Assistive Technology: What it is, Who needs it, & How to know

Student holding a pencil and working on a laptop.

Assistive technology (AT) is a phrase you may or may not be familiar with, but you have probably used AT before.

That’s because many tools that serve as assistive technology to people with disabilities are common features on our devices. Have you ever used speech-to-text to compose a text?

To people without a disability, speech-to-text is a convenience. But to many people with a disability, speech-to-text is an assistive technology that is essential to their independence.

People with all kinds of disabilities use AT every day, from people who use wheelchairs to people with learning disabilities like dyslexia and dysgraphia who use AT to read and write.

And while the word technology often evokes a tech device like a smartphone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be high tech. Assistive technology can be something as simple as a sticky note.

Multi-colored sticky notes on a wood wall.

We explain how, and a whole lot more, in the following Assistive Technology FAQs:

What is Assistive Technology, and what does it mean to people with disabilities?

A simple way to define assistive technology is something used by people with disabilities to perform a task or activity that would otherwise be very hard or impossible.

To people with disabilities, assistive technology can mean the difference between accessibility and an insurmountable barrier. For example:

  • People with visual impairment may use screen readers to access content that they cannot see.
  • People with impaired mobility may use wheelchairs, canes, or walkers in order to move from one place to another.
  • People with dysgraphia may use word prediction to construct sentences.

But as Paul Auger, Assistive Technology Specialist at The Public Schools of Brookline in Brookline, points out: assistive technology is powered by the user.

Meaning: software with word prediction doesn’t do the writing. A wheelchair without someone propelling it does not move on its own.

The most important aspect of AT is not the power of technology, but the power, preference, and resulting individual expression of the person using it.

Student in a wheelchair with a pink bow in their hair strolling through a library.

What are some assistive technology examples?

Assistive technology ranges from low-tech to high-tech:

  • Wheelchairs and walkers
  • Switches, eye-gaze trackers, and on-screen keyboards
  • Electronic devices
  • Pencil grips
  • Text-to-speech and speech-to-text
  • Reading and writing tools like Snap&Read, Co:Writer, and Read&Write

Kathy White, a retired AT specialist and current co-chair of the AT Forward Project for the state of Wisconsin, explains the different ways a sticky note can be used as assistive technology:

“You could use them to remind a student to stay on task, you could write directions on them instead of giving directions verbally, you could draw pictures on sticky notes for a visual prompt, you could use sticky notes to help increase the thickness of a page in a book to make turning a page easier.”

How do I know if a student needs assistive technology in the classroom?

Learners challenged by reading and writing may benefit greatly from assistive technology like text-to-speech and word prediction.

It’s estimated that 20% of people in the US are living with a learning disability like dyslexia, which impacts reading, and/or dysgraphia, which impacts writing. But far less than 20% percentage of students have a 504 or IEP, meaning that many may be falling through the cracks.

Using this 5-minute screening tool for writing can help determine if a struggling writer may need a referral for further testing or would benefit from an assistive technology accommodation.

And uPAR is a screening tool that can show a student’s reading comprehension level with and without a reading accommodation.

On average, over 50% of students reading below grade level can comprehend at or above grade level with an accommodation.

Download the free PDF version of uPAR

Workflow graphic describing how a student will take a universal protocol for accommodations online, results will show optimal reading method, and administrators receive reports.

What are some examples of assistive technology for dyslexia and dysgraphia?

SO glad you asked. There’s an enormous number of tools that can help support struggling readers and writers in the classroom and beyond.

They range from built-in accessibility features to free apps and extensions, to specialized reading and writing software with an array of helpful features.

For example, speech-to-text tools can assist learners with dysgraphia get their thoughts onto the page.

Speech-to-text tools come embedded in many platforms: Google Chrome’s Voice Typing, for example, can be activated in Chrome’s accessibility settings.

But sometimes more assistance is needed for a learner to be successful with writing, and that’s where assistive technologies like Co:Writer come in.

Co:Writer features include word prediction that can be tailored to one (or more) specific topics by selecting a Topic Dictionary.

Co:Writer accessibility toolkit with neuron word prediction.

To learn more about free technologies and apps—as well as more advanced tools—to support learners with dyslexia and dysgraphia, check out this article by AT guru Mike Marotta, or check out the following resources:

Teacher standing in back of computer classroom.

What is an assistive technology professional?

An assistive technology professional, or ATP, is a person certified in analyzing the needs of a person with disabilities and helping them determine what kind of assistive technology might be helpful.

Also called assistive technology specialists, ATP’s provide AT evaluations, implementation training to other service providers and educators, and/or teach students how to use AT.

Typically, a full AT evaluation isn’t required for an IEP team to implement assistive technology.

For example, an OT may recommend assistive technology for a student who is struggling with reading.

There is some amazing evidence that providing AT to high school students with a high incidence disability significantly increases graduation rates.

Data suggests that students with a high incidence disability who have AT access graduate at a rate of 99.8%, compared to 79.6% in those without it.

“My students with Cerebral Palsy wouldn’t have been able to go to college or participate independently in classes without assistive technology tools,” says Kathy White.

“It made a huge difference in their mental health and their contributions to the workforce.”

AT makes a huge difference in so many lives, and getting AT to those who need it starts with awareness. And awareness can start with you.

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