An Overview of Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities
Assistive technology (AT) is a term that refers to the tools that aid people with disabilities as they perform daily activities and tasks.
Assistive technology comes in many different forms. Some AT devices, such as manual wheelchairs or white canes for people who are visually-impaired, are low-tech devices. These products do not necessarily have electronic components, embedded sensors, or computer systems.
Many modern assistive tools, especially those that students with disabilities use in the classroom, do rely on technology. Some sensors may even monitor the wearer's condition and look for health or illness indicators.
The digital age has brought about many new types of assistive technology allowing students with disabilities to participate in classroom activities that may otherwise require specialized instruction. Those who are in a mainstream classroom can also benefit. Studies have shown that as many as one in five children has a learning disability.
Benefits of Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Assistive technology can benefit students regardless of whether or not they have a disability themselves These benefits manifest in a variety of ways:
- Students who have access to assistive technology can function independently. Independence can help them achieve educational goals, but it can also bring about a stronger sense of self-reliance and confidence.
- Teachers can include students with disabilities in classroom activities and lesson plans.
- When students learn to use digital tools and technology to overcome a disability, they are able to refer back to the skills developed throughout the rest of their life.
- Some tools can help students bypass areas of difficulty. For example, a student with dyslexia can use audiobooks or speech-to-text software to do their work.
Studies have shown that students with disabilities who spend at least 80% of their time in a mainstream classroom perform better than those who spend more time in a segregated classroom. Assistive technology helps students spend more time in mainstream classrooms.
Types of Assistive Technology for Students
There are different types of assistive technology. The advantage of specialized tools is that educators can use them to meet the specific needs of each student with disabilities.
Here are some examples of the possibilities that assistive technology provides to students.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools are any devices or programs that allow students to communicate by means other than speaking. These tools allow students to participate in classroom activities and interact with their teachers and peers.
Text-to-speech readers allow students to type instead of verbalizing their thoughts. These readers can be stand-alone text-to-speech devices or applications that a student can use on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
Younger students who cannot type words can use applications on tablets or smartphones that have symbols that they can point to. In some cases, teachers can use low-tech ACC tools such as pages with the symbols that the student can physically point to in order to convey information.
Learning and Cognition
Assistive technology tools that help with learning and cognition are for students with cognitive or learning disabilities. These tools can prove useful for students with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
An example of a learning and cognition tool could be an alternative keyboard. This application could allow a student to make a customized keyboard that fits their needs and helps them overcome their disabilities.
Such typing tools can include word prediction software that allows students to select a predicted word once the artificial intelligence algorithm is able to understand what they are typing. Some programs may offer a list of possible words from which students can choose.
Proofreading programs can help students who struggle with typing. The program will alert them to errors and offer suggestions for correcting the problem.
Organization and Memory
Some assistive tech tools help students who need assistance organizing their work or remembering tasks and assignments.
Graphic organizers, for example, can help students organize notes and information. With these applications and programs, students can “dump” information, notes, and data onto their laptop or tablet. The software will help them organize this info based on keywords, subject, and other information.
Some educators do not like smartphones in their classrooms. However, for certain students with disabilities, a smartphone may be vital. The student can use a scheduling app to set reminders about specific tasks that they have to do. When using such tools, teachers can set rules for smartphone use in the classroom, so that students can use these assistive technologies without getting distracted by other apps.
Data managers can help students collect all their information in one place. They will always be able to store and retrieve data from this centralized location. They can even connect different devices, such as classroom devices, their home computer, and their smartphone, to these data management tools so that their information is always at their fingertips.
Some phone providers, such as Verizon, offer phone plans specifically designed for children so that parents and teachers can manage phone use while still providing the student access to important assistive tools.
Sensory and Stimulus
Some children encounter barriers because they have sensory-related disabilities. Children with autism and hearing impairments often face issues of this variety in the classroom.
Those who are hard of hearing can use personal FM transmitters. These devices allow the listener to place an earpiece directly in their ear so that they can hear the speaker, such as a teacher.
Another tool is a variable-speed tape recorder. The student can record what is being said any play it back later with headphones in a quieter environment.
Students in need of stimulation can use low-tech tools such as fidget spinners, which can block out external stimuli so that they can focus on one thing.
Tips to Incorporate Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Assistive technology represents one set of tools that teachers can use to lower the achievement gap for students with disabilities. Here are a couple of tips for those considering approaching assistive technology integration in their own classrooms:
- Teachers need to teach their students how to use the technology, and they may need to troubleshoot in the classroom when the assistive technology stops working. Therefore, the first step for many teachers is learning how to use the assistive tools themselves and then creating a lesson plan to teach students how to use it.
- There are many assistive technology options available. The positive aspect of having many different tools to choose from is that you can find something that fits each student's exact needs. The challenge is clearly defining those needs and selecting assistive technologies that meet the specific needs rather than general needs.
- Students need regular access to assistive technology. Teachers need to choose tools that students can use in the classroom and, if needed, at home. If students do not have access to the tools regularly, then they may not produce the desired results. Tablets and smartphones, even for younger students, can provide easy access to applications that provide assistive technology.
- Teachers can rely on certain types of technology, such as wearable devices, that give students access to the necessary tools without exposing them to the potential distractions of a full smartphone or tablet. Wearable devices may be an option for younger students who may not be able to carry a larger device with them throughout the entire day.
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