Assistive Technology and the Expanded Core Curriculum

What Is Assistive Technology (AT)?

Assistive technology (AT) refers to the special devices and software that people with disabilities can use to access the environment and gain information. The law defines an assistive technology device as any item, piece of equipment, or product system (whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized) that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

Assistive technology does not only refer to complex high-tech electronic devices. Many useful solutions are decidedly low-tech. Assistive technology ranges from simple to complex. A basic book stand can help a student read without bending over a desk. This is crucial for those with blindness or low vision. On the complex end, there are computer systems. These have screen reading and voice recognition. Such systems aid students struggling with screens and keyboards. Students often need a mix of devices. For instance, a hand-held telescope can help read menus at places like McDonald’s. Screen magnification software makes computer use easier. But, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Each student’s needs in assistive technology are unique.

Why Teach Assistive Technology as a Specific Area?

In most schools in the United States, technologies for reading, writing, and research are so widely available in classrooms there is an expectation that students will finish school adept in their use. The traditional paper-based tools of textbooks and workbooks have given way to electronic devices such as smart boards, CD-ROMs, and multimedia educational materials as well as computers with Internet access and its array of resources. Students regularly access online encyclopedias, video demonstrations, and search features. The use of digital tools like the Internet means more information is available and is easier to get than ever before. Schools have been under increasing pressure from higher education and businesses to prepare technology-literate students who are ready for the workforce.

Students who are blind or low vision are fortunate that technology has increased options for access to materials and the general curriculum. Assistive technology allows students to receive materials available electronically and then access that information using braille, enlarged print, or auditory-access. Teachers can use electronic braille embossers and translation software to create braille documents quickly. Video magnification technology allows students to read their textbooks and view the board at the front of the room with the same device. No longer do students have to wait passively for classroom materials to come to them—students can use assistive technology to actively and independently participate in a wider range of classroom activities.

There are a number of reasons for this lack of instruction. One is the documented shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs). Without enough qualified teachers to provide assessment and instruction, our students won’t learn how to use the technology they need to be successful. It’s also critical that the TVIs who work with students be familiar with the often fast-changing field of technology. This includes keeping updated on new technology as well as technology-specific instructional methods.

How Do TVIs Approach Instruction?

TVIs begin by assessing students’ technology skills as well as their current and future assistive technology needs. They also consider what a student’s peers are learning in the area of technology, such as word processing and keyboarding. However, because students who are blind or low vision need more time to learn assistive technology skills, they should be introduced to these skills well before they will need them for school. For example, the general curriculum might introduce keyboarding in upper elementary school grades or later.

Students who are blind or low vision typically need direct instruction in how to use screen-reading or screen-magnification software to access computers, they need to start learning skills such as keyboarding well before their peers in order to be proficient in these areas. Otherwise, students who wait to learn keyboarding with their peers might fall behind when they have to take additional time to learn how to use accessibility software.

There are curricula that can be used to teach specific assistive technology skills, such as using screen-reading or screen-magnification software. However, students should start learning these skills through meaningful, motivating activities. For example, the TVI might begin teaching a student how to use the Internet by having the student look for websites on topics in which the student is interested: things like wildlife or space exploration. To teach a student how to use a refreshable braille display, the teacher might have the student read a funny poem or short story. If a student is learning how to use a video magnifier for the first time, the teacher might have the student view objects like toys, rocks, leaves, or flowers on the device to make the activity more interesting.

Start with easy tasks for instruction. Once the student reaches a level of proficiency, they should use the tech for schoolwork. The TVI will keep checking the student’s tech use. They’ll teach advanced features and devices too. The aim is clear. By high school graduation, students should excel in using essential tech. This helps them access and create information effectively.

How Can We Support Instruction in Assistive Technology in Schools?

The law includes strong provisions requiring school systems to assess students for assistive technology devices and provide them if deemed educationally necessary. Despite the acknowledged importance of technology in schools, there are a number of obstacles to providing assistive technology devices and instruction in their use to children in public schools.

TVIs need to advocate for conducting careful assessments of students’ technology needs and providing direct instruction in the use of those technologies. Teachers need sufficient time to work directly with students in order to provide the kind of intense and thorough instruction they need to become truly adept at a broad range of devices.

Achieving this goal involves two key steps. First, integrate assistive technology courses into university programs for pre-service teachers. This prepares new teachers before they start. Second, provide ongoing professional development for current TVIs. They need to stay updated on the newest devices and teaching methods. Technology evolves quickly. Regular updates on available devices and instructional strategies are essential for these teachers.

Administrators must understand the importance of providing a full range of low- and high-tech solutions for students. While some of the electronic devices are expensive, they often meet multiple needs and can save money over time by increasing access to materials and decreasing the time it takes to provide materials in other accessible formats.

Using assistive technology goes beyond the classroom for blind or low vision students. It’s vital for their future. To compete globally, they need technical skills. Plus, they need to master assistive technology. This helps them access information and work effectively. Studies show a link between technology use and job success for blind adults. Without tech skills, finding a job can be tough. This highlights the importance of assistive technology in education and beyond.