Accessible Education Through Assistive Technology


Advances in technology have had a direct impact on the individual student's educational process. Schools report that technology is having a positive effect on children's learning and their perception of themselves as learners, which is why children with disabilities benefit from the use of assistive technology. The implementation of assistive technology is dependent on the knowledge, skill and inventiveness of the teachers who use what they have learned from higher education, their teaching experiences, and their attendance at continuing education programs and in-service classes.

An increasing number of students with learning difficulties are now being identified. Of the 8.5 million children who have disabilities in this country, learning disabilities are the most commonly addressed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Jans 2000). In the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1998, assistive technology is divided into two categories:

  1. "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 individuals with disabilities.
  2. "Any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology service" (Cavanaugh 2001).

Teachers are increasingly confronted with how assistive technology can be used and, in particular, how learning disabilities can be successfully addressed. However, teachers are generally not aware of most of the assistive technology devices and services available for students with learning difficulties. When a student's Individualized Education Program requires assistive technology equipment and software, a teacher must know its application and use. In addition, the training of a student's parents or guardians in the use of assistive technology is critical. Time is an important issue; any delay between acquisition of technology and its actual use by the student reduces their learning time and enthusiasm.

Higher Education's Role

Teachers, especially beginning instructors, have many demands on their time, so it's important for them to be knowledgeable about assistive technology and its applications. Universities are realizing this as they begin integrating assistive technology into their education courses. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the International Society for Technology in Education require that higher education programs include the use of assistive technology (Cavanaugh 2001). Some universities, such as the California State University system, University of Kentucky and North Carolina State University, now offer degrees in assistive technology. Graduates receive a master's in educational assistive technology and are equipped to specialize in this area.

George Mason University offers a master's degree and a doctorate in assistive/special education technology. This program prepares educators and other professionals to work with the disabled, service providers and family members. Graduates use technology to assist individuals in functioning more effectively at school, home and work, as well as in community environments. Students complete a set of core courses in technology, consultation, research and special education, as well as gain practical experience through internships. The university offers courses such as "Emerging Educational Technologies," "Educational Consultation and Colla-boration," "Clinical Psych'educational Assessment in Assistive Technology" and "Augmentative Communication."

The Johns Hopkins University offers a master's in assistive technology for communication and social interaction. This program prepares special educators, speech and language pathologists, as well as occupational therapists to integrate assistive technology to improve communication and social interaction of students with disabilities. Participants learn best practices for the selection, acquisition and use of assistive technologies in teaching communication and social skills. The university offers courses such as "Assistive Tech-nology for Educating Individuals with Low Incidence Disabilities," "Ad-vanced Applications of Assistive Technology for Individuals with Disabilities" and "Access to General Education Curriculum with Tech-nology Accommodation."

Also, while many universities don't offer specific degrees in assistive technology, they do have courses that address the subject. For example, the University of California, Berkeley has an assistive technology course that focuses on research in the area of assistive technology, as well as examines the technologies that have been developed and are being used to support people with disabilities. And the University of Delaware offers courses such as "Computer-Assisted Instruction for Remedial Special Education" and "Augmentative and Alternative Communication."

In addition to on-site courses in assistive technology at universities, online courses are continuing to grow in popularity at the higher education level. Universities are forming partnerships with educational organizations such as the Research Institute for Assistive and Training Technologies and The National Association of State Directors of Special Education Inc. These organizations provide online assistive technology courses for credit.

It is recognized that a need exists for the use of assistive technology to be presented to a broader spectrum of education students at the university level. Due to inclusion, the number of children with disabilities in the general classroom is increasing. Teacher education programs should examine their capabilities in this area and decide on appropriate courses of study. It may be desirable to incorporate an actual assistive technology program, offering classes toward a certificate or degree. Or, it may mean providing online assistive technology courses and supplementing these courses with hands-on experience when possible. Whatever route is chosen, it is the responsibility of the university's teacher education programs to provide future teachers with knowledge of assistive technology and its importance in helping students learn.

Assistive Technology Initiatives

The increased awareness of this growing need for assistive technology has fostered the interest of the Charp-Wiggins Fund, whose mission is to address the educational and technological needs of disabled students seeking higher education. In cooperation with educators of Widener University, located in Chester, Pa., the fund has been instrumental in helping initiate a program on the study of assistive technology in higher education.

Through this collaboration, representatives from a cross section of U.S. public and private universities and colleges were interviewed for a survey on assistive technology initiatives. The questions and their answers illustrate the complexities of assistive technology's application in the university setting, as well as the lack of a specific plan in the preservice area. The following is a summary of the survey's results:

No set policies. With rare exception, there were no set policies in place at most of the responding universities and colleges. Assistive technology is addressed on an individual-need basis with the majority of schools requiring documentation in order for it to be used. Assistive technology centers are commonly located in university libraries with monitored access. Eligibility for additional assistive technology must be requested by the incoming student and ascertained on admission. This process also includes consultation with advisory staff.

Available assistive technology. Both low- and high-tech equipment are available in these institutions. The most common include: Kurzweil software, the JAWS screen reader, ZoomText screen magnification and reading software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software, Braille printers, and FM broadcast systems.

Use in the classroom. In general, minimal assistive technology is used in higher education classrooms; although laptops, microphones and transmitters are now appearing with greater frequency. Some disabled students even hire scribes for note taking. But a fear factor still exists among faculty regarding the implementation of assistive technology. However, it was noted in the survey that once used, assistive technology is recognized as a positive educational aid in the classroom.

Implementation barriers. Funding remains a primary issue, which affects the areas of educating faculty and providing assistive technology consultants. The individuality of assistive technology needs and the deployment of assistive technology devices further complicate implementation. Upgrad-ing needs and compatibility issues provide added difficulties as well.

Overcoming barriers. Some universities have established funding or applied for federal grants for assistive technology. Publicizing information about assistive technology through school newspapers, newsletters and e-mail make faculty, students and alumni aware of the capabilities and need for assistive technology. In addition, the provision of training through the companies that manufacture the assistive technology products should be encouraged. Staffing of computer services should also include people knowledgeable in assistive technology devices and services.

Funding a program. There is a variety of funding for assistive technology. Universities can access departmental funds, grants and portions of student tuition allocated for educational technology, trust funds, Americans with Disabilities Act accounts, and contributions from vocational rehabilitation services.

Advice to establish a program. Communication among universities was strongly recommended to address this growing need for assistive technology. The search for funding is ongoing in higher education, but there are grants to be found. Online courses are also available, including a free course given through the University of Vermont called Project GENASYS. One suggestion in the survey was to ask people with disabilities to participate in the instruction and demonstration of assistive technology, particularly in the education of preservice teachers. Other ideas were to require universities to supply all information regarding assistive technology in one center, such as the Office for Disability Services, as well as to maintain communication with computer services. In addition, multiple locations for assistive technology were recommended to allow true equal access.

Courses and programs offered. Direct courses in assistive technology in preservice education are limited, with more than half of those surveyed not offering such programs at their institutions. But there are exceptions, including Seton Hall University, which has integrated assistive technology into the curriculum of each education course; even offering a one-credit course in assistive technology. Penn State and Indiana University also offer courses for special education teachers, while other universities offer continuing education courses, presentations and transition programs.

The use of assistive technology has the capability of helping a growing number of students, because its benefits are great and the need is huge. The barriers continue to be a lack of information and resources. And even if the resources are available, the information is often difficult to locate. This is why basic knowledge must be provided at the preservice level and continued through in-service programs — a goal that needs many hands.

A National Initiative

There is an ever-increasing population of students who desire a full education and need technology to assist them in achieving their goals. The education community at large must be committed to assist these students, and teachers must be better prepared to use available assistive technology resources. Also, a basic understanding of assistive technology in preservice education should be part of all teacher preparation programs.

The Accessible Classroom Project has been initiated by the National Education Association and Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC) at Temple University with many interested parties, including: the Baltimore County Public Schools, the Charp-Wiggins Fund, The Johns Hopkins University Technology for Educators Program, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and Verizon. Its main objective is to provide a well-organized plethora of resources to educators, families and communities about factors that affect decision making at the school and community levels.

The project is to result in a "user-friendly" Web site where visitors can access information regarding the acquisition, use and maintenance of assistive devices and services. This Web site also offers recommendations for training those with a need for assistive technology solutions, such as educators, school personnel, parents, consumers and other stakeholders. This project partnership will collect research and disseminate information nationwide to assure that the learning needs of children with disabilities are met. In addition, the site has the potential of being a gateway to those who wish never to be left behind.

Assistive Technology Resources

Anumber of resources are available to assist in the implementation of assistive technology. For example, in Pennsylvania each of the state's 29 intermediate units, which provide services to school districts within their geographic regions, offer assistive technology equipment and training for teachers, students and parents. However, the equipment and software varies among the intermediate units. In one intermediate unit, the emphasis is on reading and writing with tools such as the IntelliKeys keyboard, AlphaSmart's computing devices, the Laser PC6 text-to-speech device, trackballs and screen readers.

In another intermediate unit, the focus for assistive technology includes both the general education student with reading and writing difficulties, as well as the student with disabilities. Many different devices are available for these students, including talking software (Write:OutLoud or IntelliTalk2), scan and screen readers (Kurzweil 3000 or CAST eReader), word prediction programs (Co:Writer), portable word processors (AlphaSmart 3000), touch screens (TouchWindow), graphic organizers (Inspiration or Kidspiration), alternative keyboards, track balls, multimedia programs and e-books.

A third intermediate unit provides both high- and low-tech devices for the students it serves. Students with writing difficulties can use Writing With Symbols 2000, Boardmaker or PixWriter. Students with handwriting difficulties work with Loops and Other Groups, or Handwriting Without Tears. To support literacy, software such as Earobics and Simon Spells are used. To support math, Access to Math and IntelliKeys are provided. Also, assistive technology resources that can be used beneficially with the general education student are made available.

In addition, Pennsylvania offers an assistive technology lending library that loans or donates assistive technology devices for use in schools and in the community (Temple University 2002). Many intermediate units choose to borrow equipment rather than buy it, because it allows individual students to be exposed to a variety of tools. Another resource in Pennsylvania for assistive technology training is the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, which provides ongoing support and technical assistance to educators and parents.


Cavanaugh, T. 2001. "The Need for Assistive Technology in Educational Technology" [cited 5 July 2002]. Online:

Jans, L. 2000. "Use of Assistive Technology: Findings From National Surveys" [cited 20 June 2002]. Online:

Temple University. "Pennsylvania's Initiative on Assistive Technology" [cited 20 June 2002]. Online:

If you are interested in participating in the Accessible Classroom Project, please contact the Charp-Wiggins Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation at 1234 Market St., Suite 1800, Philadelphia, PA 19107-3794. Or, contact Donna C. Wetzel at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.