Assistive technology (AT) has the potential to enhance the quality of life for students with learning disabilities (LD) by providing them with a means to compensate for their difficulties, and highlight their abilities. Because students with learning problems have individual strengths, limitations, interests, and experiences, a technology tool that is be helpful in one situation or setting may be of little use under different circumstances.As a result, selecting the appropriate technology for a student with LD requires a careful analysis of the dynamic interaction between the individual, technology, task, and context.

Selecting the appropriate technology for a student with LD requires careful analysis of the interaction between (a) the individual; (b) the specific tasks or functions to be performed; (c) the technology; and (d) the contexts or settings in which the technology will be used.

The AT assessment process

Whether an AT assessment is sought from a public school or private source, it is important for parents to understand the critical elements for conducting an AT assessment. Although some universities and organizations offer training and certificates in AT assessment, no licenses or credentials are required. As is the case with any profession, some practitioners are better qualified than others. Therefore, in addition to investigating the qualifications of the person conducting the assessment (education, training, experience) the more you know about the key components of a quality assessment, the greater the likelihood the appropriate “technology match” will be found for your child. Let’s discuss the key elements of an AT evaluation. Also see our worksheet for matching AT tools to your child’s needs (PDF).

The individual student

It is important to consider the student’s strengths and weaknesses in regard to such areas as reading, writing/spelling, speaking, listening, math, memory, organization, and physical/motor ability. Examining these areas will help identify the specific areas of difficulty that need to be bypassed by using AT. Such examination will also help identify the child’s areas of strength and ability which an AT product may “capitalize on” in order to work around a specific difficulty. For example, a student who struggles with reading but who has good listening skills might benefit from the use of audio books. You can gather information about a child’s strengths and difficulties from several sources, including:

  • school records
  • prior diagnostic assessments (e.g., psycho-educational testing)
  • interviews with individuals who are familiar with the student (e.g., parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, and tutors)

Additional data may be obtained by conducting formal assessments (e.g., standardized tests) and informal diagnostic techniques (e.g., observations) that focus on the academic skill areas. A student being evaluated for technology use should participate as a key member of the technology evaluation team and be interviewed about her understanding of the nature of her learning difficulties, as well as her strengths, talents, and special abilities.

The potential effectiveness of any assistive technology tool also depends on the student’s prior experience with, and interest in, using technology. Consideration should also be given to the student’s technology experience and interest relative to the specific areas of difficulty (e.g., prior experience with/interest in a word processor to compensate for writing problems, or an OCR system for a reading difficulty), as well as the student’s general working knowledge of technology, and overall interest and comfort level. Such information is also needed to plan appropriate technology instruction and training.

The task to be performed

Another key factor in determining what AT tools might benefit a student is to pinpoint the specific task(s) she struggles with. For example, when it comes to writing an essay, she may construct sentences and tackle spelling with no problem, but she has trouble organizing and outlining the essay. In this case, a graphic organizer or outlining tool might help her plan and revise the “big picture” of her essay. In other words, not all AT tools for writing target the same skills or tasks. Knowing where a student struggles (and where she does not) are critical to choosing an appropriate AT tool.

Observation of student, technology, and task in action

Direct observation is the best technique for gathering information about a student’s use of a technology tool to compensate for an area of difficulty. Only by observing the individual while she is actively using the technology tool to perform a specific task can it be determined that the tool is appropriate for her. It may be necessary to collaborate with AT professionals who are trained to observe students using technology. Some AT manufacturers’ representatives will demonstrate specific technologies as well as provide opportunities for the student to try out specific products. (Keep in mind that a company representative may not be an objective observer of your child using the AT tool.) As the student experiments with a certain technology tool to perform tasks, the observer will want to note:

  • the student’s interest in and comfort level with the technology
  • the student’s ease in learning about and using the technology
  • the degree to which the technology taps into the student’s strengths
  • the extent to which the student is able to use the technology independently and troubleshoot as necessary
  • the effectiveness of the technology in compensating for specific difficulties as compared to alternative strategies

The assistive technology tool

There are a number of factors specific to the technology itself that should be considered in the selection process. Particular attention should be given to the technology’s effectiveness in accomplishing its primary compensatory purpose. For example, does a speech recognition system accurately convert the student’s oral language to written text and improve the quality of the written product?  

Contexts of interaction

Students with learning difficulties must function in a variety of settings. Technology that is appropriate in one setting may be quite inappropriate in another. Therefore, it is important to consider the selection of technology relative to all settings where she is likely to use the tool (e.g., school, home, work, social, and recreational or leisure environments). The fact that a technology successfully compensates for a learning problem in one setting does not mean that it will be effective in another. For example, a speech recognition system may work quite effectively at home where the student can work alone. However, the use of the technology in a classroom setting, where there is considerable extraneous noise, may interfere with the technology’s operation.

Similarly, the social appropriateness of AT may change from one setting to another. For instance, using a calculator to compensate for a math disability in a classroom setting may blend in nicely, without any negative social ramifications. However, using a calculator to keep score of a board game outside of school may appear inappropriate to peers. 

The settings in which the technology will be used may change over time. For example, a high school student who uses a portable word processor to take notes in the classroom may later find the same technology useful in a college lecture hall or during meetings on the job. Therefore, some consideration should be given to projecting the appropriateness of the technology for the various settings where you expect it may be used over the course of one, two, three, or more years.

Assistive technology: Rights under IDEA

Under IDEA, AT must be considered for children with disabilities if it is needed to receive a “free and appropriate public education.” It is the school district’s responsibility to help select and acquire the technology, as well as provided training to the student in the use of the technology, and, at no cost to parents. This is done on a case-by-case basis. It is the IEP team (including parents and students) that makes a determination as to the necessity of AT. It is also the IEP team, (or any individual member) that initiates a request for an AT assessment. The assessment may be performed by school district personnel, or an outside consultant working in conjunction with the IEP team. Parents should know that at present, there are no standard policies, procedures or practices among school districts for conducting AT assessments. This is all the more reason for parents to be informed as to the critical elements in conducting a quality AT assessment.

Assessment for today and tomorrow

Selecting an appropriate AT tool for a student requires parents, educators, and other professionals to take a comprehensive view, carefully analyzing the interaction between the student, the technology, the tasks to be performed, and the settings where it will be used. Keep in mind that AT assessment is an on-going process, and it is critical to periodically re-evaluate the match even after a technology tool has been selected. This will help ensure that the student receives the maximum benefit from AT and is able to reach her full potential.

This article is based on the Functional Evaluation for Assistive Technology (Raskind & Bryant, 2002).


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Reviewed February 2010

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