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SETT Reading and Resources

PART I: What is Assistive Technology?

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What is Assistive Technology?
Why Would Anyone Use Technology?
What Areas Might Be Improved with Technology?
Supplemental readings list

Part II:   Selecting Assistive Technology


Here is the legal definition of assistive technology from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA) P.L. 101-1476:

20 U.S.C. 1401 Definitions

(a) (25) The term "assistive technology device" means 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 children with disabilities.

(a) (26) The term "assistive technology service" means any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.

Such term includes:

(A) the evaluation of the needs of a child with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child's customary environment;

(B) purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices by children with disabilities;

(C) selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing of assistive technology devices;

(D) coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;

(E) training or technical assistance for a child with a disability or, if appropriate, that child's family; and

(F) training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education and rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of children with disabilities.

Let's take a closer look at the IDEA.

The definitions on this page, frequently and incorrectly referred to as a new mandate incorporated into the IDEA, were actually an attempt to define what could be included and not be excluded under the provisions of the Act. The exact language of these definitions is also found in several other federal legislative acts designed to support assistive technology services to people with disabilities in some way.

The breadth of these definitions, which are generally considered to exclude nothing from consideration, has done a great deal to raise the level of awareness and concern regarding assistive technology devices and services among many groups across the United States. Though this is a positive thing in general, it has also stirred up a great deal of controversy among different factions as to what constitutes need and which assistive technology tools might best address those needs.

Less often attended to are IDEA's actual provisions regarding public education's responsibility for the provision of assistive technology devices and services for students with disabilities. There are some interesting points among these provisions that are not well understood or adhered to:

(1) The inability of educational institutions to presumptively deny access to the assistive technology needed by a student

(2) The necessity to consider a student's need for assistive technology on an individual case-by-case basis

(3) The provision of an assistive technology assessment in the customary environments in which the student is educated

(4) The linking of assistive technology devices and services to the goals and objectives identified in a student's Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which is reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit

(5) the requirement that assistive technology devices and services needed by a student be provided at no cost to the student's family, either directly or indirectly

It is likely that we will consider these provisions and their implications more broadly as we go about using the SETT (S=Student, E-Environments, T=Tasks, T=Tools) Framework.

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What is Assistive Technology?

A definition of assistive technology may be: a system of no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech tools and strategies that match a person's needs, abilities, and tasks.

Let's take a further look at the key word here: "system."

For our purposes, a "system" can be considered a simple, operational definition. We are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that no person uses the same communication or productivity tool for all tasks. Even online, where the written word is our primary form of communication, we are able to insert nuances into the way we choose and type our words. We may use symbols, e.g., :)and EMPHASIS and other such things to vary the weight of our comments. In case of an "emergency," we can always resort to the telephone!

Once I asked a person who worked regularly with a child I was about to meet if that child used environmental eye gaze for communicative purposes. I was told, "No. We are way beyond that!" That was interesting to me, for, verbose as I may be, environmental eye gaze is still a powerful part of my communication system, as are natural gestures and a variety of other strategies. As we go about developing effective communication and productivity systems, I believe it is important to keep in mind that only in rare situations are we seeking to replace one modality with another. To me, it is more appropriate to enhance what is already working for a student with additional tools and strategies and then provide opportunities for the student to pick and choose from the system the appropriate tools for the situation.

Here is another definition of assistive technology:

Assistive technology is the use of any device that will enable persons with disabilities to function to their maximum potential educationally, vocationally, socially, and in daily living activities. This includes both low and high technology applications. Low technology refers to any apparatus that is either non-electronically based or simple battery-operated items (e.g., adapted toys and tape recorders). High technology involves the use of sophisticated systems that are electronically based (e.g., power wheelchairs and environmental control systems).

—Diane Bristow and Gail Pickering, An Overview of Assistive Technology

This is an excellent definition that really fits with my own thoughts about assistive technology. Even without an identified disability, I require a system of technology (a computer, modem, and internet service provider) to participate in this discussion. However, caution should be used when applying this definition to an educational institution's responsibility to provide assistive technology for students particularly in the use of the word "maximum," for though I require a computer for this task, I do not require a Power Macintosh with 24 M. of memory, even though that is what I prefer! In addition, we must keep in mind that schools are only responsible for providing the technology required for the purpose of addressing goals specified in a student's IEP, a very good reason for working hard at developing appropriate, effective IEPs!

Also, in addition to low and high technology described by Diane and Gail, I would like us to add, "no tech" strategies, such as the eye gaze and gesture strategies I mentioned.

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Why Would Anyone Use Technology?

As a tool to assist in the accomplishment of tasks that would be difficult or impossible to complete without assistance using only the available resources in the available time.

Shouldn't all technology be considered "assistive," as it helps us do things that would be difficult or impossible to do in the available time without assistance? Consider the manual typewriters many of us used in college. I know that in my case at least many a paper was written at the last minute, often containing left-out words hastily inserted in pen as I crossed the campus to turn it in! This didn't seem to be unusual for students, as it was never questioned or counted against me in the grading of routine writing tasks. Now, however, with widespread use of more powerful word processors, I would find it unconscionable to turn in such a poor excuse for a paper. Pen marks? Never! Paragraphs left unchanged, even though my points would have been better presented in a different sequence? Never! Now I'd pick them up, drag them around, and make the paper the best it could be!

The tasks that a person with disabilities must use technology to do may or may not be different or more critical than my tasks, but the reason for using the technology is exactly the same!

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What Areas Might Be Improved with Technology?

  • Communication
  • Participation
  • Productivity
  • Mobility
  • Environmental Control
  • Academic Outcomes

Each of these categories might be broken down into a number of subcategories, but I think they are inclusive as they are and will promote discussion more readily than minute specificity. RESNA produces an excellent document entitled "Assistive Technology in the IEP" that further explores several of these areas, but in my opinion virtually everything can be subsumed under the categories listed here, if you cannot see or hear, it would be difficult to participate actively without assistance, would it not?

Supplemental readings

Part II: Selecting Assistive Technologyarrow.gif (2451 bytes)

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998.

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