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Remember the Assistive Part of Technology

Andrea Zern, Educational Consultant, IU8

Have you ever found yourself needing a little bit of help to complete a daily task? Who, or what, do you look to for that help? If you’re like me, you’re looking for and utilizing the robust developments in technology to make your life a bit easier. Take for example: Your hands are full, but you need to make a call? Insert Siri or your phone’s voice recognition system. You love reading, but your hour long commute makes down time almost non-existent? Insert audiobooks for the car ride. Sending a lot of texts and emails, but a terrible typer or speller? Insert word prediction software and spell-check. Carrying groceries and need to unlock the door? Insert face recognition or touchless keypad entries.

Isn’t technology great? All of these features just to make what might be a typical, daily, maybe even mundane task a bit easier. But what if that task wasn’t easy to begin with? What about the individuals for whom these ‘mundane tasks’ aren’t actually mundane? Insert Assistive Technology.

Image Description: Hexagons with pictures and examples of Assistive Technology, including: Graphic Organizers, Alternative Keyboards, Word Processing programs, Audio Books, Speech recognition software, and variable tape recorders. Pictures of: Graphic organizers, colorful alt. Keyboards, headphones and cd, tape recorder.

Assistive technology, defined by the federal law IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is use to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” Using this definition, I employ tools that would be assistive technology every day... if I had a disability. Think about what you’ve done today...have you used any “assistive technology?”

Working within the special education field for 8+ years, my passion has become finding solutions so that the students I work with can achieve their maximum potential and complete all the daily and educational tasks that are required at home, at school, and in the community. Take for example the ‘simple’ task of writing. Sometimes using pen and paper to write is unattainable due to physical disabilities, language or literacy difficulties, vision impairments, or more. This is where those technology solutions really show their power. To address physical disabilities that limit motor function, keyboarding or using speech-to-text could be considered. To address language or literacy difficulties, word banks, teaching strategies, and even translation software could be considered. To address vision, screen readers or computer accessibility features like magnification could be considered. The consideration process I utilize, the SETT Framework, is considered a ‘big picture’ approach. This framework takes into account the student’s whole profile of strengths and stretches, their environmental needs, their tasks, and then provides lists of tools (i.e. assistive technology) to consider. (Read more about the SETT Framework here.) This framework has become an integral part of my educational philosophy. I often analyze personal problems by thinking about my strengths and stretches and the task to be accomplished.

And within my professional work, like I said, my passion has become making sure students have access to the tools they need to succeed in their school environments. This all seems simple and logical, right? But within the last 4 months, the switch to virtual and remote learning spaces has certainly slowed my train. I might go as far to say my train may have derailed completely! We have ALL completely changed tracks in some way. Our children and students are no different. Students’ environments, tasks, and the availability of many tools and resources they may have previously had access to have changed. Teachers and educators worldwide have been put in a race against time to provide remote learning for students. They have been bombarded with training on tech tools and video conferencing platforms.

And yet, while so many successes and so much progress has been made while we trudge toward the finish line, I might say, that in this race, we could be leaving the ‘assistive’ part of technology at the start line. That’s okay, though...there is still time to address this concern, but the first step would be increasing recognition and awareness of these new needs.

Just as I would do with any new referral, we must now address through the SETT framework, our new challenges and, possibly, our new solutions. In this post on implementation of AT in virtual instruction, it is noted that this adaptation is similar to a fresh start...the first day of school, perhaps. We all must be RE-SETTing and acknowledging new challenges and solutions.

Many companies have heard the call for help and have waived or offered a reduction in cost for many softwares, programs, or features. This website provides a comprehensive list to get you started if you might be looking for tools to trial. I, myself, am finding how to provide tools that may aide all students in the classroom by utilizing resources and starting pilot programs to address accessibility within the classroom. See that work here.

Let’s take this abrupt change, and challenge, and rethink how we employ assistive technology for not only those students in our classrooms who need it, but for those in our classrooms, including ourselves, that ‘assistive technology’ may provide that little bit of help we so often find ourselves looking for.

ID: Word collage with Assistive Technology in the middle and surrounding words corresponding to AT: innovative, capabilities, educational, tools, customized, ability, learning, tasks, strengths, communication, toolkit, individual, student, enhance, design, software, boundless, disability, improvise, universal products, specialize, hardware, functional, support, accessing goals, limitless, tech, working, increase, devices, overcome, and more...

For more information on Assistive Technology in PA and in our IU08 region, visit PaTTAN’s AT page and my AT companion site.

Remember, we’re all in this together!

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