Assistive Technologies & Approaches
for Special Needs Students
By: Deidra McDowell
• IEP: Individualized Education Plans
• Kids with delayed skills or other disabilities might be eligible for special services that
provide individualized education programs in public schools, free of charge to families.
Understanding how to access these services can help parents be effective advocates for
• A child who has difficulty learning and functioning and has been identified as a special
needs student is the perfect candidate for an IEP.
• Kids struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be taught in
a special way, for reasons such as:
•attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
•speech or language impairment
• In most cases, the services and goals outlined in an IEP can be provided in a
standard school environment. This can be done in the regular classroom (for
example, a reading teacher helping a small group of children who need extra
assistance while the other kids in the class work on reading with the regular
teacher) or in a special resource room in the regular school. The resource room
can serve a group of kids with similar needs who are brought together for help.
• The referral process generally begins when a teacher, parent, or doctor is concerned
that a child may be having trouble in the classroom, and the teacher notifies the school
counselor or psychologist.
• To determine eligibility, a multidisciplinary team of professionals will evaluate the child
based on their observations; the child's performance on standardized tests; and daily
work such as tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework.
• The next step is an IEP meeting at which the team and parents decide what will go into
the plan. In addition to the evaluation team, a regular teacher should be present to
offer suggestions about how the plan can help the child's progress in the standard
• Specific timelines ensure that the development of an IEP moves from referral to
providing services as quickly as possible. Be sure to ask about this timeframe and
get a copy of your parents' rights when your child is referred. These guidelines
(sometimes called procedural safeguards) outline your rights as a parent to control
what happens to your child during each step of the process.
• The IEP process is complex, but it's also an effective way to address how your child
learns and functions. If you have concerns, don't hesitate to ask questions about
the evaluation findings or the goals recommended by the team. You know your
child best and should play a central role in creating a learning plan tailored to his
or her specific needs.
What is “Assistive Technology?”
Assistive Technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive,
and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the
process used in selecting, locating, and using them. Assistive Technology
promotes greater independence by enabling people to perform tasks that
they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty
accomplishing, by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of
interacting with, the technology needed to accomplish such tasks.
Choosing Assistive Technology
• Identifying AT solutions to support a child’s
participation is best done as a team process.
By first examining the interests, abilities and
needs of a child and the specific components
of the activity where support for participation
is indicated, AT solutions can be planned and
implemented and the impact can be observed
immediately. A six-step process defined below
is one example of a framework for AT decision
making for young children.
Choosing Assistive Technology
• Step 1: Collect child and family information. Begin the discussion about the child’s strengths,
abilities, preferences and needs. What strategies have been found to work best?
• Step 2: Identify activities for participation. Discuss the various activities within the
environments that a child encounters throughout the day. What is preventing him/her from
• Step 3: What can be observed that indicates the intervention is successful? What is his/her
current level of participation and what observable behaviors will reflect an increase in
independent interactions? What changes (e.g., number of initiations, expression attempts,
responses, reactions, etc.) will you look for?
• Step 4: Brainstorm AT solutions. With the activity and desired outcomes established, you are
now ready to discuss possible solutions with educators, family members, physical therapist,
and other people with whom the child interacts on a weekly basis. Do the child’s needs
include supports for movement, communication and/or use of materials? Start with what is
available in the environment (what other children use) and consider adaptations to those
materials. A range of options that address specific support areas should be considered. *The
TAM Technology Fan, a new resource focused on identifying AT items for young children with
disabilities, helps to facilitate this step. See below for more information.
• Step 5: Try it out. Determine when the AT intervention will begin and create an observation
plan to record how the child participates with the AT supports.
• Step 6: Identify what worked. Selecting AT interventions is a continuous learning opportunity.
Reflect on your plan and discuss what worked. What didn’t work? What should be done
differently? Make modifications as needed and try again. Only by trying the AT can certain
factors such as technology placement, amount of force, mounting, number of choices, etc. be
determined and adjusted.
Types of Technology
• University of Washington (Seattle, WA) hosts a program called “DO IT Scholars”
• DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of
individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and
technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S.
Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and
Education at the University of Washington.
• “DO IT Scholars” use the following Assistive Technology:
Screen enlargement software:
Romeo Attache Pro—Enabling Technologies
Scanner and software:
Open Book—Freedom Scientific
Kurzweil 1000—Kurzweil Educational Systems
Screen reading software:
Types of Technology Continued
Alternative entry options:
Mouth stick—various manufacturers
Sip and Puff Switch—Enabling Devices
Joystick, trackball—various manufacturers
HeadMaster—Prentke Romich Company
Switch Click USB—AbleNet
WiViK—Prentke Romich Company
Scanners and software:
Kurzweil 3000—Kurzweil Educational Systems
Skills enhancement software:
Word processing with spelling and grammar checking—various manufacturers
Write Out Loud—Don Johnston
Visual alternative to system sounds for Mac—Apple
Visual alternative to system sounds for Windows—Microsoft
Types of Technology Continued
• www.assistivetech.net is a website that
provides access to information on AT devices
and services as well as other community
resources for people with disabilities and the
AT for Mild Disabilities
• "No-technology" or "no-tech" refers to any
assistive device that is not electronic.
• "Low-technology" or "low-tech" devices are
electronic but do not include highly sophisticated
computer components, such as an electronic
voice-recording device or a "talking watch.“
• "High-technology" or "high-tech" devices utilize
complex, multifunction technology and usually
include a computer and associated software.
AT for Mild Disabilities
Six areas of instruction in which AT can assist students:
ORGANIZATION: Low-tech solutions include teaching students to organize their thoughts or work using flow-charting, task
analysis, webbing, and outlining. These strategies can also be accomplished using high-tech, graphic, software-based organizers to
assist students in developing and structuring ideas. Such graphic organizers allow students to manipulate and reconfigure
brainstormed ideas and color code and group those ideas in ways that visually represent their thoughts. Another high-tech
solution might be the outline function of word processing software, which lets students set out major ideas or topics and then
add subcategories of information. Using the Internet, local area networks, or LCD projection systems enables students and their
teachers to collaborate, give feedback, and modify these applications either as a group or individually at different times.
NOTE TAKING: A simple, no-tech approach to note taking is for the teacher to provide copies of structured outlines in which
students fill in information. Low- and high-tech methods include:
* Videotaping class sessions for visual learners or those who are unable to attend class
for extended periods of time.
* Sending web-cam photography across the Internet to allow students to see and hear
what is happening in class (for students who are unable to attend class).
* Sending class notes or presentations to students via e-mail.
* Translating print-based notes to voice by using optical character recognition (OCR)
software with a voice synthesizer.
* Using notebook computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), or portable word
processing keyboards to help students with the mechanics of note taking.
AT for Mild Disabilities
WRITING: Word processing may be the most important application of assistive technology for
students with mild disabilities. Writing barriers for students with mild disabilities include
* Mechanics: spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
* Process: generating ideas, organizing, drafting, editing, revising, and producing a
neat, clear final copy.
* Motivation: interest in writing.
Grammar and spell-checkers, dictionaries, and thesaurus programs assist in the mechanics of writing. Macros are available that will insert an
entire phrase with the touch of a single key. Word prediction software helps students recall or spell words. During the writing process, word
processors allow teachers to make suggestions on the student's disk. If computers are networked, students can read each other's work and
make recommendations for revision. Computer editing also reduces or eliminates problems such as multiple erasures, torn papers, and poor
handwriting. The final copy is neat and legible. Motivation is often increased through the desktop publishing and multimedia capabilities
of computers. A variety of fonts and styles allow students to customize their writing and
highlight important features. Graphic images, drawings, video, and audio can provide interest or highlight ideas. Multimedia gives the student
the means and the motivation to generate new and more complex ideas. For early writers, there are programs that allow students to write
with pictures or symbols as well as text. In some of these programs, the student selects a series of pictures to represent an idea, then the
pictures are transformed to words that can be read by a synthesizer and then edited.
ACADEMIC PRODUCTIVITY: Tools that assist productivity can be hardware-based, software-based, or both. Calculators, for example, can be
separate, multifunction devices or part of a computer's software. Spreadsheets, databases, and graphics software enhance productivity in
calculating, categorizing, grouping, and predicting events. The Internet, computers, and PDAs can also aid productivity in note taking,
obtaining assignments, accessing reference material and help from experts, and communicating with peers. Instead of relying on the
telephone, students are increasingly sharing documents, using instant messaging, and transferring documents to each other as e-mail
AT for Mild Disabilities
ACCESS TO REFERENCE AND GENERAL EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS: Access to the general education curriculum is emphasized by
IDEA and includes the ability to obtain materials as well as the ability to understand and use them. Many students with mild
disabilities have difficulty gathering and synthesizing information for their academic work. In this arena, Internet communications,
multimedia, and universal design are providing new learning tools. Internet communications can transport students beyond their
physical environments, allowing them to interact with people far away and engage in interactive learning experiences. This is
particularly appropriate for individuals who are easily distracted when going to new and busy environments such as the library,
who are poorly motivated, or who have difficulty with reading or writing. Students can establish "CompuPals" via e-mail or instant
messaging with other students, which often motivates them to generate more text and thus gain more experience in writing.
Students can also access electronic multimedia encyclopedias, library references, and online publications. However, these
experiences should be structured, because it is easy to get distracted or lost as opportunities are explored. Multimedia tools are
another way in which information can be made accessible to students. Multimedia use of text, speech, graphics, pictures, audio,
and video in reference- based software is especially effective in meeting the heterogeneous learning needs of students with mild
disabilities. While a picture can be worth a thousand words to one student, audio or text-based descriptive video or graphic
supports may help another student focus on the most important features of the materials. Used in conjunction with assistive
technology, e-books can use the power of multimedia to motivate students to read. They include high-interest stories: the
computer reads each page of the story aloud, highlighting the words as they are read. Fonts and colors can be changed to reduce
distraction. Additional clicks of the mouse result in pronunciation of syllables and a definition of the word. When the student
clicks on a picture, a label appears. A verbal pronunciation of the label is offered when the student clicks the mouse again. Word
definitions can be added by electronic dictionaries and thesaurus. These books are available in multiple languages, including
English and Spanish, so students can read in their native language while being exposed to a second language.
The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) promotes the concept of universal design (Rose & Meyer, 2000), which asserts
that alternatives integrated in the general curriculum can provide access to all students, including a range of backgrounds,
learning styles, or abilities. Providing material in digital form, which can easily be translated, modified, or presented in different
ways, can often attain the goal of universal design.
AT for Mild Disabilities
A vast array of application program software is available
for instructing students through tutorials, drill and
practice, problem solving, and simulations. Many of the
assistive technologies described previously can be
combined with instructional programs to develop and
improve cognitive, reading, and problem-solving skills.
Prompting and scheduling through PDAs, pagers, and
Internet software also can assist students in remembering
assignments or important tasks. They can help students
to follow directions or a sequence of events, establish to-
do lists, take and retrieve notes, check spelling or look up
words in a dictionary.
Assistive Listening Devices
• Hearing assistive technology systems (HATS)
are devices that can help you function better
in your day-to-day communication situations.
HATS can be used with or without hearing aids
or cochlear implants to make hearing easier—
and thereby reduce stress and fatigue.
Hearing aids + HATS = better listening and
Type of HATS
• Telephone amplifying devices for cordless,
cell, digital, and wired phones
• Amplified answering machines
• Amplified telephones with different frequency
• Loud doorbells
• Wake-up alarms (loud bell or vibrating clock)
• GATE: The Global Assistive Technology Encyclopedia has
been created by AbilityNet, the UK's largest provider of
advice and information on all aspects of Access technology.
• Its' purpose is to provide live and up to date information on
everything to do with Assistive Technology. It's a showcase
of both products and useful sources of information.
• The wiki is moderated and all comments and opinions are
those of the individual contributor and not necessarily
those of AbilityNet.
Type of Products
• Touchscreens- can be used as assistive devices by users who lack skills to use classic
computer equipment. With touchscreens, use of devices becomes more natural,
intuitive, and user-friendly.
• A touch screen kit includes a touch screen panel, a controller, and a software driver. The
touch screen panel is a clear panel attached externally to the monitor that plugs into a
serial or Universal Serial Bus (USB) port or a 'bus' card installed inside the computer. The
touch screen panel registers touch events and passes these signals to the controller. The
controller then processes the signals and sends the data to the processor. The software
driver translates touch events into mouse events. Drivers can be provided for both
Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Internal touch screen kits are available but
require professional installation because they must be installed inside the monitor.
• Microsoft Surface- The video illustrates the power of multitouch technology where you
can activate more than one area of the screen at a time.
Types of Products Continued
There are three types of touch screen technology:
• Resistive: A resistive touch screen panel is coated with a thin metallic electrically conductive and
resistive layer that causes a change in the electrical current which is registered as a touch event and
sent to the controller for processing. Resistive touch screen panels are generally more affordable
but offer only 75% clarity and the layer can be damaged by sharp objects. Resistive touch screen
panels are not affected by outside elements such as dust or water.
• Surface wave: Surface wave technology uses ultrasonic waves that pass over the touch screen
panel. When the panel is touched, a portion of the wave is absorbed. This change in the ultrasonic
waves registers the position of the touch event and sends this information to the controller for
processing. Surface wave touch screen panels are the most advanced of the three types, but they
can be damaged by outside elements.
• Capacitive: A capacitive touch screen panel is coated with a material that stores electrical charges.
When the panel is touched, a small amount of charge is drawn to the point of contact. Circuits
located at each corner of the panel measure the charge and send the information to the controller
for processing. Capacitive touch screen panels must be touched with a finger unlike resistive and
surface wave panels that can use fingers and stylus. Capacitive touch screens are not affected by
outside elements and have high clarity.
Georgia Project for Assistive
• The Georgia Project for Assistive Technology (GPAT), a unit
of the Georgia Department of Education, supports local
school systems in their efforts to provide assistive
technology devices and services to students with
disabilities. Funded since 1991, GPAT has focused on
building local assistive technology resources by providing
quality professional learning and technical support services.
• The mission of GPAT is to improve student achievement,
productivity, independence and inclusion by enhancing
educator knowledge of assistive technology and increasing
student access to appropriate assistive technology devices
• Georgia AHEAD is a highly visible statewide
organization of experts and advocates in the
field of postsecondary disability services that
promotes high professional and ethical
standards and serves as a primary training and
information resource to professionals in
postsecondary education and other agencies
that work with students with disabilities.