Assistive Technology (AT) — Making Good Decisions (page 3)
Reflecting back on my time as a rookie junior high school teacher in the mid-1970s, I remember regularly asking my LD Resource Room students to reflect (we called it 'constructive complaining') on how their time could be better spent, both in class and at home, and how their efforts might result in greater productivity and, of course, better grades. Hours were spent designing reproducible charts and creating homework assignment sheets (they could have easily been prototypes for today's mobile managers and handheld Personal Digital Assistant, known as PDAs. These young teenagers wanted to be faster and better at completing high-quality work assignments, and they especially wished that someone would "invent a machine" that could help them be more independent and minimize their struggles with reading, writing and spelling.
Fast forward 35 years. Students today are using pocket-sized solar-powered calculators to help with math problem solving. They are sitting at computers that have read-aloud programs and are listening to lines of text read aloud from their screen as they surf the Internet. Nearby scanners allow them to copy pages from their textbooks onto computer monitors and read them aloud using screen-reader software. Their Palm Pilots remind them when they have calendared tests, assignments due and after school sports activities, and they write and rewrite compositions with a smile, easily making changes and using spell-check, thesaurus and track-change functions with a light finger click on an optical mouse.
- Does every student with special learning needs require the same types of learning accommodations? No.
- Will all students with LD benefit equally from assistive technologies? No.
- Is there a definitive body of research that tells us which students will benefit from what types of assistive technologies? No.
How then do we make good decisions? The answer is to be an informed consumer. Think about the learning disability, understand the features and limitations of each AT product, try them out (and be sure to ask for help if needed), and personalize the application to address your specific LD-related needs.
What is Assistive Technology? Assistive technology refers to any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain or improve the ability of individuals (with disabilities) to perform specific tasks. AT products are key to helping users become more independent in school, on the job and in activities for daily living. These products range from very low tech (i.e. colored highlighters) to very hi-tech (i.e. optical scanners and speech synthesizers), and can cost little or be very expensive. They also vary considerably in term of whether they require training to get started or to use them effectively on an ongoing basis.
What AT Can and Cannot Do Assistive technologies can:
- minimize the extent to which individuals with LD need to ask for help (enabling them to be more independent learners)
- improve the speed and accuracy of work
- reinforce effective classroom instruction and strengthen skill development
- help students to 'fit in' with classroom learning and routines
- motivate students with LD to set high goals for themselves and to persevere
Assistive technologies cannot:
- compensate for ineffective teaching
- make a learning disability go away
- be expected to provide the same benefits to different users
- automatically promote positive attitudes toward learning
It is critical to keep in mind that AT is meant to "assist" and not replace intentional, well- designed and implemented instruction. It is often the case that students who use AT tools like screen readers and calculators show some improvement in their reading and math skills over time. This may be in part due to their added exposure to and practice with the very skills that, without AT assistance, would cause them to fall behind.
A sometimes overlooked benefit of AT is that it can help to reduce the enormous stress that is often experienced by students with LD. Struggling to stay current with assignments, needing personal assistance from parents, teachers, and tutors, and the frustration of not being in control can (and often does) contribute to feelings of helplessness and threats to self-confidence and self-worth. AT can be very effective in bolstering student's positive self-image and helping to empower them to compensate for specific disability-related limitations.
Deciding What AT Applications are Best for You Here are some great questions to guide your decision-making.
- What specific needs would you like to be addressed by this AT tool?
- What are your strengths?
- How interested (and motivated) is the student in using AT?
- Where will the AT tools be used? (home, school, work, social settings)
- Will this AT tool be needed for use in more than one place?
- How easy is this AT application to learn and to operate?
- How reliable is it?
- How well does it work in combination with other technologies?
- What kind of technical support does the AT manufacturer offer?
- What local support will you need to make sure things are working well?
Finding the right match between assistive technology tools and the needs of individuals with LD will take some work, but if done thoughtfully, can be invaluable in promoting successful learning and independence.
Additional information on LD.org about assistive technology:
- "Making Technology Part of Your Back-to-School Planning" by Dr. David Edyburn
- "Choosing an Assistive Technology " by Dr. Marshall Raskind
- The "Assistive Technology " section of At School
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Reprinted with the permission of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. © 1999-2009 National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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