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The Importance of Assistive Technology in the Virtual and Physical Classroom

A high school student sits at a desk using a braille keyboard.

Assistive technology in the classroom helps to ensure students with disabilities have the same opportunity for education as students who do not have disabilities. Assistive technology helps schools and teachers deliver on the promise of educational equity. Exploring how students with learning disabilities and other impairments use assistive technology in virtual and physical classrooms illuminates its vital role.

What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology can be any product or tool that helps people with disabilities learn, work, and live more productive lives. Ranging from simple mechanical devices to sophisticated hardware and software, assistive technologies address a wide range of disabilities.

Examples of Assistive Technology

Many household items—timers, calculators, and magnifiers, for example—can help address specific disabilities. Advanced and emerging technologies such as virtual reality also serve assistive learning purposes. The following tools are some of the more common examples of assistive technology:

  • Audio recorders can be used to capture lectures and discussions that students with auditory processing disorder might miss.
  • Closed captioning allows students with auditory disabilities to learn from video-based lessons.
  • Color overlays and line readers, including basic physical objects and software-based tools, can help students with attention deficit disorder and the visually impaired.
  • Flexible furniture, including standing desks and adjustable seating, can help students with mobility issues.
  • Graphic organizers, including paper and digital versions, help students with learning disabilities and executive function disorder.
  • Pencil grips enable students with fine motor skill problems to use writing utensils.
  • Personal listening devices capture teachers’ voices more clearly with microphones that connect to a personal speaker or earpiece via FM radio waves, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth.
  • Special keyboards address a range of learning needs, from braille for the visually impaired to alternative layouts that address physical and cognitive disabilities.
  • Speech-to-text software lets students with speech disabilities communicate.
  • Text-to-speech software helps students with speech disabilities, impaired vision, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and various learning disabilities.

The Importance of Assistive Technology

More than 7 million students ages 3-21, or 14 percent of all public school students, receive special education services in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A third of those students have a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia.

Other major categories of disability are wide ranging: * Autism spectrum disorder * Developmental delay * Emotional disturbance (anxiety and depression, for example) * Intellectual disability * Hearing impairment * Orthopedic impairment * Speech or language impairment * Other health impairments (a broad category that encompasses many conditions that limit a student’s strength, energy, or alertness)

Not all students with disabilities require or are eligible for assistive technology, but the prevalence and variety of disabilities underscores the importance of such learning aids.

Who Qualifies for Assistive Technology?

To be eligible for special assistance, students must be evaluated by a team of professionals who assess their disability. Qualifying students receive an individualized education program (IEP), which defines learning needs, sets goals, and describes how teachers will help the student learn. Schools are required to provide assistive technology if the IEP team determines it is necessary.

Students who do not qualify for an IEP, which is authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), may still qualify for assistive technology under a 504 plan, which is authorized under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. IEPs and 504 plans are similar, but whereas an IEP addresses a child’s special education needs resulting from specific disabilities, a 504 plan provides services for a child with any disability that interferes with their ability to learn.

While some disabilities and associated needs are readily apparent, others require extensive testing. People with learning disabilities or learning differences, for example, are typically of average or above-average intelligence, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA). They simply process information differently, and the effects of their disability may be limited to a specific area. LDA groups learning disabilities into five categories:

  1. Dyscalculia affects a person’s ability to understand and learn numbers and math.
  2. Dysgraphia affects a person’s handwriting ability and fine motor skills.
  3. Dyslexia affects reading and language processing skills.
  4. Nonverbal learning disabilities include challenges related to interpreting facial expressions or body language.
  5. Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit affect a person’s reading comprehension or spoken language.

Related disorders such as ADHD, dyspraxia (affecting muscle control), and executive functioning disabilities (weakness in cognitive management systems), while not learning disabilities by definition, commonly occur with learning disabilities, according to LDA.

Assistive Technology Implementation Challenges

The benefits of assistive technology for students with learning disabilities are manifest, but implementing such tools in classrooms can cause challenges:

  • Staff training. Teachers and staff may require special training to help students set up and utilize more sophisticated assistive technology aids.
  • Lesson planning. Integrating the use of assistive technology with established lessons and classroom dynamics can require additional planning.
  • Technical difficulties. Technology failures can disrupt learning and teaching.

Assistive Technology in Virtual Classrooms

Many assistive technologies are digital and easily adapted to online use and remote environments, but virtual classroom integration can have unique challenges. Students who require the use of assistive technologies in classroom and home environments may require additional support for remote setup, and the transportation of equipment to and from school places additional responsibilities on students and families.

Such challenges have not stopped teachers from delivering on the promise of equal opportunity for education, however. Assistive technology has been successfully integrated into physical and virtual classroom settings. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified some of the challenges associated with remote learning, but teachers continue to adapt and find new ways to enable learning for all students. Helping schools to acquire and utilize technology—including tools designed to help students with disabilities—has never been more important.

Creating More Equitable Learning Environments

Providing students with the tools they need to fully participate and learn is a fundamental responsibility of education. For students with disabilities, assistive technology can be the key to an equitable learning environment.

Educators interested in providing an equal education to all students, including those with disabilities, should explore American University’s School of Education. Through its Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and Online Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy and Leadership, American University’s School of Education prepares teachers and policy makers to excel in the digital age. Find out how American University’s School of Education trains educators to transform the education system to benefit all learners.

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