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A Guide to Assistive Technology

By Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D.

"Their World 1997/1998," National Center for Learning Disabilities, 381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1401, New York, NY 10016-8806. Reprinted by permission.



Assistive technology can be defined as any item, piece of equipment, or system that helps people bypass, work around, or compensate for learning differences. The purpose of assistive technology is to work around specific deficits, rather than fix them. It helps people with learning differences reach their full potential, and to live satisfying, rewarding lives. Assistive technology, however, should be a part of an overall program to help individuals with learning differences.

Examples of assistive technology include "hi-tech" items, such as a reading machine that reads books out loud. Speech recognition systems also belong to the hi-tech group. These systems allow the user to write stories by talking to a computer. "Low-tech" devices include more common, inexpensive tools. For example, tape recorders enable individuals with memory or listening differences to permanently capture spoken information. Both types of technologies make life easier for persons with learning differences by allowing them to gather information and express their own ideas using the method that works best for them.

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Assistive technology helps increase the independence of persons with learning differences. Many times, these individuals rely on parents, siblings, friends, and teachers for help. Over-reliance on others, however, may slow the transition into adulthood or lower self-esteem.

Assistive technology provides a means for people with learning differences to accomplish specific tasks on their own. Although we tend to think of learning differences in terms of the school setting, easily portable tools, many of which are pocket-sized, allow individuals to bring bypass strategies into many different settings-home, work, and recreation.

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It is important to understand that not all technologies are appropriate for all individuals. People have their own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, interests, experiences, and abilities. Therefore, a technology that may be a blessing for one person, may be useless for another. Similarly, a technology that is appropriate for one purpose in a particular setting, may be of little value in a different situation. When choosing assistive technology, consider the specific individual, the setting, and the task(s) to be performed.

Assistive technologies are designed to help in particular areas. Some of these areas include:

Written Language






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The cost of assistive technology varies widely, ranging from as little as $15 for a low-end personal data manager to as much as $4,500 for an optical character recognition (OCR) system. Fortunately, the costs of many assistive technologies have been decreasing.

In some cases, the required technology may be too expensive to purchase. A “low-tech" or "no-tech" tool, or strategy, may work just as well. For example, books-on-tape may work as well as an expensive OCR system.

There is no widespread financial assistance available for purchasing assistive technology. Only a few select resources are available to help offset the costs. For children with professional diagnoses of learning disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires elementary and secondary schools to provide assistive technology when two conditions are met:

1. an education professional deems it necessary, and

2. the technology is written into the child's Individual Education Plan (IEP)--every child in Special Education receives an IEP.

In some cases, post-secondary schools may provide assistive technology to students with diagnosed learning disabilities. Under The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, post-secondary schools must provide a specific technology when an education professional prescribes the technology as the only viable solution to ensure students full access to the institution. Some post-secondary institutions have set up assistive technology programs on campus. State departments of rehabilitation may also provide assistive technology funding for their clients with learning disabilities. Funding is handled on a case-by-case basis and specific funding requirements varying widely between state agencies and district offices. However, in order to qualify for funding, the person must have received a professional diagnosis of a specific reaming disability.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act state that employers have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities. Once again, whether or not an institution, agency, or employer is required to purchase technology for an individual with a learning disability is determined on a case-by-case basis.

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1. Make sure you are clear about the purpose of using the technology.

2. If you are considering a technology for a child, include the child in the selection process.

3. Identify strengths.

4. Determine the specific difficulty you are trying to address.

5. Consider "low tech" and "no-tech" bypass strategies as well.

6. Find out as much information as you can about the technology before you buy.

7. Before buying a product, try it out. Experiment!

8. Choose technologies that are easy to learn, operate, and maintain.

9. Understand the guarantees, warranties, and support provided by the manufacturer and/or retailer.

10. Be prepared to look at other options.

This article was abstracted from a guide that was developed by The Frostig Center and the Parents' and Educators' Resource Center (PERC), entitled Assistive Technology for Children with Learning Difficulties. The guide is based upon five years of research conducted by the Center on Technology and Learning Disabilities at the Frostig Center in Pasadena.

Request a complimentary copy of this technology guide by writing to: PERC-Technology Guide, 1660 S. Amphlett Blvd., Suite 200, San Mateo, CA 94402.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., Director of Research for the Center, was the project director and primary author. Dr. Raskind is an authority on technology and disabilities.

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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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