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Rethinking assistive technology in a post-PC world

4 min read


As Moore’s Law would have predicted, the pace of technology has been accelerating at an incredible rate in the past couple of years, which has made it a challenge for educators to select and decide on which technology to bring into the classroom. While general education is now wrestling with how to handle the purchase of tablets (iPads) for classroom use, the decisions that have to be made with regards to using these technologies with students in special education has become even a bigger issue.

One of the mandates in the federal special education guidelines is that school districts consider the need for assistive technology for all students with an individualized education plan. Assistive technology is generally defined as “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 a child with a disability.”

The definition to this day remains rather open-ended and gives educators the freedom and leeway to make the most appropriate decisions with regards to purchasing and requisitioning assistive technology for students with special education needs. For many like myself, who have been in the field of special education and assistive technology for some time now, having access to the latest technologies has been a godsend for students who require technology to support their learning and communication.

Typically when school districts are deciding to requisition assistive technology for students with special needs there is a team of professionals who will evaluate the child’s need and gain an understanding of what the student will be able to accomplish with the assistive technology support in place. In this case, it is really important for all of the educators to start the process with student in mind, understanding their learning strengths and weaknesses, their learning preferences, and into which environments the students will be asked to perform.

Secondly, all of the child’s teachers should have clear expectations as to the tasks and what they would like the student to be able to accomplish with the assistive technology in place. Once this process is completed — then and only then — should a specific assistive technology be recommended and trialed by the student. If the process has been thought out, an individualized plan can be developed to implement the assistive technology in the classroom. Reflecting on this practice, it is important that we don’t use the same brush to paint with for every student when making our assistive technology decisions.

I certainly would be one of the first to acknowledge the huge impact the iPad and other tablets have made in the field of assistive technology, but we need to be cautious when making decisions that the tools match the child’s need. While tools like the iPad have really normalized the use of assistive technology for lots of students with learning and communication needs, we must be reflective on our practices and understand which tools would be best suited for each student that we work with.

I have recently noted a tendency for schools that are purchasing iPads to assume that the iPad is the “be all and end all” for their assistive technology needs and make blanket recommendations for its use before doing their homework. So in the spirit of best practice, I would ask all school-based teams to sit down and methodically think through the students need for assistive technology before jumping on the bandwagon. For some students, the computer may just be the right assistive technology.

Your comments are welcomed!

Brian S. Friedlander (@assistivetek) is a school psychologist with expertise in the area of assistive technology. He most recently co-authored “IPad: Enhancing Learning & Communication for Students With Special Needs.” Read his blog, where he discusses educational and assistive technology.