The Case Against AT: Does accessibility even matter?

by Mary Pembleton

Young boy on a laptop smiling with headphones on

Human beings resist change. It’s not really our fault. We like what we’re used to; we mistrust new ideas, new ways of doing things. Basal ganglia in the primitive part of our brains are wired for routine, to feel safe and comfortable with what we already know, and makes us skeptical of the unfamiliar.


But there is a small percentage of humans among us who drive progress, who identify tools that just make things better. According to sociologist Everett M. Rogers, they’re the innovators. And it’s a good thing we have them, because without innovation, we wouldn’t be where we’re at as a species, with computers and air conditioning and cars or even agriculture or fire. We wouldn’t have life-saving vaccines or antibiotics or insulin. Those of us with disabilities wouldn’t have the assistive technology that enhances our quality of life and allows us to navigate this innovation-rich, complex world.


The diffusion of innovation theory attempts to explain how societies adopt new technologies and why it takes us a while to do so. Rogers explained this theory in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. According to Rogers’ theory, there are five stages of adopting new technology:

  1. Awareness
  2. Persuasion
  3. Decision
  4. Implementation
  5. Continuation

In addition to the five stages, he identifies four groups of people that new technology must catch on with as it integrates into a society: starting with the innovators, then the hyper-social early majority, the skeptical late majority, and the somewhat unsocial laggards.


Consider the seatbelt. We explored this phenomenon eleven years ago in The Case Against AT. It took us fifty-something years for at least 81% of us to buckle up in our vehicles. The last two groups, the late majority and the laggards, are people who make statements like this one:


I’ve survived my whole life without a seat belt, why would I start using one now?

Seatbelt data usage

A seatbelt can protect us if we’re in a car crash. It’s common knowledge that the majority of us can now agree on, and we have the hard data to back it up. Cars come equipped with the technology, and we’re legally obligated to use it. But that wasn’t always the case. Polls from the 1980’s signaled that 65% of Americans opposed seat belt laws and considered seat belts “ineffective, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.”


Those darn pesky life-saving devices. We’ve come around, but we really didn’t like them at first. Similarly, it wasn’t that long ago that assistive technology (AT) use was considered cheating, or a waste of money, or even a substitute for necessary basic skills.


We now know that assistive technology improves student outcomes; we have the data to back it up. We’ve come a long way, but where exactly are we on the seatbelt continuum in adopting assistive technology in the classroom? Among those learners who could benefit from AT, who are we overlooking, and why does it matter? I’ll give you a hint: the research tells us it matters. A lot. And not just to the individual enabled by AT, but to society as a whole.

Girl in red shirt smiles next to uPar data results

A recent report from the Global Partnership for Assistive Technology states that for every dollar spent on assistive technology, there’s a nine dollar return on investment. Turns out empowering people to live their best, most productive lives is good for everyone. Who knew?


The innovators knew. And now many others know too. With regard to assistive technology, we hypothesize that we’ve completed steps one, two, and three of the diffusion of innovation theory. Overwhelmingly, we understand the benefits of AT. We’ve accepted inclusion as evidence-based best practice, we’re trending toward increasingly individualized instruction, and ed tech is a fully integral part of the classroom (even more so with the advent of distance learning and the adoption of Chromebooks), helping to normalize AT use. People are on board; the word is out. So what are the obstacles we’re encountering at the implementation stage, and what are we doing to overcome them?


How do you buckle this thing?


Knowing how and when to use assistive technology, and what assistive technology to use is a current barrier to AT usage, especially among rural school districts without AT teams. Educators and other professionals report a lack of access to current information about AT, limiting their knowledge, skills, and familiarity with AT devices, embedded programs, and strategies. This deficiency can lead to hesitancy to use AT.


Ongoing education and training for our teachers, paraprofessionals, SLPs, and OTs about how to incorporate and operate assistive technology devices and programs is vital to successful integration of AT. We can start at the university level, by providing embedded hands-on training throughout special education programs as recommended in this national study. We can also achieve this by providing in-depth asynchronous continuing AT education, like the University of Wyoming did by implementing a virtual knowledge-sharing system for educators and service providers. At Don Johnston Incorporated, we aim to meet this need by offering our comprehensive learning academy to teachers and students to provide free self-directed training on our products (Co:Writer, Snap&Read, uPAR, and Readtopia).

Some good news for tech in the classroom: according to a recent Education Week survey, fifty-eight percent of respondents reported that their opinion of educational technology has improved with the advent of eLearning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, increasing educator willingness to use technology in their teaching practices. This could prove helpful for educators who hesitate to adopt new technology; according to Rogers, sometimes people resist until they are motivated to try something new out of necessity, and educators have myriad day-to-day responsibilities. That’s not to imply that educators without proper AT training are all “laggards” or skeptics, but we do hope this means that educators who may have been hesitant to try AT may now feel more positive about it—and more motivated to learn about it—as they become more comfortable with tech as a whole as they experience its benefits.


It costs more to manufacture cars with seatbelts. It’s not worth it.


Actually, when it comes to AT, it’s remarkably worth it. As we mentioned earlier, investing in assistive technology provides a nine-fold ROI, and improves outcomes for students with disabilities.


Maybe the seatbelt is good to protect the kids, but I’m fine. I don’t need it.


Research suggests that AT services are much more frequently provided to students with low-incidence disabilities (significant cognitive impairment, moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), non-verbal communication disorders, visual/hearing impairments, etc.) than students with high-incidence disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, emotional disturbance, communication disorders, learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.). In 2012, the National Longitudinal Transition Study indicated that only 7.8% of high school students with a high-incidence disability reported receiving AT- and several recent surveys tell us these numbers haven’t improved.


This is significant for two reasons: 1. The vast majority of American students with disabilities have high-incidence disabilities—70-80% in fact—meaning there is a huge population of underserved learners. 2. Learners with high-incidence disabilities have been shown to greatly benefit from assistive technology.

College with AT Graphic

The transition study also reported that of the students that used AT in high school, 79.6% went on to engage in post-secondary education, but among those who did not receive AT, only 40.1% of students did. In addition, 80% of high school students with high-incidence disabilities who received AT access were able to hold a paying job upon graduating, compared to 50.8% of students who did not.


A concrete example of how AT helps students with high-incidence disabilities is found in this study. It showed that reading comprehension was much improved when students with reading difficulties read a passage using text-to-speech than when they read a passage without it. The theory is that when word recognition isn’t something that’s automatic, reading demands much in the way of working memory, reducing students’ ability to access the high-order processing needed for comprehension.

With more rigorous screening and improved diagnostic capabilities, high-incidence disabilities like ADHD and autism are being diagnosed at higher rates than ever…and we see this as a good thing, because once we identify a disability, we can support those who live with it. But students who live with these sometimes-invisible disabilities can be overlooked because their needs may not be as obvious, or because they do not self-identify as disabled. This poses enormous missed opportunities to not only improve students’ academic experience, but also the trajectory of their lives, with assistive technology.


It’s embarrassing to wear a seat belt. I don’t want my friends to see. They don’t wear seatbelts in their families.


Before one-to-one device initiatives, students with high-incidence disabilities often reported feeling embarrassed about receiving AT accommodations. Often, they were the only ones using a device, which singled them out. Going back to the Education Week survey, another potential positive impact of the pandemic is that many more students now have access to school-issued devices, devices that come equipped with features like speech-to-text that have traditionally been classified as assistive technology. As the line between ed tech and AT blurs, it is de-stigmatizing AT for students who can greatly benefit from it. Just as higher rates of diagnosis are helpful, we hope, too, that greater use of ed tech in the classroom will further open the door to the benefits of assistive technology use.

Animated text with Your Toolkit logo cycling between Equity, Inclusion, Google, IEP Accommodation, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and eLearning