AT is Where it’s At: Obtaining Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities

  Sometimes things worked out like they were supposed to and Sara was pleased. She had expected to have a fight on her hands as she went into Gracie’s individualized educational program (IEP) meeting. Gracie was six and because of multiple disabilities she wasn’t able to talk. But just because Gracie didn’t talk didn’t mean she couldn’t communicate. Gracie communicated by using a picture board. The picture board had been developed by a speech therapist who worked with Gracie when she was three and in preschool. The picture board had worked fairly well, but Gracie was now finishing first grade. Gracie’s skills had grown and the tasks she needed to perform had become more complex as she advanced in school. Sara wanted the school to look into providing a more sophisticated communication system for Gracie as she entered second grade. Sara was concerned the school staff would be reluctant to explore what might be a more costly communication system.

 But, to Sara’s surprise, the IEP team shared her concerns and recommended a complete evaluation of Gracie’s assistive technology (AT) needs, including assessing her communication system. The AT assessment was to be completed before the end of this school year and the team would meet again to review the results of the evaluation and plan services accordingly. As always, Sara still worried that things might not turn out as she hoped, but she knew that getting a good evaluation was the first step in getting appropriate services for Gracie. For right now she was confident the school was doing its best for Gracie.  

The IDEA and Assistive Technology 

  Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) schools are required to provide assistive technology services for children with disabilities. Assistive technology, or AT, helps individuals with disabilities do more things for themselves. Assistive technology devices can help a child perform tasks that the child would not otherwise be able to perform because the child has impairments. As in Gracie’s case, her picture board helps her communicate more independently even though she is unable to speak. A more sophisticated alternative augmentative communication system might help her to communicate and learn even more independently. The following are questions and answers about obtaining AT for children with disabilities. 

1.     What is assistive technology?

Under the IDEA, AT devices are items and pieces of equipment that increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of children with disabilities. AT services are broadly defined as any service that directly assists a child in the selection, acquisition, or use of an AT device. 

2.     What are examples of assistive technology?

Assistive technology can be anything that helps a child function more independently. It includes things such as pencil grips, reaching devices, adapted toys, tape recorders, calculators, standing boards, environmental control systems, adapted keyboards, modified desks and chairs, computers, computer software that provides screen reading, text reading, and screen magnification, and alternative augmentative communication systems. 

  Specific disability related AT examples include:

● providing a modified key board with enlarged keys for a child with limited fine motor skills;

● providing a modified desk or computer table to accommodate a student in a wheelchair;

● providing computer software that reads aloud the screen or magnifies the screen for students with visual impairments;

● providing software that reads aloud the text for students with learning disabilities that affect their reading skills;

● providing personal digital assistants (PDA) to assist in note taking and organizing for students with disabilities that affect time management, note taking, and short term memory;

● providing reaching devices to help a student get books from a book shelf;

● providing audio books for a student with a vision impairment or other disability that affects reading skills; and

● providing a device that amplifies speech for a student with a hearing impairment.   

3.     What about cochlear implants and other devices that are surgically implanted, are these devices considered AT?

  No, in 2004 the IDEA was amended to clarify that devices that are implanted in children surgically, such as cochlear implants for children with hearing impairments, are not AT devices that schools must provide.  

4.     Is AT always expensive?

  No, AT devices range from inexpensive, low tech, items such as pencil grips, clip boards, audio books, and tape recorders, to more costly, higher tech devices such as computers and speech synthesizers. AT can be purchased, or it can be homemade. For example, in the film The Right Stuff, because Chuck Yeager has broken ribs he uses a sawed off broom stick to help him close the hatch to his plane before flying off and breaking the sound barrier. Homemade AT. 

5.     Who pays for the AT that a child needs?

If the student needs the AT in order to receive an appropriate education, then the AT should be written into the IEP and the public school system must make sure the AT is provided at no cost to the child’s parents.  

6.     What’s the first step in obtaining AT?

A good evaluation is the key to obtaining any service for a child with a disability. AT is no exception. Evaluating a child’s needs, including doing a functional evaluation in the child’s customary environment, is included as an AT service. As in Gracie’s situation, the IEP team has agreed that Gracie needs an AT evaluation. Once the evaluation is completed the IEP team will meet to design a program to provide the AT that Gracie needs to receive an appropriate education. 

7.     Are there specific requirements regarding AT in the IEP process?

Under the IDEA, AT is a “special factor” to be considered in the IEP process. This means that the IEP team must specifically consider whether a student with disabilities needs assistive technology. If the IEP team believes the student may need AT, then the team should recommend the student’s AT needs be further evaluated. If the IEP team then recommends that a student needs an AT device, that recommendation must be specifically written into the IEP. The IEP must also include the projected date when the AT service or device will be provided, and the duration of time, where, and how often will be provided.  

8.     What if the school provides AT, like a lap top computer, can a child use it at home as well?

The IEP team determines whether the child needs to use the AT device at home in order to receive an appropriate public education. If the IEP team recommends home use, then the child must be allowed to take the AT home. 9.     What happens if the child outgrows the device or it is damaged at school?The IDEA includes as an AT service maintaining, repairing, or replacing the AT device. So, if it is damaged through normal use, or requires future modification, the school must make sure that the repair or replacement is at no cost to the parent.  

10. Some of these devices, like alternative augmentative communication systems, seem complicated. What if the student or the student’s family doesn’t know how to use it?

 Also included as AT services are training and technical assistance in using the AT device for the student. If necessary, the student’s family and professionals such as educators, rehabilitation personnel, and employers may also receive training and technical assistance to learn how to use the AT device.  

11. Where can I get more information about AT?

There is a National Assistive Technology Assistance Partnership that has links to projects in every state that provide information and assistance in obtaining assistive technology.

  Assistive technology helps children with disabilities do more things for themselves and learn in inclusive settings. Parents and educators should make sure that IEP teams explore how assistive technology can help children with disabilities receive a free appropriate education.         

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