Getting Started with Assistive Technology

Content Provided By: Penny Reed, Ph.D., Director of the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative

 Exactly what is assistive technology? It is anything that can help a person with a disability do something s/he cannot do or help do it better than s/he can without the device. Assistive technology can be an extension on a light switch that allows a child in a wheelchair to turn on the light. It can be the wheelchair. It can be a sound system that makes it easier to hear what the teacher is saying. It can be a pencil grip that helps a child better grasp a pencil. It can be software that does something special such as speak the words printed on the screen for someone who cannot read the print. It can be a clipboard that holds down a piece of paper that helps a child write more legibly. It can be any one of thousands of items that help individuals with all sorts of disabilities and challenges.

Sometimes it is easier to think about what assistive technology is not. It is not a person. A person is never assistive technology. It is not a strategy. It is not a method. It is not a shorter assignment. It is not a different location in the classroom. These are all important to consider for a child with a disability, but they are not assistive technology.

The legal definition of assistive technology first appeared in the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act). It was also defined in the 1990 reauthorization of IDEA. The definition in IDEA as amended is the same as the definition in the Tech Act, except the word “Individuals” is changed to “children”. The definition of assistive technology in IDEA 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 know about assistive technology because it can be a powerful tool for people with disabilities, allowing many people to do things they could not do without it. Appropriate assistive technology compensates for all types of motor limitations, difficulties with vision or hearing, or less obvious problems with reading, writing, or memory. The only thing assistive technology cannot do is help your child to do something that he is not developmentally or cognitively ready to do. For instance, someone could program wonderful, appropriate messages in an augmentative communication device, but if your child doesn’t understand those messages, doesn’t have a desire to use them, or doesn’t activate the device, it won’t help him communicate. Assistive technology is most appropriate when a child wants to complete a task, tries to do it, but is unsuccessful because of a physical or sensory limitation. This is where assistive technology makes a significant difference.

The range and number of items considered assistive technology is staggering. The Abledata Database, a national database of information on assistive technology, now includes over 23,000 entries. These does not include all of the simple, easy-to-make devices or other items not designed specifically as assistive technology, but that work that way. One example is the talking picture frames found in department and specialty stores that frame a photo and play a personalized, recorded message. Using pictures or symbols in the frame with a prerecorded message describing the symbol (such as “I want to go outside.”), these talking picture frames become an inexpensive voice output communication device for someone whose speech is limited or not easily understood.

To understand this vast array of devices, it helps to think of the functional tasks the assistive technology is used to accomplish. There is assistive technology to help with spoken communication, written communication, mobility, seeing, reading, eating, feeding, hearing, dressing, and playing. For all of these tasks, and myriad more, there is a variety of assistive technology ranging from very simple “low” or “no” tech items to “higher” tech, computer-based devices. There are assistive technology applications for all disabilities, all ages, and all abilities. In addition, new assistive technology is being developed every day.

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Looking for more information on Assistive Technology and Individualized Service Plans?

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA)
(877) 687-2842 (877) 687-2842

Alliance for Technology Access
(707) 778-3011 (707) 778-3011

National Assistive Technology Technical Assistance Partnership (NATTAP)
(703) 524-6686 (703) 524-6686 (AT resources)