Assistive Technology (AT) 101

Article
Sep. 15, 2022Updated Oct. 5, 2022

Eliminating barriers to learning is vital to making sure all students have equal access to education. For students with disabilities, using assistive technology (AT) in the classroom and at home can level the playing field, foster independent learning, and help ensure that they have the same opportunities as their peers without disabilities.

So what is AT, exactly, and what kinds of AT tools are out there? How do you know if your child could benefit from an AT assessment? We sat down with occupational therapist and certified Assistive Technology Professional Dr. Elizabeth Pearly to learn more.

What is assistive technology in an IEP?

How do I know if my child needs AT?

A child can benefit from AT if they:

  • Have difficulties with functional capabilities such as writing, reading, organizing, studying, listening, and/or accessing the curriculum
  • Are struggling to keep up with the pace of in-class work

How do I know if my child qualifies for AT?

Assistive technology is listed as a related service (or sometimes as a supplementary aid and service) under IDEA, the federal law that entitles every child with a disability to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

IEPs

If your child has an IEP, IDEA requires that the IEP team determine whether AT is needed for your child to receive FAPE. It’s important to note that the term “assistive technology” may not appear in your child’s IEP. Instead, you might only see the specific AT tools and accommodations/modifications, supports, program modifications, or supplementary aids and services that the IEP team has determined are necessary. But however they appear, it’s essential to make sure that the tools your child needs are written into their IEP to ensure that they receive equal access to learning.

504 plans

While the purpose of a 504 plan is similar to that of an IEP, there are some differences. (You can learn more about those in our article What’s the Difference Between a 504 Plan and an IEP?) The law is less clear about AT services when it comes to 504 plans. However, a 504 plan still entitles a student with disabilities to the accommodations or services they need to access their education, and AT can be provided through those avenues.

How will I know what kind of AT my child needs?

The IEP team will request an AT assessment if it decides one is necessary. This can be conducted by the school, an independent agency, or an individual consultant. The evaluation will help figure out which type of technology is best for your child. Dr. Pearly recommends that families start by getting their child assessed for services such as OT, PT, and speech-language pathology to identify areas of need and then requesting an assistive technology assessment to help fill in the gaps. Listen to her explanation in the clip below:

Because the scope of assistive technology is so large, the evaluation will most likely have a focus. Keep in mind that an AT evaluation conducted by the school is directly related to achieving educational goals. For example, if a child’s orthopedic impairments are presenting the biggest barriers to access, the child would be evaluated by an occupational or physical therapist to see what kind of equipment they need.

Remember to keep the focus on your child’s strengths as well as their challenges. This will help the evaluator determine what type of technology might work and how well your child will respond to it. Here are a few other tips:

  • Make sure any AT the school agrees to is listed clearly in your child’s IEP or 504 plan.
  • Discuss the settings and situations where your child can (and cannot) use the AT. Those details should also be added to the IEP or 504 plan.
  • Involve your child in the process and see if they can “test drive” the technology first. Dr. Pearly recommends taking advantage of “any opportunity to trial things. A lot of software companies will let you do a 30-day trial, which can be helpful in making sure it’s a right fit in everyday life.”
  • Do your own research. If you feel the school isn’t up to date on what’s available, share what you know. Open Access, an open-source project created by a California SELPA, offers a fantastic (and frequently updated) database of resources for teachers and is intended to help IEP teams provide the assistive tech supports that students need.
  • Ask:
    • Does this tool address my child’s specific needs and challenges?
    • Is my child able and willing to use it?
    • How easy is it to use? Is there a simpler option?
    • Does it play to my child’s strengths?
    • Is it reliable?

Check out our article Assistive Technology Tools to Empower Students with Disabilities for a round-up of the many assistive tech tools and software applications out there to support students.

How to request an AT evaluation

If your child is struggling in the classroom, their teacher or therapist may recommend an assistive technology evaluation. If you feel there is a need for an evaluation but no one has requested it, you can request one yourself. Dr. Pearly recommends starting with AT as early as possible, as part of early intervention. “Studies show it’s great to get technology integrated sooner rather than later,” she says. For school-age children, you can use this sample letter to request an AT evaluation.

Because AT is a new field, there isn’t a settled credential for an AT specialist. Many professionals are OTs focusing on typing accessibility. Some are technology specialists. Others are SLPs. It’s a good idea to ask about the evaluator’s experience, education, and qualifications to make sure they will be a good fit for your child. (If you’re interested in working with a certified AT professional, or ATP, Dr. Pearly suggests browsing the RESNA directory, but not all ATPs are certified and it’s not always necessary.) Dr. Pearly explains:

An AT evaluator will start by gathering information about your child’s strengths and needs. They will talk with your child’s teachers and other providers and conduct classroom observations. Here’s a little more about what the assessment will look like:

How to write AT goals into an IEP

First things first: it is super important to create an AT plan and write it into the IEP. Dr. Pearly explains why:

Dr. Pearly also recommends creating AT goals that are flexible and broad, so IEP teams don’t “pigeonhole themselves into one software and are unable to explore.” This allows for greater flexibility and a wider range of AT to ensure the successful adoption and implementation of the specific tools that students need.

Keep in mind that you, your child, the team, the school, and anyone else involved in your child’s learning experience should be trained on any assistive equipment your child will be using. (Did you know you can write parent training into the IEP as well? Read more about that in this article!)

Regular visits and evaluations by the AT consultant should also occur to make sure that your child is using the tech correctly and that it still meets their needs. If you find that the plan is in place but isn’t being used by a teacher, aide, or another staff member, ask what part of the plan isn’t working so the team can work to make the necessary adjustments. Dr. Pearly recommends “making sure the plan is simple for the user and simple for the people who are helping starting out, then building on that.”

The AT evaluator should visit your child at the start of each new school year. If this isn’t happening, make sure you request an update through your school, IEP team, or directly with the evaluator.

What if the IEP team denies AT?

Even though the law says that IEP teams must consider AT, it’s possible that a team will refuse to do an AT evaluation if they don’t think one is needed. Or, they may do the evaluation but determine that AT is not needed. It’s important to know that as you move through the AT process, there may be members of the IEP team who aren’t familiar with how AT can benefit students. In this case, the student, parent, or teacher may request a reevaluation. If there is still a disagreement after reevaluation and you believe that the evaluation failed to address your child’s AT needs, you have the right to request an independent educational evaluation (IEE).

As a last resort, you can try to resolve the dispute through due process.

Why it’s important to follow through at home

Dr. Pearly has some tips and suggestions for how parents can be involved in the implementation and exploration of AT at home:

AT device access and maintenance

If the child has access to an app at school, should the school provide access at home also?

“In many cases, yes,” says Undivided Education Advocate Lisa Carey. “Especially if the app is used to complete work that might be included in homework like a text-to-speech app or MathType.”

Can my child take the device/equipment home on weekends? What about summer?

Under IDEA and 504, the use of AT isn’t limited to school use, so the device or technology can go back and forth. For example, Carey says that if an AT device is necessary to complete homework, such as reading, and the student uses a reading app on the device, then they should be able to take it home.

Who pays for the device?

Schools must provide and pay for AT for students who need it. The school is not allowed to refuse funding or require parents to buy the technology themselves.

If the device is damaged, do parents have to pay for it?

“It depends,” says Carey. “Most schools will have a parent sign something saying they will pay if it is damaged or lost while not at school, and this is expected.” For example, if a device is broken or lost while being used outside the scope of use written into the IEP, parents can be held accountable. This could include situations such as the device breaking through negligence (allowing someone else to use the device and that individual breaks the equipment), or the child using unrelated software and downloading a virus. In these rare cases, parents can be held responsible for the repair costs. “I have heard of circumstances where this happened and the parents did not pay,” Carey says. But a district can’t force a parent to replace technology that is damaged or lost as a result of the student’s disability, and the district should not propose waivers that require a parent to replace technology that is damaged or lost in the normal course of use.

The school district assumes ownership of the device to the extent of the cost to repair or replace the devices. In most cases, the school is responsible for the maintenance and repair of AT devices, even when it is not owned by the school, and it is the school district’s responsibility to review its property insurance policy to determine whether it will cover loss or damage at school and at home.

Using other funding sources such as Medi-Cal to insure the device from damage is your decision and must be voluntary. The school district cannot force you to suffer a financial loss. During the development of the IEP, time should be given to identifying the steps to be taken if the device needs repair, how a substitute device will be provided, and other temporary options that would offer an acceptable substitute to the student's device.

Some points to remember for AT in an IEP:

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Contents


Overview

What is assistive technology in an IEP?

How do I know if my child needs AT?

How do I know if my child qualifies for AT?

How will I know what kind of AT my child needs?

How to request an AT evaluation

How to write AT goals into an IEP

What if the IEP team denies AT?

Why it’s important to follow through at home

AT device access and maintenance

Some points to remember for AT in an IEP:

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