Assistive technology 101

If you have ever used a smart phone, you have probably experienced assistive technology. For example, when your hands are full and you can’t look at the screen, you can use audio and voice dictation to read and respond to texts. Or when you’re trying to find some new clothes and type “corgi shorts” instead of “cargo shorts,” the auto-correct feature will probably correct the error automatically. (If it doesn’t, you might end up with some pretty hilarious results.) These features and others like them may be helpful to you at times, but for some people with disabilities, they are essential.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that assistive technology needs be considered for students with disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 7.3 million children and young adults, ages 3–21, who received special education services under the act in the 2019–2020 school year. That is around 14% of all students attending public schools! This is potentially a lot of students who will need assistive technology in your classroom.

Accessibility, accommodations, and assistive technology, oh my!

There are a lot of terms related to students with disabilities that sound very similar, but they are not the same.

“Accessibility” refers to ensuring something is usable by as many people as possible, including those with disabilities. One example of accessibility is when alternative text descriptions are provided for images so that the content is still available for people who are unable to see them. It’s important for webpages and applications to be accessible so that they will work properly with assistive technology. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines explain how to make webpages and applications more accessible for people with disabilities.

There were 7.3 million children and young adults, ages 3–21, who received special education services under the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] in the 2019–2020 school year.

As an educator, you have probably also heard the term “accommodations,” especially when it comes to assessments. Accommodations are the tools or changes that can be applied to remove barriers for students with disabilities. For example, assistive technology tools like text-to-speech and screen readers are accommodations in MAP® Growth™. (Check out our accessibility and accommodations FAQ for more information on how our assessments meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

“Assistive technology,” often shortened to AT, can be many different things. The IDEA defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”

Types of assistive technology

AT can be categorized as low-, mid-, or high-tech.

  • Low-tech AT are simple devices that are prevalent in most classrooms. One example of low-tech AT is ear plugs. These may help some students focus or stay calm in situations they find overstimulating. Other examples of low-tech AT are manipulatives; pencil grips; high-contrast lined paper; sensory objects, like fidgets; highlighters; and picture dictionaries.
  • Mid-tech AT are devices that are slightly more complex and may require batteries to use. A simple switch is an example of mid-tech AT. A simple switch often looks like a button that a person can press with their hand, head, foot, or another area that they have control over. When pressed, the switch activates whatever it has been connected to. This could be an adapted game, communication device, or computer. Other mid-tech AT examples are calculators, audio books, and alternative mouses or keyboards.
  • High-tech AT devices are often digital, like software, computers, or tablets. Powered wheelchairs and more complex switches that can be controlled with air called sip-and-puff devices can also be considered high-tech AT. Other examples include text-to-speech software; screen reader software; refreshable braille devices; and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps.

A common misunderstanding: Text-to-speech and screen readers are the same thing

Two assistive technologies that often confuse people are text-to-speech and screen readers. They are not the same. While there are some similarities, these two assistive technology tools provide different information and assist people with different disabilities.

Text-to-speech software reads the text that is displayed onscreen and nothing more. Students who have print disabilities that impact their ability to read may use this. There are usually options for a student to use their mouse to click on text they want to be read aloud, for example, and the text is often highlighted onscreen.

[S]tudents should always have access to the assistive technology they need and prefer, but sometimes that isn’t possible. At those times, providing instruction and allowing time for familiarization is essential.

Compare that to screen reader software that is designed for students who are blind. Screen reader software reads the text onscreen along with image descriptions, if they are included in the content. They also provide information that is essential to non-visual users, such as what application they are in; what kind of element they are on (like a button, link, or edit field); and whether content is a heading, like the ones in this article designed to help the user parse the text. All navigation is done with the keyboard, and there are many different keyboard commands a student must know to be proficient in using a screen reader.

It’s important to understand the difference between these two assistive technologies in particular because having the wrong assistive technology will interfere with a student’s ability to access material in your classroom. If you have concerns about the type of assistive technology being offered to your students, reach out to their case manager and refer to their individual education plan.

Get familiar with assistive technologies—and student preferences

As you were reading through the different kinds of AT, you may not have been familiar with each of the examples, especially some of the high-tech ones. By design, AT devices are customized to meet the needs of a person with a disability. It would be difficult to be familiar with all AT, even if you work in the accessibility field.

The same can be said for students who use AT. There can be a steep learning curve, particularly for the high-tech devices. For example, using the VoiceOver screen reader on a Mac compared to the JAWS screen reader on a Windows computer can be very different. Even though these are both screen reader software, there are different commands and different announcements when navigating. We cannot expect that just because a student knows how to use one, they will know how to use the other. This applies to a lot of different AT.

Think of it this way: If you have only driven an automatic car and then are suddenly asked to drive a stick shift, would you feel anxiety? Would you want time to practice before you got on the freeway? When students are unfamiliar with their AT, tasks will usually take them longer and possibly add stress. Even when students are familiar with different AT, they will likely have a preference.

Ideally, students should always have access to the assistive technology they need and prefer, but sometimes that isn’t possible. At those times, providing instruction and allowing time for familiarization is essential. For students who use AT on MAP Growth tests, a great way to do this is by having students take a practice test first. They can use it to become familiar with how the assessment will work with their specific AT. For students using screen readers, we have customized instructions that will explain the JAWS screen reader commands they will need.

AT is not one-size-fits-all

When students are trying to learn new AT while taking a test, we can’t be sure of what we’re assessing. Did they answer a question incorrectly because they didn’t know the answer, or did they answer incorrectly because they were unable to access the content?

Students with disabilities deserve the same opportunity to show what they know as their non-disabled peers. AT is intended to remove barriers and, with adequate training and practice, students can have greater access to opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom.

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