Assistive technology: what parents need to know

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assistive technology, Arizona, Tac Coluccio photo
For children who struggle with reading, audio reinforcement can help. Sutton Lochmann, 10, of Scottsdale, volunteered to demonstrate this type of assistive technology. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

What do you think of when you hear the term “assistive technology?” Do you imagine advanced computer-based talking systems, such as the one Steven Hawking uses? Or a rubber pencil gripper? How about a tennis ball?

All of these devices are assistive technology (AT), an umbrella term that covers a wide range of products—from low-tech tools to sophisticated computer systems—used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

Mary Keeney, assistive technology specialist at AZ-Tech—the Assistive Technology Department at the Arizona Department of Education—says that while high-tech solutions are an option, she suggests parents consider low-tech solutions first for several reasons:

  • Students will feel less different from their peers.
  • The devices are less likely to break.
  • There is less training involved.
  • Low-tech items are less likely to become obsolete.
  • Problems like software crashes and other malfunctions can be avoided.

When and why should parents consider assistive technology?

The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATiA) website states that “assistive technology includes products and services to help people who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, etc.”

Technology is available for students with every type of disability—from physical limitations and developmental delays to attentional issues and learning differences. For school-age children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), it’s important to consider assistive technology in the IEP planning process.

IEP teams sometimes fail to seriously consider AT as an option because of misunderstandings about what it is. It might be more beneficial for parents to ask questions like: What would be a helpful tool for my son in math class?

Students who have a 504 instead of an IEP may also eligible for assistive technology.

What type of assistive technology is best for your child?

The AT conversation can begin with questions like, “Where is the child having difficulty?” and “Is there an AT solution that could help?”

“The law is designed so that the IEP team [which always includes parents] identifies what is needed because these are the people who know the student best,” says Keeney.

AZ-Tech has loan libraries from which schools can check out pieces of equipment to determine whether certain devices will be beneficial to the child. Arizona Technology Access Program (AzTAP)—part of the Institute for Human Development at Northern Arizona University—also has loan libraries available.

“We provide many of the same services and we work in collaboration with one another,” says Keeney, who notes that people often confuse the two agencies. “But we serve different purposes.” While AZ-Tech provides services to students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, AzTAP serves individuals throughout their lifetime. AzTAP can also provide assistive technology for tasks outside of the classroom.

AzTAP’s demo center and loan library are worth visiting. To set up an appointment, visit aztap.org.

For more information about training programs, parent resources or advocacy advice, visit the AZ-Tech website.

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