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Affordable Assistive Technology

When teachers don’t use assistive technology, cost is often a factor. Are there good low tech solutions — or maybe some tools that are free or inexpensive that more teachers might consider?

Yes. If you look at reading, for example, we have multiple domains that students might struggle with. One domain is word reading — being able to recognize or decode individual words, and to do that reasonably fluently. To accommodate for that, text to speech is really the optimal technology. And you can spend $1400 for a program that can read out loud to you, but you can also use free tools. The Natural Reader is free on Macs, and on iPads, they have built-in text to speech, which is one of the best tools out there. It’s free if you have a recent version of the iPad.

Assistive Technology: Common Misconceptions

Are there some common misconceptions about assistive technology that you often encounter?

The biggest one is that it’s a form of cheating. That the technology is doing the work for them. So often a teacher will be reluctant to allow a child to use some technology, because they feel that by the fact that the computer is reading out loud to them, that suddenly they must have some great new understanding, that their intelligence is kind of giving them the answer. Again, that’s not the case. It’s kind of like the wheelchair. The wheelchair does not give a person who’s paraplegic, any great super powers.

Middle grade female student using assistive technology at home

Assistive Technology for Students with Attention Issues

How can teachers and parents help students with attention issues, who have trouble getting organized or paying attention?

We have a whole host of tools these days. One interesting thing about students with ADHD is they often have real difficulty with the perception of time. So often a student will sit down, and they’ll start doing their homework, and they say, “You know what? I’m going to take a five minute break,” and the next thing they know, their parents are getting mad at them, because an hour and a half has gone by, and they’ve only done six questions out of the 30 questions that they have to complete.

Changes to the AT Field

What change would you most like to see in the field of assistive technology?

For some reason, we still feel we have to teach kids how to use all the technology. We feel that technology is very special and sacred, and that we need experts who are trained in it to work with the students, and to teach them all of the nuts and bolts of every program. When you learned Microsoft Word, I bet you didn’t learn how to use all 125 features that Microsoft Word probably has in it. So when we teach a student how to use a text-to-speech software program, why are we teaching them how to use all 84 of the pieces in it?

middle school student using assistive technology with headphones

Don't Be Afraid of Technology

What would you say to parents and teachers who don’t know much about technology and might be a little intimidated?

Don’t be afraid! A lot of these tools are really easy to use. For many of the assistive technology tools out there today, we often find that students either know how to use it already, or in five minutes they will figure it out. And obviously that’s not true for every student or every tool, but in many cases we just need to give students an opportunity and they will find the solution. Teachers often feel, because it’s something new to them, that they must teach the student how to use the assistive technology.

Engaging Students in Their AT Plan

How do you go about engaging students to help formulate their own technology plan?

That can make a big difference, especially with older students. One thing we run into is we often give students way too much technology at first, and that can become overwhelming for them. So the goal really is to look at, and have the student help identify what is the main area that is most problematic for them. Am I struggling with reading? Or writing? Or getting my ideas generated and getting them down on paper? Am I struggling with math calculations, or word problems? What is it that is really the biggest problem?

Special Ed Assessment

I’m a special education teacher who has wavered for six years about whether to test my own son for a learning disability. He doesn’t want to be a “special” kid with “special” teachers. How do I know if it is right to test and risk my son being mad at me?

This is a common question from special educators; we wonder if perhaps we know too much about our field and are looking to find disabilities in our own children as a result. I have personally had to deal with this situation with one of my sons who has ADD. However, if they indeed have a special education need, we should not let our hesitancy create a situation where our children do not receive the assessment and services they may need. I think the most important thing is to let your child know that first and foremost you are his parent.

Stigma and Assistive Technology

With so many students using technology now, has it become easier for students with disabilities to use technology without feeling stigmatized?

In the past, one of the barriers to using technology is that students felt they were standing out as being different. So they didn’t want to open that laptop in the classroom. But today, so many people have smartphones and tablets. So I may be looking at the same webpage as my friend, but I’m just using the added feature of having my headphones on, and having it read out loud to me, whereas everybody thinks I might be listening to music. I’ve just disguised myself.

Struggling 10-year Old

My son will be 10 in two months and can’t read and can barely do simple addition and subtraction. What can I do?

It sounds as though this would be a terrific time to schedule a conference with your son’s classroom teacher and the school’s special education teacher. The purpose of the meeting should be to review your son’s present level of performance and what can be done to support his needs. It may be time to see whether his needs are being met by the level of support he’s receiving. It would also be appropriate for you to find out whether your son should participate in testing for special education.