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Matching assistive technology tools to individual needs

To be helpful and effective, assistive technology tools must meet each child's needs, tasks, and settings.

AT Assessment Process
AT Assessment Process

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

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.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.