The Concept of Assistive Technology

Introduction

Assistive technology (AT) is a generic term that describes tools that are used to maintain or improve the functional capabilities of a learner with a disability in all aspects of life. AT ranges from low tech devices that do not require much training and do not have complex features (magnifying glass, large print text, and crutches) to more advanced items like hearing aids, to high-tech devices or equipment, such as a complementary communication device and computer with specialized software (Ahmad, 2015, p. 64). Recently, AT has become an indispensable means for individuals with different types and levels of disabilities because it allows to increase students’ accessibility to the curriculum and improve the outcomes of the learning process (Adebisi, Liman, & Longpoe, 2015, p. 15). Apart from enhancing academic achievements in math, spelling, writing, and reading, AT assists students in their lives by ameliorating social acceptance, improving organization, and enabling independence (Beyer & Perry, 2013, p. 180). This articulates the importance of the use of AT as learning technologies to facilitate flexible learning in school settings.

Accessibility and Decision-Making to Assistive Technology

AT and accessible instructional materials are making a big difference in the lives of many students with disabilities, expanding their learning opportunities. The principal reason for providing AT in school is to enable students to achieve their academic goals. For many years, public AT provision has been in place in many countries as part of their national healthcare and welfare systems (Witte, Steel, Gupta, Ramos, & Roentgen, 2018, p. 467). However, there is a worldwide challenge to develop policies, provision systems, and procedures that assure availability, accessibility, and decision-making of affordable high-quality AT for individuals who need it.

Many current laws and regulations determine decision-making and accessibility to education with assistive technologies (AT) for students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act (IDEA) was signed into law in 2004 to mandate equity and excellence in education for individuals with disabilities (Mittler, 2007, p. 81). The regulation states that every public agency, including schools, is responsible for ensuring that AT devices and services are provided to individuals as a part of special education, related services, or supplementary aids (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 2004). If the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determines that a child needs a certain AT to receive free appropriate public education, the school is obliged to purchase AT (Cordry, n.d., para. 1). The word needs was replaced with the word requires in the IDEA 1997, that is why it may be expected that more children will be able to access AT services and devices (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 2004).

IDEA 2004 defines an AT device as a piece of equipment that enhances and maintains the functional capabilities of a child (Mittler, 2007, p. 83). As well as IDEA 1997, IDEA 2004 requires that every child must be assessed in terms of the need for AT (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 2004). Therefore, if the IEP team determines that a child needs AT to obtain FAPI, the devices should be provided to a learner (Mittler, 2007, p. 82). To increase the use and support of AT at schools and to maximize accessibility to standard curriculum for children with disabilities, the funds may be used (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 2004). Furthermore, one important addition to IDEA 2004 is the provision that all blind students with print disabilities have free access to print instructional materials in accessible format.

The Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) concentrates on technology-related requirements to be used for achieving better learning outcomes by students. In particular, ESSA provides for the incorporation of technology and resources used in teaching and learning processes with special emphasis made on children with disabilities (Reynolds, Wellington, & Zhao, 2016, para. 1). The ESSA defines strategies for using AT to increase assess to online enrollment opportunities and technical courses and recognize postsecondary education possibilities (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, 2015). States and districts should include the use of AT in their educational planning and investments in order to support children with disabilities and improve their learning outcomes.

The No Child Left Behind Act underlines the necessity to meet the educational needs of all children, including those with disabilities, and defines the conditions under which segregation and inclusion may occur (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 2002). Therefore, children who need AT in order to participate in testing will be provided with it to have access to the standard curriculum. The act encourages states to develop, disseminate, and promote the use of AT to increase the number of students with disabilities who are tested (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 2002).

Assistive Technology Act provides federal funding from the US Department of Education to each state in order to promote access of people of all ages with disabilities to AT devices and services so that individuals could more fully take part in daily activities and education. The act urges states to provide direct help to individuals with disabilities so as to ensure they have access to the technologies they need (Assistive Technology Act of 2004, 2004). The areas in which states are expected to provide accessibility of AT include assistive technology demonstrations, financing programs, and reutilization services.

Even though children of all abilities can benefit from the use of technology, only approximately 40% of students use the high-tech AT (Silman, Yaratan, & Karanfiller, 2017, p. 4807). Facilitation of the use of AT devices and services is usually done by school administration and community members. In particular, at school workshops, teachers and students with disabilities could learn more about the selection and use of AT services. This would decrease the rate of technology abandonment driven by the inappropriate use of AT or choosing the wrong device (Judge, 2000, p. 126). There is a number of helpful websites where various types of AT products can be bought at different prices, from low to high ones. Training and support from teachers and school administration enable students with special needs to gain access to AT services at school and at home.

The importance of using AT was theoretically explained by Vygotsky in his social constructivist theory of learning where he first introduced the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He argued that “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90). Specifically, Vygotsky (1978) stated that cognitive development stems from social interactions from guided learning within the ZPD. An important concept of ZPD differentiates what a child can achieve independently and what they can achieve with the help of a skillful tutor.

Developed by Vygotsky and further studied by Leontiev, cultural-historical-activity theory (CHAT) addresses human activities as they relate to artifacts and shared practices thus emphasizing that learning is not an isolated process. In particular, CHAT focuses on the central tenet of AT in that individuals who experience barriers to learning should be placed in the context and given appropriate tools (such as assistive devices and services) in order to enable interaction with resources and build learning experience (Engeström, 1987, p. 137). The theory also highlights that learning works in tandem with the environment and tools that promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills.

The notion of ZPD has been used in active learning theory which highlights the need for involving students in the learning process more directly (Alkahtani, 2013, p. 66). Theory of active learning operates under the assumption that children should be provided with specially designed opportunities in order to be able to learn more knowledge and skills. According to the theory, AT gives individuals with disabilities opportunities to be involved in an active environment for knowledge acquisition with consideration of their learning abilities (Alkahtani, 2013, p. 66).

Understanding AT in Schools

Nowadays, general education classrooms include diverse students with some of them being SLL and some of them having physical or cognitive disabilities. As a result, this creates an impetus for teachers to move toward flexible teaching methods and materials and, in particular, AT. Incorporation of appropriate technology can help keep students with special needs involved in learning. Among factors that promote understanding AT in schools, it is important to highlight teacher’s positive attitude towards the usefulness of AT. If teachers feel appreciative of the use of AT, they are more willing to incorporate available AT services and devices in the teaching process and receive training on how to best use them (Boot, Owuor, Dinsmore, & Maclachlan, 2018, p. 905). If teachers are positive about their professional development in assistive technology, they will be interested in the successful implementation of AT services in their classrooms.

Other factors contributing to understanding AT in schools are schools’ philosophies and the availability of resources. Only if appropriate AT products are available to schools can they make use of it. However, in low- and middle-income settings, only 5-15% people who need AT have access to them (Matter, Harniss, Oderud, Borg, & Eide, 2016, p. 105). It is the responsibility of school administration to prepare both students and teachers on the different approaches in utilizing AT before integrating such technology into the standard curriculum (Hwang, Shadiev, Kuo, & Chen, 2012, p. 376). That is why particular attention should be paid to the willingness of school administration to hold workshops for teachers and students to facilitate the use of AT in a school setting and at home.

Even though the use of AT can be a potential help for compensating the educational needs of students with disabilities, there are certain barriers that detract from understanding AT in schools. In particular, teachers’ negative attitude to AT and lack of readiness to utilize these technologies result in the poor use of available resources. In the recent study investigating teachers’ knowledge and use of AT, only 25% of respondents reported that they were ready to integrate AT in the teaching process (Alkahtani, 2013, p. 73). This means that even if AT is available in school settings, its use can be hindered by teachers who do not feel ready to use these technologies.

Poor school environment in terms of infrastructure, the lack of technical support, and the lack of training for teachers can also be considered as factors detracting understanding AT in schools (Baxter, Enderby, Evans, & Judge, 2011, p. 123). According to the recent survey studying teachers perceptions of AT to help learners with disabilities, educational leaders think lack of access to working devices, dated technology, lack of training, and limited time to learn to be major obstacles for the use of AT (Alkahtani, 2013, p. 79). If teachers are poorly prepared to provide AT services for children with special needs at their schools, the educational needs of such students will not be met to the fullest possible extent. This speaks to the growing need for the school administration to ensure that teachers have sufficient knowledge and skills to use AT in the classroom effectively.

Evidence-Based Practices to Implement AT

The understanding of AT is vital for an effective AT program for a student with disabilities, though implementing AT properly is also critical for effective outcomes (Bausch & Ault, 2008, p. 6). Therefore, demand for evidence-based practice in AT decision-making is frequently articulated by administrators, researchers, and educational leaders, mainly because of legislative influences mentioned above (Peterson-Karlan & Parette, 2007, p. 130). Failure to use evidence-based training methods has been identified as a factor for nonuse or abandonment of the use of AT (Dunst, Trivette, Hamby, & Simkus, 2013, p. 6). Generation of evidence-based practice should be preceded by conducting reliable qualitative research with carefully determined dependent variables. Council for Exceptional Children (2014) identifies two types of EBP in special education, which are experimental group comparisons designs and single-subject comparison group designs. Quality indicators include context and setting, participants, intervention agent, description of practice, implementation fidelity, internal validity, outcomes measures, and data analysis.

Particular evidence-based practices that have been found to be most effective for the promotion of the use of AT include:

  • introduction of AT by a trainer, participant needs-assessment of AT;
  • illustration of AT, real-life demonstration and role-playing using AT;
  • trainer-guided participant practice using AT;
  • feedback from a trainer on using AT by participants;
  • participant group reflection on the use of AT;
  • active involvement of a trainee in all phases of the learning process (Dunst & Trivette, 2011, p. 3);
  • the use of practices regarding their appropriateness for the context and setting;
  • training a small group of children with special needs rather than a bigger one;
  • ensuring that trainee and trainer interact during the learning process.

The IEP team is responsible for deciding if a child with disabilities needs an AT device as well as accurately determining what exactly a child needs. Depending on the student’s needs, the IEP team may decide that the student does not need AT device or that the device should be low-tech or high-tech (Dyal, Carpenter, & Wright, 2009, p. 557). Even though local school districts are responsible for providing schools with AT devices included in the student’s IEP, it should be mentioned that, according to IDEA 2004, schools are not responsible for providing AT devices that serve medical needs.

When the IEP team finds the need for AT and selects specific AT devices and services, it develops a plan for AT implementation. It is suggested that AT specialists assist the IEP team with consideration, assessment, and development of this plan. The implementation forms allow ensuring that unique features associated with AT implementation are addressed and it is clear for which tasks each member of a team is responsible.

Steps for using the AT implementation form include gathering the student information, choosing which member will be a point of contact, determining implementation team, equipment, and equipment tasks. The next step is AT training which is a service that should be delivered to students and their families, as well as teachers and any other people who are involved with the student. The following steps are classroom and home implementation with the consideration of goals that are to be achieved using AT. The final step involves monitoring and evaluation of results based on the student’s progress.

QIAT, WATI, and SETT

There are independent associations that aid educational leaders in AT implementation. An example of these associations is the Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology (QIAT) Community that was established to support schools and teaching staff in providing high-quality AT services and devices to children with disabilities. Members of QIAT identify, disseminate, and implement a set of quality indicators for AT services in schools. In general, QIAT supports school districts in providing and developing high-quality AT services that are aligned with federal and state standards. Quality indicators for administrative support of AT require that schools write procedural guidelines ensuring equitable access to AT regardless of educational placement and severity of disability (The QIAT Community, 2015a). Established procedures for AT provision should be disseminated to teaching staff and families of children with disabilities.

The QIAT Community (2015a) highlights that school personnel, in particular, teachers, should have required knowledge and skills to provide AT services to children with disabilities; and requires that AT is included in technology and budget planning. AT implementation guidelines state that AT implementation should proceed following a developed plan and then be incorporated into the daily curriculum and activities (The QIAT Community, 2015b). Teachers and parents should be given appropriate training which is an important part of the implementation.

Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI) is a statewide systems change project the primary goal of which is to assist schools with building their capacities to provide AT devices and services to children with disabilities (Lahm & Mendonca, 2008, p. 4). Numerous resources were created by the WATI team in order to help education teams assess a student’s need for AT by defining roles and responsibilities, planning process, and trials with AT (Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative, 2004). Special attention has been paid to a wide range of devices in AT continuum, such as AT for writing, communication, reading, studying, and Math, vision, hearing, seating, and mobility.

WATI offers useful training manuals for teaching staff and parents explaining a variety of ways to use AT. The comprehensive guide assists school administration and teachers in AT decision-making with the specification of areas of concern (such as reading, communication, and studying) and following identification of environmental considerations, tasks to achieve, and sensory considerations. Then, solution selection tools and strategies are proposed as well as the implementation plan for the chosen AT. WATI guidelines allow teachers to narrow areas of needs and thus differentiate instruction in accordance with students’ potential and abilities (Wong, 2018, p. 435). Also, the WATI process gives documentation where teachers can record evidence and track students’ progress.

Student, Environment, Task, and Tools (SETT) is a four-part framework that was designed to help the IEP team in the process of collecting information about the student’s with disabilities needs, environments in which the student lives and learns, tasks to be accomplished, and tools to be used for that. The given model helps to simplify the collection and classification of information and promotes decision-making from assessment to evaluation of outcomes. Short-term impacts of utilization of concepts of WATI, QIAT, and SETT include a facilitated AT decision-making and AT implementation with consideration of predefined procedures and forms. Long-term impacts include providing qualified support to children with disabilities regarding their regular needs-assessment and appropriate and detailed assessment of AT to ensure that the selected AT is a good match that produces intended results.

Incorporating AT in Schools

Implementation of AT can support and enhance the potential of individuals with some disabilities and help them achieve learning goals and independently perform various tasks. However, it is a fact that assistive technologies are designed for children with disabilities and also adaptable to mainstream methods and thus persons who do not have disabilities (Lersilp, 2016). Incorporation of AT accommodations in learning environment promotes inclusion which considers that every child is unique and thus has individual needs and characteristics which should be respected (Sadao & Robinson, 2011). AT devices and services act not only as educational tools but as fundamental work tools that can enhance, maintain, and develop abilities of children with special needs so that they can access information in the same way as learners without disabilities (Adebisi et al., 2015, p. 15). As a result, AT benefits children with disabilities by improving not only their academic scores but also social skills and independence.

Mainstreaming AT helps develop awareness of the main ideas of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is a framework of principles that guide curriculum development. UDL assumes uniqueness of learners’ abilities and tries to provide equal access to learning through alternate forms of communication. AT aids students with disabilities to improve their accessibility to the standard curriculum and overall learning outcomes. The use of AT devices and services enables teachers to give differentiated instructions to learners in accordance with their needs and abilities.

Though the benefits of AT are clear, the reality of funding shortages and accessibility seems to be rather frustrating both for professionals and parents of children with disabilities (Judge, 2000, p. 125). Currently, school districts have a responsibility to make AT devices and services available to students who need them in order to benefit from the educational program. Therefore, many school administrators develop special budgets for AT services and devices. However, IDEA 2004 does not prevent schools from seeking funding from other sources. In particular, there are state grants which allow some of the money to be spent of AT equipment. Also, there are federal grants available, though they require school administration team spending much time planning and writing the grant (Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative, 2004, p. 243). Some schools may get funds from the local community that realizes the importance of AT services in education.

It is crucial that teaching staff be adequately trained in order to provide support to children with disabilities who use some AT services and devices in the learning environment (Alper & Raharinirina, 2006, p. 53). With the inclusion approach, students should be provided with new technological services, though the lack of teachers’ knowledge on how to use them is a major barrier to the use of AT. Because of the positive effects of AT on students with special needs, many schools hire professional trainers to ensure that teachers and students have adequate skills and knowledge to use AT services and devices (Parette, Peterson-Karlan, & Wojcik, 2005, p. 15). It is offered to include a developed course on the use of AT in the training curriculum (Silman et al., 2017, p. 4807). This would enable teachers to make children with disabilities better users of AT.

It should be stated that first of all, AT services influence students who are expected to be empowered to access information to enhance their learning both at school and real life. However, effective incorporation and use of AT in the education of students with special needs is impossible without teachers’ support. In particular, it is clear that positive teachers’ attitudes increase students’ participation in educational activities and help such students develop independence and gain access to various learning environments. However, there is a high percentage of teachers who think that students with disabilities need to function without AT since the use of technologies negatively affects their skills development. Some teachers consider that the use of AT slows the learning process for the class (Alkahtani, 2013, p. 78). This speaks to the need of educating teachers about the importance of AT to raise their awareness of positive influences of such products on children with disabilities.

Recommendations for the Implementation of AT

Lack of funding for AT products and their high costs are considered to be a common obstacle for AT implementation in schools (Boot et al., 2018, p. 905). It is suggested that the main facilitators for these barriers involve costs decrease and an increase in funding possibilities. In particular, schools should consider applying for federal or state grant AT programs that are aimed at supporting students with disabilities. It should also be mentioned that in accordance with IDEA 2004, access to some low-tech AT products for all students who have print disabilities and are blind is free. The IDEA 2004 has established standard for such instructional materials that is known as National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). These materials are kept in the National Materials Access Center, and they are available for all eligible students who are blind or have print disabilities.

For low- and middle-income countries where access to appropriate AT devices is a challenge as well as indirect costs and the cost of maintenance, borrowing expensive devices from other schools may be considered. Other efforts to increase accessibility and affordability of AT include community-based approach and requesting non-profit and faith-based organizations to assist with supply of AT devices. However, these solutions are only short-term ones and can be applied in the context of a particular school, which means that the issue should be considered on a state level.

Lack of awareness about AT is another major barrier that is widespread not only among the special education educators but among the whole teaching staff (Boot et al., 2018, p. 905). Parents of children with special needs lack confidence or knowledge to use AT; in particular, learning how to use the device is reported to be a particular challenge (Baxter et al., 2012, p. 118). Even though parents mainly agree on the usefulness of AT devices, they often express concerns as to how better to utilize and maintain these products (Baxter et al., 2012, p. 122). Therefore, in order to raise awareness about using AT, teachers, parents, and students with disabilities should be provided with adequate training with the support of an AT specialist. This would enable all the key stakeholders to acquire useful skills and knowledge about the AT device. School administration can hold workshops where teachers and parents will be instructed about using AT depending on the evidence-based strategies and practices.

Though practitioners and classroom teachers can be aware of the positive influence of AT, they may have little experience in integrating AT in learning environment. Lack of a professional needs-assessment is a key challenge that often results in choosing inappropriate AT devices, their poor implementation, and, as a result, children gaining no benefit from technology. To address such a challenge, it is suggested that teachers pay attention to guidelines written by educational teams (such as WATI) that aim to assist teachers in assessing a child’s need for AT and further planning of AT integration (Wong, 2018, p. 435). There are also other content-rich websites that provide information on low-tech and high-tech AT and can help teachers in AT implementation.

Teachers’ negative perception toward integrating children with special needs in the standard curriculum is a major barrier not only to AT implementation but also to inclusive and equal learning and UDL principles (Lahm & Mendonca, 2008, p. 7). In order to change teachers’ negative attitudes, the teaching staff should be educated about the benefits of AT; and empowerment of children with disabilities should be increased. It has been found that training opportunities can influence teachers’ beliefs about AT and how AT can improve the educational potential of children with special needs (Dunst & Trivette, 2011, p. 1). This would enable teachers to recognize AT as a facilitator of the academic success of such children.

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