Assistive Technology

Student Using Technology

The ever changing, rapidly evolving field of technology is dramatically improving the lives of many with and without disabilities. Assistive technology (AT) can assist students in compensating for their disabilities and help in completing tasks that may have otherwise been impossible or extremely difficult to do. For example, a student with difficulty in the area of reading may benefit from having reading software on their computer so they can hear the text read aloud by the computer. For many, AT expands their ability to communicate, study, perform academic and functional tasks, access environments, participate in recreation and leisure activities, live as independently as possible and compete in the workplace.

Assistive Technology is defined by IDEA (1990) 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 the functional capabilities of a person with a disability.” IDEA (2004) provides an exemption, “The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted, or the replacement of such device.”

“For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.” –IBM Training Manual 1991

Assistive technology may sound complex but is actually easy to understand. Most often, AT devices are described as being on a continuum from low-tech to high-tech. Many people mistakenly think that students need costly, computerized high-tech devices but this is not always the case. Oftentimes, less costly, low-tech devices such as highlighters, magnifiers, and Velcro are equally effective and can be a better choice for students. It is important to consider the range of technologies available in order to make the best match for students with disabilities. There are many local and online resources like those listed in our resource section to assist IEP teams in determining student needs.

Type Complexity Training Required Examples
Low-tech simple, less sophisticated little or no training often needed adapted pencils, reading frames, Velcro, highlighters, adapted spoon handles, non-tipping drinking cups, magnifiers
Mid-tech more complicated, may have some complex components and be electronic or battery operated may require some training spell checker, switches, portable word processors, wheelchairs
High-tech most complex and complicated items that incorporate sophisticated electronics or computers most likely will require training dynamic display communication devices and sophisticated reading/writing software

Assistive Technology and the Transition Process

While students with disabilities are in public school, AT must be considered during Individualized Education Program (IEP) development to insure they receive a free appropriate public education (IDEA, 2004). In everyday life, AT can be used to increase a person’s independent living, self-determination and social skills. For some students, assistive technology plays an important role in helping them reach their academic and functional potential. Additionally, assistive technology can help individuals with disabilities access environments and career interests that would otherwise be unavailable to them. If a student with a disability requires assistive technology to accomplish one or more functional skills, the use of that AT must be included in effective transition planning (Canfield & Reed, 2001). Case managers should work with students and their IEP teams on an ongoing basis to monitor what AT is currently being used; its purpose and effectiveness.

At least one year prior to the student’s exit; the IEP team must also consider the demands of the student’s postsecondary environments and their need for continued use of current AT. In September 2013, Virginia passed a bill that provides guidelines for school divisions for the Transfer of AT to another school division, state agency or the parents of a student who continues to need the AT to assist with the his/her functional capabilities.

It is also extremely important for IEP teams to plan for additional assistive technology that may be needed after high school to ensure success in postsecondary environments. For example, the reading and note taking demands are often much more rigorous at the college level than the high school level. Consequently, students may find they need alternate format books, speech-to-text software or devices to record lectures at college. The IEP team should anticipate these needs and begin teaching the student how to use these technologies before they enter the college setting.

Selecting Assistive Technology

Determining what might work best for a student is an individualized process and involves looking at several factors. Student preferences, ease of use and age appropriateness of the AT are important considerations. Joy Zabala has described one AT decision-making process as the SETT Framework (Student/Environment/Task/Tools). While there is no particular order, Zabala recommends that the student, environment and task be fully explored before deciding upon which AT tool to use. How many times have we selected a tool because it was the latest and most popular new device and then tried to make it work with a student and it fails? The tool has to meet the needs of the student, not the other way around. Conducting assessments in the student’s customary environment is critical.

Assistive technology can make a difference in independent living, educational and employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Using the resources available in the community and online can assist in the assistive technology and transition planning process.


Canfield, T. & Reed, P. (2001). Assistive Technology and Transition. Oshkosh, WI: Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. (34 CFR 300.320[b] and [c]) (20 U.S.C. 1414 [d][1][A][i][VII]). (20 U.S.C. § 1416[a][3][B]).

More Resources