Posted by: Navy Teacher | March 30, 2012

Assistive Technology: Meeting Students’ Needs in Special Education

What exactly is ‘assistive technology’ (AT)?  I found it difficult to describe AT in one sentence or even one paragraph which is why I decided to research how AT is used to meet the needs of students in special education.  As an aspiring Social Studies teacher, I believe it is extremely important to understand how I can best meet the needs of my students and that certainly includes those students who have a 504 Plan or an Individual Education Program (IEP).

According to the Assistive Technology Act of 2004, an AT device is “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 functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”  It is important to understand the basis of why we need to provide AT devices to our students with disabilities.  As educators, it is our responsibility to consider whether the student requires AT devices and services.  Hopefully for the student’s sake, the IEP team is well versed in what AT devices and services are available and how they can best meet the needs of the students with disabilities.  Unfortunately, that is not the case in many school districts around the nation.

Educators must advocate for their students who have either a 504 Plan or an IEP.  What about students who have not been identified as having a learning disability?  I participated in a discussion yesterday about literacy.  The topic revolved around students who have difficulties in the area of literacy.  I believe it is an issue that is not identified in many students.  Some interesting points were brought up in our discussion.  I want to focus on one area because I feel it is an epidemic in American society.  Here is a hypothetical question for you:  Should a student who is five grade levels behind (i.e. reading on a 4th grade level in the 9th grade) be identified as a student with special needs?  My answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’ because he/she can benefit from AT (i.e. kindle, optical character recognition device, and text-to-speech).  He/she could also benefit from testing modifications (i.e. test read or extended time).  Another benefit would be intense reading instruction for the student.  Literacy is a significant risk factor that leads to an adolescent’s decision to drop out of school.

Another area that I feel deserves attention is students with visual impairments.  AT has been used for the visually impaired for more than two centuries.  I selected a peer-reviewed article that included a survey of teachers of students with visual impairment.  What I found was surprising; nearly 60% of the teachers surveyed lacked the confidence to teach AT to their students.  How can that problem be rectified?  The authors brought up a great point, it starts with teacher preparation.  It is not realistic to expect teachers to understand how to use a device if they have never been taught how to do so.

The research project solidified my perception that AT devices play critical roles in meeting the needs of our students.  It also reinforced how important it is for educators to advocate for their students to include students who have not yet been identified as having a learning disability.



  1. I suppose a key gray area here with your hypothetical student reading at 5 years below grade level is: Is this a student that has just fallen between the cracks and been passed on every year, compounding any literacy deficiency… or is there an actual, diagnosable (formal) learning disability. Either way, of course, the student should be exposed to AT and be getting some form of remedial services. Sadly, in my experience, many such remedial services are given be paraprofessionals who are minimally trained and certainly not reading/literacy specialists in dealing with severe literacy deficiencies. The biggest shame here is that this can even happen where students fall between the cracks and get passed on year after year until a crisis is finally encountered…

  2. Thank you for the reply. I have a hard time viewing a student who is reading five years below grade level as a student who has “fallen between the cracks.” I suppose that their may be students who fit that description but I’d venture to say that the majority of those students reading at such a low level have some sort of learning disability that contributes to their illiteracy.

    Of course I am not an expert by an stretch nor have I completed an in depth study on students who are reading five years below grade level. Educators must step up and advocate for those students who are reading at such a low level. We owe it to those students we are charged with teaching and mentoring!

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