must be able to interact with people and objects in their environment. Karen is able to participate in this cooking activity by pressing a switch to turn on the blender. The environmental control unit provides the interface between the blender and the switch. Switches with special interfaces can be used to control anything electronic from toys to televisions to computers.This area of assistive technology where switches provide a means to independent control of electric or battery-operated devices is often referred to as "Environmental Control Systems".


Seating and MobilityPositioning and mobility items include adapted cars, jeeps, bikes, scooters, walkers and wheelchairs that provide a way for children to experience movement. This powered wheelchair with head switch controls makes it possible for Jerry to choose where and when to go. With these same head switches he is able to move about freely, work on the computer and play Nintendo. His seating system is customized to accommodate his needs. This area of assistive technology is known as "Seating and Mobility" and includes a full range of positioning systems as well as mobility devices.



Girls LearningOther technologies promote increased access to instructional and learning materials as well as to other activities during the day. Examples include calculators, magnifiers, tape recorders, adapted art and gym tools, page-turners, auditory trainers, etc. Adapted computer access is one way that helps children learn, play, and show what they can do. Although computers themselves are a general classroom technology, adaptations can make them more accessible by all students. A wide range of input devices exist that can replace or support the use of the standard keyboard. These include: trackballs, keyguards, alternate keyboards, touch screens, voice input and various pointing devices. Students use AT to access the same classroom software. This area of assistive technology is known as "Adaptive Computer Technology".



copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project


Device Selection

Considerations Factors for Success


For many years, mostly due to the low availability of assistive technology items, professionals and parents focused on attaining a certain device, believing that the equipment alone was going to make the difference. We now know that the selection of the right technology is influenced by several factors including the abilities of the student, his/her family's culture and value system, the environment in which the technology is used and previous experiences with devices and strategies.

Although assistive technology has the potential to extend the abilities of a child, a thorough assessment should always precede the acquisition of the device. In determining the assistive technology needs of a child, consider:

  • the abilities of a child; his/her interests and preferences
  • the family's culture and value system
  • the environment it will be used in
  • the functional tasks for participating in daily routines
  • available materials and technologies
  • the barriers to his/her participation
  • ongoing intervention and evaluation

Be specific when identifying AT solutions. The "best" solutions fit the required task, taking into consideration the modification of the activity and/or the learning materials. Single solutions will not meet all of the student's needs; a combination of strategies works best


Factors for Success

Ongoing research identifies key factors in the successful use of AT in educational settings:

  • student and family goals and values form the basis of the student's educational programs
  • the acquisition and use of AT is tied directly to student academic and personal goals
  • students, family and educators (including teachers, therapists and instructional assistants) work as a team to select, obtain, implement and monitor AT
  • communication about all aspects of the students school program is frequent and honest
  • devices and equipment that are worn or outgrown are replaced. Those that are not meeting student needs are modified, replaced or abandoned, either temporarily or permanently
  • both major and minor glitches are regarded as inevitable but solvable problems are dealt with quickly and systematically by the team.

(Todis, 1997)

The benefits of technology are as extensive as the abilities and goals of the students using them. However, professionals and parents should exercise certain cautions. Technology must not been seen as a panacea; it alone will not "fix" a disability or guarantee a successful inclusion program.


copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project


Trends and Issues

Assessment Trends Cultural and Family Trends Universal Design Trends Training Issues Funding Issues Maintenance Issues

There are several trends and issues that arise when selecting, acquiring and using assistive technology. There continues to be a general lack of information among professionals, administrators and parents on the availability and use of devices to promote access to the general curriculum. Efforts must be made to ensure that parents and professionals become aware of the existence of these devices and the legislation that supports their use. Assessment, cultural & family concerns, device design, training, cost, and maintenance are issues that must be addressed.

Assessment Trends

It is vitally important that AT assessments take place where the AT will be used, with team input by persons actively involved in the child's life. We begin with an understanding of both the child's abilities and barriers to learning and then examine the general curriculum to determine specific tasks within daily routines. We then work together to identify a range of AT solutions for the student to try out before determining the most "useable" solutions. This approach assumes the participation of a student, to the highest extent possible, with assessment and re-evaluation as an ongoing process.


Cultural and Family Trends

A critical component of AT selection and use is the involvement of the family in the selection process to ensure successful educational and social outcomes for children with disabilities (Judge & Parette, 1998). When families are involved in all aspects of decision making, the likelihood of success increases and satisfaction with assistive technology devices and services is promoted. However, recognition of the family's needs at home and in community settings must include the realities of family life, the lack of family-friendly training and supports and other related issues (Parette, 1999).


Universal Design Trends

Universal design is defined as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Technology manufacturers are encouraged to follow suggested federal guidelines to design products that are accessible to more users. By applying this broader design standard, classroom technology will be able to be used by all children in more invisible and normalized ways.


Training Issues

Administrators, professionals and parents require awareness level information on how AT can benefit education, as well as working knowledge on how the AT works. This information is basic to the planning for, acquisition of and effective use of various technologies. Technology planning in school districts often neglects issues of AT Hardware, software use and ongoing training. Recent studies report a lack of training and technical assistance both in the operation and integration of the technology into the curriculum, a lack of computer access due to incompatibility of old and new technologies, and a lack of appropriate and specialized software for severely disabled students. With more children with disabilities entering inclusive educational settings, general education personnel must look to alternate means of access and learning.



Funding Issues

Although the school district is identified by law as a provider of assistive technology devices and services, funding issues must be considered by the team. The use of AT equipment for non-educational purposes in other environments must also be addressed. Students may need the same technologies or different technologies to participate in after school athletic programs, in recreation or family activities. Device ownership issues must be addressed to ensure technology use in all of the student's life environments.


Maintenance Issues

The integration of technology into natural settings requires ongoing and immediate support. As stated earlier, when AT use is successful, devices and equipment that are worn or outgrown are replaced. AT not meeting student needs are modified, replaced or abandoned, either temporarily or permanently. School district policy and procedures must address these ongoing maintenance, repair and necessary upgrades of technology.


copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project



American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1991). Report: Augmentative and alternative communication. ASHA,33 (Suppl. 5),9-12.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, P.L. 101-476.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, P.L. 105-17.

Jerald, C.D. ( September, 28, 1998). By the Numbers. Education Week on the Web

Judge, S.L., & Parette, H.P. (1998). Assistive technology for young children with disabilities: A guide to family-centered services. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Lewis, R.B. (1993). Special Education Technology. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

National Center for Education Statistics (2002, February 14).

H. P. Parette (personal communication, February 26, 1999).

Todis, B. (1997). Tools for the task? Perspectives on assistive technology in educational settings. Journal of Special Education Technology, 13(2), 49-61.

Universal design. (1999, Fall). Research Connections, 5, 1-8.

U.S. Department of Education. Office of Special Education Programs. (2002). Twenty-Third Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office


copyright © 2000 - 2005 Assistive Technology Training Online Project