Assistive Technology (AT) 101
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?
How will I know what kind of AT my child needs?
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:
How to write AT goals into an IEP
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.”
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
AT device access and maintenance
Some points to remember for AT in an IEP:
- AT is an ongoing discussion. You will need to make adjustments from time to time as your child grows and evolves. Dr. Pearly says, “It’s really important to evaluate pretty consistently because your needs change if you’re growing and developing. You can’t just say, ‘Here’s your iPad, you’re going to have this for the next ten years.’ You’re always seeing what’s next, what the needs are, and where you can add new technologies and modify, adapt, and collaborate to figure out what works best.”
- Learn as much as you can about AT and all the options available to your child. New technology pops up every day, so keep an eye out.
- AT is a tool to help your child be more confident and independent. “AT is probably one of the biggest and easiest ways to help transition out of school,” Dr. Pearly says. “Having a solid AT plan is paramount for making sure that kids are independent as they get older, especially as technology is becoming more and more important.”
- Don’t be afraid to seek out expert advice when you need it! Dr. Pearly recommends starting with your IEP team (did you know that parent and teacher training for an AT tool or device can be written into the IEP?). Families can also reach out to their Regional Center, as they will have the most local resources available. For parents looking for more support using tools or a device that has been recommended for their child, she says Facebook groups can also be invaluable. “There are plenty of general groups that connect practitioners and users/parents, and also technology-specific groups that help with troubleshooting specific software/technologies,” she explains.