Summarized by Cindy Perras, M.Ed., OCT
Educational Consultant, LDAO
So what is Assistive Technology?
The Ontario Teachers’ Federation (Teachers’ Gateway to Special Education ) defines assistive technology (AT) as any piece of technology that helps a student with or without a disability to increase or maintain his/her level of functioning. These often include laptops with specialized programs, like speech to text, text to speech, graphic organizers and word prediction software.
Essentially, AT compensates for a student's skills deficits, needs and/or area(s) of disability. The key to effective assistive technology is finding the right match between the AT tool, the learning disability (or disabilities) and the task. Finding the right tool may not be an easy task and may require a trial and error approach. Students with learning disabilities will most often require AT that assists with reading, language, organizational skills and processing information.
In addition to AT, some students with learning disabilities may also have physical or medical conditions that necessitate specialized adaptive equipment to access the curriculum and/or alternative program. Examples of adaptive technology include mobility devices (walkers, wheelchairs, etc.), FM and/or sound field systems (for students with hearing impairments), braillers or print enlargers (for students with visual impairments) and personal care items.
What Kinds of Assistive Technology Tools are Available?
Although assistive technology is commonly thought of as computers, hardware and software, there is actually a continuum of technology, ranging from “low tech” to “high tech”. The following list was compiled from the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) (2009), The National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation website, Gateway to Special Education:
Low-tech Assistive Technology
- Pencil grips
- Graph paper
- Highlighting pens
- Digital clocks
Mid to Hi-tech Assistive Technology
- Digital recorders
- Digital books
- Graphing calculators
- Electronic math worksheets
- Portable or adapted keyboards
- Mobile technology, e.g. tablets, iPods, iPads, smartphones, MP3 players, etc.
- Reading systems that utilize a computer, scanner, and software to “read” scanned book pages out loud, e.g. Kurzweil
- Speech recognition software that allows a computer to operate by speaking to it, e.g. Siri
- Speech recognition systems that turn oral language into written text, e.g. Dragon
- Software that predicts and edits words for students who struggle with spelling, e.g. WordQ
- “Talking” calculators that assist students with math challenges
- Mind mapping/outlining software
- Global Positioning System (GPS)
What Assistive Technology Can and Cannot Do
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) provides considerable information and resources for educators and parents on learning disabilities (see link under references). According to the NCLD:
Assistive technology can:
- Minimize the extent to which individuals with LDs need to ask for help (enabling them to be more independent learners)
- Improve the speed and accuracy of students’ work
- Reinforce effective classroom instruction and strengthen skill development of students with LDs
- Help students to 'fit in' with classroom learning and routines
- Motivate students with LDs to set high goals for themselves and to persevere
Assistive technology cannot:
- Compensate for ineffective teaching
- Make a learning disability go away
- Be expected to provide the same benefits to different users
- Automatically promote positive attitudes toward learning
It is important for educators to keep in mind that when it comes to AT, “one size does not fit all” – to reiterate, there needs to be a match between the student’s learning disability, the task and the assistive technology tool.
What Types of AT Tools are Helpful for Students with LDs?
Many AT tools are now available on the Internet, through organizations that focus on providing resources to support students with learning disabilities, such as LD@school, NCLD, GreatSchools™, etc. The following websites provide some tools and online resources:
How to Access AT Recommended Through an Assessment
Students with learning disabilities may require assistive and/or adaptive technology to access the curriculum and/or alternate learning expectations. In Ontario, the Ministry of Education, through the Special Equipment Amount (SEA), provides funding to school boards to assist with the cost of specialized equipment for students with special needs, when the equipment has been recommended by a qualified professional.
A Note on Assistive Technology and Mental Health/Well-Being
According to the NCLD, a sometimes overlooked benefit of AT is that it may assist in reducing the enormous stress that is often experienced by students with LDs. Struggling to stay current with assignments, requiring assistance from teachers, peer mentors, tutors and parents, coupled with the frustration of not being in control can (and often does) contribute to feelings of helplessness and negatively impacts self-confidence and self-worth. Assistive technology can be very effective in boosting students' positive self-image and helping to empower them to compensate for specific disability-related limitations.
Integra is an accredited Children's Mental Health Centre located in Toronto, Canada, dedicated to helping children and adolescents who experience social, emotional and behavioural problems related to their learning disabilities.
Dr. Todd Cunningham, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto/OISE, specializing in AT, and his team of graduate students have created the website ATSelect.org, which consists of a series of articles, each one describing a particular type of AT, its main features, and as much relevant, up-to-date research as they could find. These articles will help you understand what each AT is, and if that AT is appropriate for your situation.
Great Schools™. Accessed from: http://www.ncld.org/students-disabilities/assistive-technology-education
Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. Accessed from: http://ldac-acta.ca
Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. Accessed from http://www.ldao.ca
National Center for Learning Disabilities. Accessed from: http://www.ncld.org/students-disabilities/assistive-technology-education
Ontario Teachers’ Federation: Teachers’ Gateway to Special Education.Accessed from: http://www.teachspeced.ca/assistive-technology
 The Special Education Gateway website was developed by the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education. The site is intended to provide elementary and secondary teachers in Ontario with the resources and strategies to support the learning of students with special education needs, including students with learning disabilities.