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Family Information Guide to Assistive Technology

Section 1: The Possibilities of Assistive Technology

Two children holding handsMore than ever before, technology makes it possible for children with disabilities to lead independent and fulfilling lives.

For example, a young girl who is unable to speak can communicate with family and friends using a portable electronic device that “speaks” for her; a boy with a physical disability can use his electric wheelchair to participate in sports; and a young adult with a learning disability can compose a school report with the help of a computer.

Parents may have seen or heard about this type of technology and wondered how it might help their children. This equipment is frequently called “assistive technology.” Assistive technology (AT) helps a person with a disability do something s/he otherwise cannot to do. Assistive technology can be anything from a simple device, such as a magnifying glass, to a complex device, such as a computerized communication system.

The term “assistive technology” comes from several laws that address the needs of people with disabilities. Assistive technology includes both the devices and the services needed to use the devices effectively. AT services might include assessing a child’s need for AT and the training the child and his teacher, aide, and family to use the AT.

How can assistive technology help my child?

The potential of technology to help children with disabilities is tremendous. Assistive technology can help children be more self-sufficient at home and in school, communicate with friends and family, get out into the community, and as they grow older, find employment. The story on page 4 illustrates how assistive technology can play a key role in the life of a child with a disability.

How do I determine what type of AT my child needs?

Girl with prosthetic arm painting.The process of choosing assistive technology for your child usually starts with an evaluation of your child’s AT needs. The evaluation can be conducted by the school, an independent agency, or an individual consultant. Because the scope of assistive technology is so large, the evaluation will most likely have a focus. For example, an AT evaluation conducted by the school is directly related to achieving educational goals and outcomes.

Every AT evaluation should address what the child is having difficulty doing. For example, if a child is having difficulty with mobility, the evaluation would focus on technology to assist with that, such as a wheelchair or scooter.

During the evaluation it is important to talk about your child’s strengths in addition to his challenges. For example: “What does he do well?” “What does he enjoy doing?” This type of input will provide clues as to what type of technology might work, and how well your child will respond to it.

graphic of a series of symbols, an apple for education, a wheelchair for mobility, a folder for employment, two people for socialization, a phone for communication, and a person running for leisure and recreationIt is also important to consider the different environments in which your child interacts with others – at home, school, and in the community. Think about how your child’s needs for assistive technology might be different on the playground, the classroom, at a friend’s house, or at a public place, such as a library or mall.

An AT evaluation will result in a recommendation for specific devices and services, including any modifications to the child’s environments. Long-term success with AT involves an ongoing look at need, equipment trial and evaluation followed by maintenance and growing expertise by the user, family, and professionals. It is important to remember that AT needs usually change with time, circumstances, and goals.

Meet Freddie

Freddie is a 21-year-old young adult with spina bifida and multiple health impairments. Since he was a small child, Freddie’s disabilities have severely limited his functional abilities, particularly his mobility and speech. Because of Freddie’s many needs, he has relied heavily on different types of assistive technology throughout his life. His mother, Deborah, says that without AT he would not be able to live at home, attend school, go out in the community, or be employed.

Technology for Communication
Freddie was assessed for a communication device when he was in kindergarten because his speech was difficult to understand. Since then, he has used many different communication tools, and he currently uses a computerized communication device that helps him talk with others in different situations.

Technology for Mobility
Since Freddie was 2 years old he has used a wheelchair to get around at home and school. In first grade he began to use a power wheelchair that he controlled with a joystick. The power wheelchair gave him greater freedom and now he uses it to travel throughout the community independently.

Technology for Education
Freddie also has limited use of his arms, so he cannot hold a book to read, or a pencil to write. Because of these limitations, he has used books on tape and talking computer books to help him learn to read and write. He has also used the computer to type his writing assignments for school.

Technology for Work
As a young adult, Freddie has found computer-related employment, using a computer with adaptive devices such as a trackball mouse and special software for typing.

Technology for Social and Leisure Activities
For social interaction, Freddie has been able to use e-mail and the Internet to stay connected with friends and family and to keep up with current events. He also uses the computer for recreational activities, such as listening to CDs or watching videos. Freddie’s mother feels that the computer has been “the most important piece of assistive technology” in his life because it provides a vital connection with the rest of the world.

Not every child will need as much assistive technology as Freddie uses, but AT can help many children with different needs realize their potential. Assistive technology can include adapted toys, handheld dictionaries, computers, powered mobility, augmentative communication devices, special switches, and thousands of commercially available or adapted tools to assist an individual with daily living activities.

Learning about Assistive Technology

Snapshot of the FCTD website Assisstive Technology Works! PageParents can help to identify potential AT for their children if they learn more about the choices that are available. Speech-language therapists, occupational therapists and school professionals are often a good starting point. You may not be aware, however, of the many other organizations that provide AT information and training, such as parent training and information centers (PTIs), community technology centers, state assistive technology programs, and rehabilitation centers. The Family Center on Technology and Disability (FCTD) is funded by the U.S. Department of Education to make available a wide range of AT resources to people and organizations that work with families. Families are always welcome to visit the FCTD’s website at www.fctd.info to find organizations to work with and to learn more about assistive technology. See the Resource Section of this guide for more information about locating such centers and programs.

If possible, you should visit an assistive technology center with your child to see and try out various devices and equipment. Some AT centers offer a lending device program that enables families to borrow devices for a trial period. Parents can seek out AT workshops, trainings, and conferences and there are many opportunities to learn about AT on the Internet as well.

Meet Trey

Teen hugging counselorTrey, now 8-years-old, was born with Down syndrome and numerous other health problems. He hasn’t talked since he was born. Because Trey was unable to communicate his needs and wants he often became very frustrated and then acted out by yelling and throwing things. When Trey was 3 years old, his parents decided to have him evaluated by a communication specialist in their school district. The evaluation determined that Trey could benefit from having a communication device to help him express his needs and communicate with others, but she suggested a trial with a couple devices to find out which worked best for Trey and his family.

Lisa and Stephen, Trey’s parents, were unfamiliar with communication technology, but the school specialist helped them learn about the different devices that they would try with Trey at home and at school. For several weeks the family tried a simple voice output device with six messages, which led the parents and the specialist to realize Trey’s vocabulary would very quickly outgrow that particular device. In the end, they decided on a 32-message device with multiple recording levels. This product, called “Tech Speak,” became Trey’s first communication device. Soon Trey was able to activate buttons to form simple requests, such as “I want crackers.”

“Finding the right technology for Trey is an ongoing process and not always easy. I encourage parents to try out different devices with their child at home and school before settling on one device. It’s been invaluable for me to link up with a parent advocacy organization and support groups to learn about the technology available, but more importantly to learn advocacy skills that have helped me get the technology Trey needs.”

-- Lisa, Trey’s mother

AT Options

The following list describes a number of common assistive technology options in different goal areas. This is only a brainstorming list and is not intended to be comprehensive. Check the “Glossary” for any words and terms that are not familiar to you.

Aids for Daily Living

___ Adapted utensils/plates
___ Arm support
___ Automated feeding

___ Velcro fasteners
___ Button hook
___ Dressing aids

Recreation & Leisure
___ Adapted toys and games (e.g., puzzles with handles)
___ Battery interrupters and switches
___ Adapted sporting equipment
      (e.g., Velcro mitt, lighted or beeper ball)
___ Universal cuff to hold crayons, markers, paint brush
___ Modified utensils (e.g., rollers, stampers, scissors)
___ Articulated forearm support (e.g., ErgoRest)
___ Drawing/graphics computer programs
___ Music or games on the computer

Home Living
___ Switch
___ Battery interrupter
___ Control unit
___ infrared sender / receiver
___ X-10 unit and peripherals


Learning /Studying
___ Print or picture schedule
___ Low tech aids to find materials
      (e.g., color tabs, colored paper or folders)
___ Highlight text (e.g., markers, highlight tape, ruler)
___ Voice output reminders for tasks, assignments, steps to tasks
___ Software for manipulation of objects/concept development
      (e.g., Blocks in Motion, Thinking Things)- may use alternate input device such as
      Touch Window
___ Software for organization of ideas and studying
      (e.g., PowerPoint, Inspiration, ClarisWorks Outline)

___ Changes in text size/space/color/background color
___ Book adapted for page turning (e.g. with page fluffers, 3-ring binder and folders)
___ Use of pictures with text (e.g., Picture It, PixWriter)
___ Talking electronic devices for single words (e.g., Reading pen, Franklin Bookman)
___ Scanner with OCR and talking word processor
___ Electronic Books (e.g., Start to Finish)

___ Abacus, math line
___ Calculator/calculator with print out
___ Talking calculator
___ Calculator with large keys, large display
___ On-screen calculator
___ Software with cueing for math computations
___ Tactile/voice output measuring devices (e.g. clock, ruler)

Alternate Computer Access
___ Keyboard with easy access or accessibility options
___ Word prediction, word completion, macros, abbreviation expansion to reduce
___ Keyguard
___ Alternate mouse (e.g., TouchWindow, trackball, trackpad, mouse pen)
___ Mouse alternative with on-screen keyboard
___ Alternate keyboard (e.g., Intellikeys, Discover Board, Tash)
___ Mouth stick, head pointer with keyboard
___ Switch with Morse code
___ Switch with scanning
___ Voice recognition software and hardware

Composing Written Material
___ Word cards, word book, word wall
___ Pocket dictionary, thesaurus
___ Electronic dictionary/ spell check (e.g., Franklin Spelling Ace)
___ Word processor with word prediction
      (e.g., Co:Writer or Word Q) to facilitate spelling and sentence construction)
___ Multimedia software for production of ideas
      (e.g., PowerPoint, Overlay Maker w/ talking word processor)
___ Voice recognition software

Mechanics of Writing
___ Pencil/pen with adapted grip
___ Adapted paper (e.g., raised lines, highlighted lines)
___ Slantboard
___ Typewriter
___ Portable word processor
___ Computer

___ Communication book / board
___ Eye gaze board
___ Simple voice output product (e.g., Big Mack, CheapTalk, Talking Picture Frame)
___ Voice output device with levels (e.g., Macaw, CheapTalk with Levels, Dynavox)
___ Voice output with icon sequencing (e.g., AlphaTalker, Vanguard, Liberator)
___ Voice output with dynamic display (e.g., Dynavox, laptop with Speaking Dynamically)
___ Device with speech output for typing (e.g., LinkPLUS, Write:Out Loud with laptop)


Work/School to Work
___ Scheduling aids (calendars, reminders, task analysis)
___ Switch/device
___ Adapted keyboard
___ Communication aid
___ Keyboard emulator

___ Adaptive seating/positioning
___ Electronic communication
___ Electronic organizers
___ Adapted computer input
___ Environmental control units


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