Assistive Technology in Education
This article discusses the various types of assistive technology (AT) in use in public special education in the United States. Assistive technology refers to devices that assist special needs students with physical or intellectual impairments in adapting to a standard classroom environment. These devices include alternate keyboards, Braille displays, voice recognition software, reading comprehension programs and speech synthesizers. Such devices are but the latest in a series of advances - encouraged financially and legislatively by states and the federal government - to harness the power of technology to enrich the lives of the disabled. By using assistive technology, students who would previously have been unable to go to school, or to do so with great difficulty, have been able to learn along with the rest of their peers. The removal of these barriers to learning is considered one of the most rewarding uses of technology. The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 contains the rules and regulations that schools are required to follow when dealing with special education students requiring assistive technology. By law, all students with special needs, whether they use assistive technology or not, are required to be given a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) through grade 12.
Keywords Alternate Keyboards; Assistive Technology (AT); Assistive Technology Act of 2004; Assistive Technology Services; Braille Displays; Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE); Individualized Education Program (IEP); Reading Comprehension Programs; Special Needs Students; Speech Synthesizers; Voice Recognition Software
Technology in Education: Assistive Technology
Assistive technology refers to devices that assist special needs students with physical or intellectual impairments in adapting to a standard classroom environment. These devices include alternate keyboards, Braille displays, voice recognition software, reading comprehension programs and speech synthesizers. Such devices are but the latest in a series of advances - encouraged financially and legislatively by states and the federal government - to harness the power of technology to enrich the lives of the disabled. By using assistive technology, students who would previously have been unable to go to school, or to do so with great difficulty, have been able to learn along with the rest of their peers.
The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act
As the congressional authors of the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1994 noted, assistive technology in its broadest sense is about the empowerment of all disabled people - young and old -- through the use of technology:
Substantial progress has been made in the development of assistive technology devices, including adaptations to existing devices that facilitate activities of daily living that significantly benefit individuals with disabilities of all ages. These devices, including adaptations, increase involvement in, and reduce expenditures associated with, programs and activities that facilitate communication, ensure independent functioning, enable early childhood development, support educational achievement, provide and enhance employment options, and enable full participation in community living for individuals with disabilities. Access to such devices can also reduce expenditures associated with early childhood intervention, education, residential living, independent living, recreation opportunities, and other aspects of daily living (Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1994, p. 118).
The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act goes on to define an assistive technology device 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 individuals with disabilities" (Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1994).
Types of Assistive Technologies
According to Blackhurst & Edyburn (2000), assistive technology for students with disabilities can be subdivided into the seven general problem areas they address:
• Existence problems are associated with the functions needed to sustain life, such as eating, grooming, dressing, elimination, and hygiene. Solutions may include adapted utensils, dressing aids, adapted toilet seats, toilet training, and occupational therapy services.
• Communication problems are associated with the functions needed to receive, internalize, and express information, such as oral and written expression, visual and auditory reception, and social interaction. Solutions may include hearing amplifiers, captioned video, speech aids, sign language training, magnifiers, picture boards, writing and drawing aids, pointers, alternative input and output devices for computers, augmentative communication services, social skills training, and speech/language pathology services.
• Body support, protection, and positioning problems are associated with the functions needed to stabilize, support, or protect a portion of the body, such as standing, sitting, alignment, stabilizing, and preventing injury from falls. Solutions may include prone standers, furniture adaptation, support harnesses, stabilizers, slings, head gear, and physical therapy services.
• Travel and mobility problems are associated with the functions needed to move horizontally or vertically, such as crawling, walking, using stairs, lateral and vertical transfers, and navigating in the environment. Solutions may include wheelchairs, scooters, hoists, cycles, ambulators, walkers, crutches, canes, and orientation and mobility services.
• Environmental interaction problems are associated with the functions needed to perform activities across environments, such as operating equipment and accessing facilities. Solutions may include the use of switches to control equipment, remote control devices, adapted, ramps, automatic door openers, modified furniture, driving aids, and rehabilitation engineering services.
• Education and transition problems are associated with the functions needed to participate in learning activities and to prepare for new school settings or post-school settings such as assessment, learning, access to the general education curriculum, creative and performing arts, using instructional materials, and preparing for new environments. Solutions may include adapted instructional materials, educational software, computer adaptations, community-based instruction, creative arts therapy, assistive technology, and other related services.
• Sports, fitness, and recreation problems are associated with the functions needed to participate in individual or group sports, play, hobby and craft activities such as individual and group play, leisure activities, sports, exercise, games, and hobbies. Solutions may include modified rules and equipment, Special Olympics, adapted aquatics, switch-activated cameras, Braille playing cards, and adapted physical education services (Blackhurst & Edyburn, 2000, pp. 25, 34, emphasis added).
The U.S. government has been a supporter of assistive technology measures since the 19th century. In 1879, the U.S. Congress gave $10,000 to the American Printing House for the Blind to produce Braille materials. Later, in 1958, they funded efforts to close-caption films for the deaf. In the 1960s, as the field of special education coalesced, the federal government again entered the picture by funding two Special Education Materials Centers to help discover the best ways to distribute assistive technology materials to special education teachers (Blackhurst & Edyburn, 2000). According to data provided by the National Assistive Technology Technical Assistance Partnership, “The Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended (P.L. 108-364), provides funding to support grants to states throughout the U.S. and its territories for assistive technology programs. The mission of the state AT programs is to get technology into the hands of those who need it so they can be more independent and improve functional capabilities to reach educational, life, and employment goals” (State Assistive Technology Programs, 2011).
Barriers to Implementation
Still, despite this progress, many researchers maintain that there are still significant barriers to be overcome before assistive technology can deliver benefits for all students who need it. Alper and Raharinirina (2006) list four major impediments to AT access:
• Despite the existing educational technology (Zhang, 2000), accessible technology is unavailable to many students...
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