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Proficiency is Paramount

By:  Ms. Lee Baker, Advocacy Educator & Consultant

Students with learning disabilities benefit greatly from assistive technology (AT). AT tools and devices can enhance a student’s academic success by supporting reading, writing, math, note-taking and executive functioning skills. And the exciting news for students today is the surge in new technologies offering ever-expanding capabilities. Below are examples of the types of AT products that can support different learning challenges.

Challenges in the area of:

AT product will enhance:

Examples of AT products

Reading Comprehension, fluency, memory, study skills Free web download for eReader with study tools
    Text-to-Speech Programs
    Scan and Read Programs
    Hardware Devices
Writing Dysgraphia, physical disability, organizational processing, visual learning styles, memory issues Mind Mapping Tools
    Word Prediction
    Speech Recognition
Note-Taking Working memory, comprehension, and organizational skills Recording devices
Math Dyscalculia, dysgraphia, physical limitations, visual learning style Virtual Pencils
Executive Functioning Executive function skills, organization, working memory, task planning/prioritization, time management Organizers

Using AT can be beneficial even for very young students. “Many educators still hang on to the myth that introducing AT too early will give the student a crutch and prevent the student from mastering skills,” explains Erika Kluge Frake, AT Educator and Specialist and owner of THINK with Success. “If a young child is having trouble seeing the blackboard, it makes sense for him to get glasses. Or, to assist a child with cerebral palsy, we carry them when they are young and then introduce them to a walker so they gain independence. But we don’t just make the walker available. We teach that child how to use it while also continuing with physical therapy. It’s the same with AT products.”

There are strong arguments for introducing AT early. In most elementary schools, there is a shift in third grade from learning to read to reading to learn. This is when students begin reading to gain comprehension. When a student is struggling with reading and not achieving the same level of comprehension as their classmates, their self-esteem begins to drop. “By introducing AT in elementary school, students have the tools to be successful learners, thereby elevating their self-esteem,” says Frake.

Students who are familiar with AT as early as elementary school are at an advantage upon entering junior high school because they don’t have to master new technology tools at the same time they are also becoming accustomed to moving classes, having multiple teachers, and working on higher level curriculum with higher expectations for learning. Junior high school is also a time when students want desperately to not be any different from their peers. If using AT has become second nature to them in elementary school, it will be less of an issue when they hit junior high school.

It’s not just a matter of picking a new AT device or tool and starting to use it. Before deciding to use AT and selecting which AT product to use, a student needs to do preliminary investigation on a variety of AT-related issues. A good place to start is by learning how AT fits into K–12 public, private, parochial and home-school education. Wrightslaw is an outstanding source of reliable and comprehensive information about how AT fits into a student’s IEP, 504 Plan, or educational learning profile (sometimes used in private and parochial schools). Other considerations include:

Matching AT to the Student’s Needs

Matching the right AT product to a student’s learning challenge is essential. Experienced AT specialists will consider the student’s entire picture of learning styles, learning preferences, strengths, current challenges, and environments. Because certain language-related and processing disorders can be complex, it is helpful to have an AT specialist evaluate the student and recommend technology that will enhance a student’s educational experience rather than create a distraction.

Understanding AT Policy

It behooves students to do some research about the school’s policies around AT. Find out which AT tools and devices are acceptable for use at the school. Learn what policies the school has for using specific AT in the classroom, for homework, and for tests. Understand whether the school or the student is responsible for providing, purchasing, and paying for AT. Clarify the school’s policy about making the same AT device or tool accessible at school as well as at the student’s home. Be clear about whether the school or the student owns the AT. AT the end of this article are example of questions to present to the school.

Accommodating Computer System Requirements

Some AT can absorb a substantial amount of computer memory. Before selecting AT, become familiar with the system requirements for the AT and whether it serves Mac and/or PC. Make sure that installing AT won’t bog down your computer or compromise other operating systems.

Mastering Study Skills

AT alone is not the answer to academic success. AT products can compliment a student’s academic performance; however AT will not be the complete solution. A student must develop basic academic skills and then integrate AT with their study skills.  For example, a student who is asked to read a novel and write an essay needs to understand how to complete this assignment. This involves taking notes while reading the book, identifying themes, finding passages relating to those themes, recognizing character development, developing an essay topic, breaking down the essay into sections, writing an introduction and a conclusion, and so on. The student may very well rely on one or more AT products to complete these tasks, but the AT product alone isn’t a substitute for the mastery of study skills.

Anticipating Future AT Applications

Consider how the student’s progression through his K-12 years and transition to post-secondary education may influence and be affected by different AT products and tools. Plan ahead and anticipate as much as possible how AT will be used in different educational settings. For example, a student whose learning is aided by AT may want to use AT on high stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT. In order to be granted use of certain AT products on these tests, a student needs to demonstrate a history of use of the product and explain its importance as an accommodation. Students should spend time finding out what kinds of accommodations are available on these high stakes tests, and explore which AT products are acceptable for use on the tests. The availability and use of AT in high school can vary in a collegiate setting, so students should think about their options for AT once they move on to college.

Gaining Proficiency

Once a student selects the best AT product to meet his needs, it’s not just as simple as offering AT to the student and assuming he’ll start using it. He needs to invest time and patience in becoming proficient with its use, otherwise it will feel like another roadblock making the student’s work harder or longer to finish. Working with an AT specialist will expedite the student’s mastery of the AT product and enhance his ability to use the product, apply it to his particular advantage, and adapt it to his study skills and learning styles.

Incorporating Assistive Technology into a student’s academic environment allows the student to reach his true academic potential and demonstrate his true acquired knowledge,” comments Frake.

Questions to ask about school AT policies and procedures

  • What types of Assistive Technology devices and tools are most commonly used by students?
  • Does the school have personnel dedicated to coordinating AT products and services?
  • Does the school have AT labs? If so, how many? Where are they? What are their hours?
  • Do AT labs contain AT products that are responsive to my particular disability?
  • Are students permitted to take quizzes and exams independently in the AT lab?
  • What is the school’s policy and procedure for providing alternative print formats? Are they in a format that is compatible with my AT product(s)?
  • Are teachers provided training or information on the AT products their students are using?
  • Do you provide AT products and software for free? Or do you ask students to provide them for themselves?
  • Is your school a member of AccessTextNetwork (ATN)? BookShare? Learning Ally?