Assistive technology (AT) is making an enormous difference in the lives of people with disabilities.  AT promotes greater access, participation, and independence by helping with tasks that would otherwise be difficult, or even impossible, to perform.   

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004 defines assistive technology as

“any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”

IDEA goes on to say that assistive technology

“does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted, or the replacement of such device.”

AT refers to a multitude of tools, such as readers that convert text into speech; screen enlargement devices; captioned telephones; telecommunication devices that include Braille output, Braille keyboards; software that converts print into Braille and Braille into print; FM systems; and calendar systems, among many other devices.

AT is much more than tools, however.  AT includes the process of identifying, selecting, locating, training, and utilizing the technology that best meets the needs of learners with disabilities.  This highly individualized process demands a systematic problem-solving approach.  One AT device is not the answer for all students with a particular disability, and great care should be taken to evaluate the usefulness of various devices before a decision is made.  The results can change a student’s life, as for example, in the case of this high-school freshman:

Kristy, a fifteen-year-old with combined hearing and vision loss, benefitted greatly from her school’s understanding of how important it is to view AT as an individualized problem-solving process.  Kristy had such a hard time during her elementary and middle-school years that she used every excuse not to attend.  When she was fourteen, and it was time to develop a transitional plan as part of her IEP (individualized education program), the multidisciplinary assessment team discovered that she was using out-dated tools to help with her schoolwork.  Together, Kristy and the team selected AT devices that were more efficient and less conspicuous.  The team built AT learning objectives into her IEP so that she could learn how to make the most of her new hardware and software.  She now uses a Refreshabraille 18, a device that connects to her iPad through Bluetooth, allowing her to read in Braille.  She can scan class worksheet files with the iPad to enlarge them on her screen. She can have the iPad read text aloud to her through her hearing aids.  Kristy is not only making better grades, she is excited about school for the first time. 

Ohio is fortunate to have an abundance of resources to assist learners with disabilities, their families, and professionals who work with them achieve IDEA’s major goal:

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” 

One agency charged with helping accomplish this goal is the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI).  Serving families, educators, and professionals who work with individuals with disabilities, including low-incidence disabilities, OCALI's mission is to build state- and system-wide capacity to improve outcomes through leadership, training and professional development, technical assistance, collaboration, and technology. 

The OCALI Assistive Technology Center has a wealth of tools, products, and services for identifying, evaluating, and selecting AT devices to meet the individualized needs of children and youth with low-incidence disabilities. The following link will take you to OCALI’s Assistive Technology Center web page: http://www.ocali.org/center/at.  

Here are some items of interest from OCALI:

SIFTS – Student Inventory for Technology Supports is a quick and easy web-based survey tool developed primarily to support IEP teams who need assistance in matching student needs and strengths to AT features (http://sifts.ocali.org/ );

AT device lending library – OCALI lends certain AT items such as FM systems, low vision kits, and many other devices to support students.  Most devices are loaned for three weeks to provide users an opportunity to try AT devices before purchase. FM systems are available for a longer loan period (http://www.ocali.org/project/LL_at_devices);

OCALI is also developing AT instructional modules specific to Hearing Impairments, Vision Impairments, and Deafblindness.  The first two of five modules will be on-line in March, 2016.  The modules are designed to help parents, educators, and others to better understand AT supports and services (https://atinternetmodules.org). 

AT is constantly changing, offering an ever wider array of devices and services to increase students’ access to their environment, mastery of school curriculum, interactions with peers, and development of vocational and avocational interests—in short, to nurture their potential to participate fully in society and help determine its future.

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