There are many assistive technology (AT) products available, and new tools are frequently released on the market. The first step to narrowing down your search for appropriate AT tools is to analyze several factors: your child’s individual needs, the particular task(s) she must accomplish, the AT tools that address her challenges and the settings where she will use the technology. Once you have identified these key factors, you will want to focus on the quality, usability and reliability of the AT tools themselves. Here’s how to be a savvy consumer.
Using the AT tool in different settings
AT can help a child with a learning disability function better at school as well as in other settings such as home, work, social gatherings and recreational events. Here are some questions to consider:
- In what settings will the AT tool be used (e.g., home, school, work and/or social settings)? The right technology in one setting may be entirely wrong in another. Think about where she’ll use it, how it will be stored and if you have the right furniture and electrical/electronic support for it. If your child will use the AT tool at school, the same considerations would apply to the classroom.
- If the AT tool will be used in more than one place, how portable is it? Fortunately, hand-held, pocket-sized and mobile tools are often as useful as larger systems. A pocket-sized spell checker may work just as well as a computer with a spell-check program, and it’s much easier to carry around.
Product usability and reliability
As with any device or piece of equipment, you will want to know how user-friendly and reliable an AT tool is before you invest in it. Here are some questions to ask about a product’s reliability, usability and quality:
- How easy is it to learn about and operate? How user-friendly is the AT tool? Instructions should be brief and easy to read. Commands for operating should be clear and simple. Directions should include a logical, step-by-step process for setting up and installing the technology, basic and advanced operating instructions and tips for what to do when things go wrong.
- What is the quality of its visual display and/or auditory output (if applicable)? Make sure the visual display and audio output are clear and easy for your child to see or hear.
- How reliable is it? Ask past and present users how well the product holds up. Does it always seem to be breaking down or need frequent repairs? You may find it helpful to have a local technical-support system of people who are familiar with your child’s AT tool or a similar one. This might include other parents, local support groups, teachers, technical support staff at your child’s school and tutors. An Internet search of customer reviews may also help answer your questions.
- Does it need to work with other technologies? Make sure the AT product is compatible with related technologies. For example, software designed to work on a personal computer may not operate on a Mac at home or in the classroom. Also be sure any accessory items, such as a microphone, are available. Also consider the AT product’s compatibility with the Internet; for example, does a text-to-speech tool read aloud certain Web sites?
- What technical support is available? Even with the best instructions, you might need technical support. Select products that offer online and toll-free support (1-800 numbers), readily available field representatives and convenient service locations. Also check the length, cost and limitations of product warranties.
Try before you buy
Before you select an AT tool, learn all you can about the products available. Have your child try out any AT tool or device you’re considering purchasing. She’s the one who will use – or not use – the technology. The “perfect” item can’t help her if she refuses to use it! Here is a list of resources to assist you in the selection process:
Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) can help you find the nearest place in your area to preview software. To keep AT costs down, use readily available resources such as those listed below to access the technology or just try it out.
Community Technology Center’s Network (CTCNet) is composed of independent, not-for-profit community-based technology centers providing free or low-cost access to computers and related technology.
Some community colleges have assistive technology centers where you and your child may be able to try out different types of AT tools (often geared for older students).
Your child’s school may have AT tools available to try out. Even if your child’s school does not provide and pay for your child’s AT, don’t hesitate to use it as a resource before you purchase AT tools for your child.
Some software publishers have Web sites that offer demonstration versions. Other publishers offer fully operable programs for a 30-day trial. Check if free-trial offers are available for the products you’re interested in.
You may also meet with representatives from AT manufacturers when they exhibit at conferences hosted by learning disability organizations (such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America and the International Dyslexia Association).
Reviewed February 2010