Special Education : Assistive Technology

Assistive technology devices are mechanical aids which substitute for or enhance the function of some physical or mental ability that is impaired. Assistive technology can be anything homemade, purchased off the shelf, modified, or commercially available which is used to help an individual perform some task of daily living. The term assistive technology encompasses a broad range of devices from “low tech” (e.g., pencil grips, splints, paper stabilizers) to “high tech” (e.g., computers, voice synthesizers, braille readers). These devices include the entire range of supportive tools and equipment from adapted spoons to wheelchairs and computer systems for environmental control.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, provides the following legal definition of an assistive technology device: “any item, piece of equipment, or product system… that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Under IDEA, assistive technology devices can be used in the educational setting to provide a variety of accommodations or adaptations for people with disabilities.

The IDEA also lists the services a school district may need to provide in order to ensure that assistive technology is useful to a student in the school setting. The law defines assistive technology service as: “any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.” This service includes all of the following possibilities:

  • evaluation of the technology needs of the individual, including a functional evaluation in the individual’s customary environment;
  • purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices for individuals with disabilities;
  • selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing of assistive technology devices;
  • coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;
  • assistive technology training or technical assistance with assistive technology for an individual with a disability, or, where appropriate, the family of an individual with disabilities;
  • training or technical assistance for professionals, employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or otherwise are substantially involved in the major life functions of individuals with disabilities.

The intention of the special education law is that, if a student with disabilities needs technology in order to be able to learn, the school district will (a) evaluate the student’s technology needs, (b) acquire the necessary technology, (c) coordinate technology use with other therapies and interventions, and (d) provide training for the individual, the individual’s family, and the school staff in the effective use of the technology.

During the time that students with disabilities are in school, they can have the opportunity to learn to use technology at the same time that they are learning academic subjects and social skills. The efficient and effective use of assistive technology can be as basic a skill for students with disabilities as reading, writing, and arithmetic since the use of technology can go a long way toward circumventing the limitations of the disability and providing students with disabilities with a “level playing field” in every area of life accomplishment.

What are accommodations?

Accommodations are reasonable modifications that are made to compensate for skills or abilities that an individual lacks. For example, if a person does not digest spicy foods well, we might accommodate this individual by adjusting his or her diet so that the person was eating only bland foods.
When the word accommodation is used in connection with disability issues, it refers to a way of modifying a task or assignment so that a person with a disability can participate in spite of whatever challenges the disability may pose. For example, when a student who is unable to remember math facts is allowed to do math problems with a calculator, the use of the calculator is an accommodation which allows the student to work around his or her disability. With an accommodation, the student can still perform math problems, but the student does so using a different method.
In the school setting, sometimes it is necessary to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities in order to compensate for skills or abilities that they do not have. For example, for some students with learning disabilities, learning to spell words correctly may be a skill they never acquire or never acquire with a high enough degree of fluency to do them any good in written expression. To compensate for this inability to spell, such students may be encouraged to use alternative methods for spelling like a spell check software program on the computer or a hand-held spelling device.

What is an adaptation? How does adaptation differ from accommodation?

Adaptation means developing unique devices or methods designed specifically to assist persons with disabilities to perform daily tasks. An adaptation is something specially designed which is not normally used by other people. An accommodation, on the other hand, is simply a change in routine, method, or approach which may be used by people with or without disabilities. Examples of adaptations include special grips to turn stove knobs or specially designed keyboards to operate computers.

What are common types of assistive technology? Does assistive technology just mean computers?

Assistive technology certainly includes computers, but it also refers to a number of other types of accommodations and adaptations which enable individuals with disabilities to function more independently. Computers are an important type of assistive technology because they open up so many exciting possibilities for writing, speaking, finding information, or controlling an individual’s environment. But computers are not the only avenues to solving problems through technology. There are many low tech (and low cost) solutions for problems that disabilities pose. Examples of inexpensive, low tech solutions include wrist splints, clip boards for holding papers steady, or velcro tabs to keep positioning pads in place.

The following is a list of common assistive technology applications:
Positioning. In the classroom, individuals with physical disabilities may need assistance with their positions for seating so that they can participate effectively in school work. Generally, therapists try to achieve an upright, forward facing position by using padding, structured chairs, straps, supports, or restraints to hold the body in a stable and comfortable manner. Also considered is the student’s position in relation to peers and the teacher. Often, it is necessary to design positioning systems for a variety of settings so that the student can participate in multiple activities at school. Examples of equipment used for positioning are side lying frames, walkers, crawling assists, floor sitters, chair inserts, wheelchairs, straps, trays, standing aids, bean bag chairs, sand bags, and so forth.
Access. In order to participate in school tasks, some students require special devices that provide access to computers or environmental controls. The first step in providing access is to determine which body parts can be used to indicate the student’s intentions. Controllable, anatomical sites like eye blinks, head or neck movements, or mouth movements may be used to operate equipment which provides access to the computer. Once a controllable, anatomical site has been determined, then decisions can be made about input devices, selection techniques (direct, scanning), and acceleration strategies (coding, prediction). Input devices include such things as switches, alternative keyboards, mouse, trackball, touch window, speech recognition, and head pointers. Once computer access has been established, it should be coordinated with other systems that the student is using including powered mobility, communication or listening devices, and environmental control systems.


  • Alternate keyboards
  • Interface devices
  • Joysticks
  • Keyboard modifications
  • Keyboard additions
  • Optical pointing devices
  • Pointing and typing aids
  • Switches with scanning
  • Scanners & optical character recognition
  • Trackballs
  • Touch screens
  • Voice recognition


  • Abbreviation/expansion and macro programs
  • Access utilities
  • Menu management programs
  • Reading comprehension programs
  • Writing composition programs
  • Writing enhancement tools (i.e. grammar checkers)


  • Braille displays and embossers
  • Monitor additions
  • Screen enlargement programs
  • Screen readers
  • Speech synthesizers
  • Talking and large print word processors

Access can also refer to physical entrance and exit of buildings or facilities. This kind of assistive technology includes modifications to buildings, rooms and other facilities that let people with physical impairments use ramps and door openers to enter, allow people with visual disabilities to follow braille directions and move more freely within a facility, and people of short stature or people who use wheelchairs to reach pay phones or operate elevators. Accessibility to shopping centers, places of business, schools, recreation, transportation is possible because of assistive technology modifications.

Environmental Control. Independent use of equipment in the classroom can be achieved for students with physical disabilities through various types of environmental controls, including remote control switches and special adaptations of on/off switches to make them accessible (e.g. velcro attachments, pointer sticks).

Robotic arms and other environmental control systems turn lights on and off, open doors, operate appliances. Locational and orientation systems give people with vision impairments information about where they are, what the ground nearby is like, and whether or not there is a curb close by.

Augmentative Communication. Every student in school needs some method of communication in order to interact with others and learn from social contact. Students who are nonverbal or whose speech is not fluent or understandable enough to communicate effectively may benefit from using some type of communication device or devices. Communication devices include such things as symbol systems, communication boards and wallets, programmable switches, electronic communication devices, speech synthesizers, recorded speech devices, communication enhancement software, and voiced word processing.

Assistive Listening. Much of the time in school, students are expected to learn through listening. Students who have hearing impairments or auditory processing problems can be at a distinct disadvantage unless they learn to use the hearing they have, or they develop alternative means for getting information. Hearing problems may be progressive, permanent, or intermittent. Any of these impairments may interfere significantly with learning to speak, read, and follow directions. Assistive devices to help with hearing and auditory processing problems include: hearing aids, personal FM units, sound field FM systems, Phonic Ear, TDDs, or closed caption TV.

Visual Aids. Vision is also a major learning mode. General methods for assisting with vision problems include increasing contrast, enlarging stimuli and making use of tactile and auditory models. Devices that assist with vision include screen readers, screen enlargers, magnifiers, large-type books, taped books, Braillers, light boxes, high contrast materials, thermoform graphics, synthesizers, and scanners.

Mobility. Individuals whose physical impairments limit their mobility may need any of a number of devices to help them get around in the school building and participate in student activities. Mobility devices include such things as self-propelled walkers, manual or powered wheelchairs, and powered recreational vehicles like bikes and scooters.

Computer-Based Instruction. Computer-based instruction can make possible independent participation in activities related to the curriculum. Software can be selected which mirrors the conceptual framework of the regular curriculum, but offers an alternative way of responding to exercises and learning activities. Software can provide the tools for written expression, spelling, calculation, reading, basic reasoning, and higher level thinking skills. The computer can also be used to access a wide variety of databases.

Social Interaction and Recreation. Students with disabilities want to have fun and interact socially with their peers. Assistive technology can help them to participate in all sorts of recreational activities which can be interactive with friends. Some adapted recreational activities include drawing software, computer games, computer simulations, painting with a head or mouth wand, interactive laser disks, and adapted puzzles.

Self Care. In order to benefit from education, some students require assistance with self care activities like feeding, dressing, and toileting. Assistive devices which assist with self care include such things as robotics, electric feeders, adapted utensils, specially designed toilet seats, and aids for tooth brushing, washing, dressing, and grooming.

What sort of students might use assistive technology?

Students who require assistive technology are those with mental or physical impairments that interfere with learning or other life functions. The technology helps the student to overcome or compensate for the impairment and be more independent in participating at school. Students who benefit from assistive technology may have mild learning problems like learning disabilities or they may have physical or cognitive disabilities that range from mild to severe. Assistive technology is not necessary or helpful for every student in special education, but it is an important part of the support system for many students with identified disabilities.

Isn’t assistive technology appropriate only for students with more severe disabilities?

Assistive technology is simply a set of tools that can be used to compensate for some deficit that a person may have. For individuals with severe mental or physical disabilities, the technological solutions can help to solve multiple and complex problems, but individuals with less involved problems also can benefit from assistive technology. For example, individuals with learning disabilities who have difficulty with reading or writing can benefit educationally from using the word processing and voiced reading capabilities of computers.

Isn’t assistive technology just a crutch? Won’t students become too dependent on technology and not learn to use the skills they have?

Assistive technology should be used as support for learning and performing daily tasks. In general, assistive technology is appropriate when it compensates for disabilities so that the individual can function as normally as possible. If assistive technology is necessary for a student to have access to educational opportunities, or to benefit from education, then it is not a “crutch,” but a legitimate support.

Some skills are too laborious or taxing to accomplish at a rate or with degree of proficiency to allow for participation in the least restrictive environment. With assistive technology, the student can participate more fully and more closely approximate the levels of achievement and interaction of his or her peers.

The use of assistive technology enhances function and increases skills and opportunities. Though a student may be dependent upon a particular device in order to perform skillfully, denying the device denies the student an opportunity ever to achieve success at the level of his or her potential.

When is using assistive technology appropriate?

Assistive technology may be considered appropriate when it does any or all of the following things:

  • Enables an individual to perform functions that can be achieved by no other means
  • Enables an individual to approximate normal fluency, rate, or standards–a level of accomplishment which could not be achieved by any other means
  • Provides access for participation in programs or activities which otherwise would be closed to the individual
  • Increases endurance or ability to persevere and complete tasks that otherwise are too laborious to be attempted on a routine basis
  • Enables an individual to concentrate on learning or employment tasks, rather than mechanical tasks
  • Provides greater access to information
  • Supports normal social interactions with peers and adults
  • Supports participation in the least restrictive educational environment.


Assistive technology means any device which helps an individual with an impairment to perform tasks of daily living. There is a wide range of types of devices in assistive technology from low tech, homemade aids to computers and sophisticated electronic equipment. Assistive technology is one of the services which can be provided in a special education program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The requirements of IDEA say that students who need assistive technology are entitled to the aids and devices and the assistive technology services (e.g., evaluation for assistive technology and modification and maintenance of equipment) that are necessary for the student to benefit from a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).