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Assistive Technology and Educational Practice

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Assistive technology (AT) includes an array of devices and services designed to provide compensatory supports for students with disabilities. Education professionals are required to consider AT when developing individual program plans for all students with disabilities in public school settings. This article describes the compensatory nature of AT, with particular emphasis on key elements of AT consideration. This process focuses on understanding the physical, cognitive, and social-linguistic demands on students with disabilities within the contexts of tasks embedded within activities and features of tools. The importance of AT outcomes is also addressed.
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Parette H P and Peterson-Karlan G R (2010), Assistive Technology and
Educational Practice. In: Penelope Peterson, Eva Baker, Barry McGaw,
(Editors), International Encyclopedia of Education. volume 2, pp. 537-543.
Oxford: Elsevier.
Assistive Technology and Educational Practice
H P Parette and G R Peterson-Karlan, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA
ã2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Glossary
Assistive-technology device – Any item, piece of
equipment, or product system, whether acquired
commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized,
that is used to increase, maintain, or improve
functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.
Assistive-technology service – Any service that
directly assists an individual with a disability in the
selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive-
technology device.
Cognitive demands – The amount of thinking
required for performing tasks or for using a tool.
Compensation – To substitute for or perform a
function (using a tool) that cannot be done by a
person with a disability.
Consideration – A federally mandated team
decision-making process focusing on selection,
implementation, and outcomes monitoring of
assistive technology for a student with disabilities.
Instructional technology – The technologies that
are used to teach new skills, remediate deficiencies
in skills learned, and/or to supplement or expand the
curriculum for all students.
Outcomes – The effect or result of using an assistive
technology tool.
Physical demands – The amount of muscle
strength and movement needed to initiate, pursue,
and complete a task or use a tool.
Social–linguistic demands – The amount of
symbolic interpretation and processing required of a
user to use a tool or complete a task.
Ubiquitous – Readily available or widely used.
Deeply embedded in the fabric of society is use of a wide
array of technologies. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2007)
defined technology as both ‘‘a practical application of
knowledge’’ and ‘‘a manner of accomplishing a task.’’
When viewed broadly, then, Peterson-Karlan and Parette
(2008) observed that technology includes not only the
things individuals use to accomplish tasks (e.g., overhead
projectors, computers, cell phones, copy machines, dic-
tionaries, and spreadsheet software), but also the proce-
dures for how individuals use or operate them, and how
they systematically proceed to accomplish tasks (i.e., use
of strategies, such as rules for text messaging; dictionary
use rules; and writing steps of required tasks on a white-
board). Acceptance of this broader context of what tech-
nology is – things, procedures, and strategies that help
individuals complete tasks – is integral to understand-
ing and effectively working with twenty-first-century
students – both with and without disabilities – and edu-
cation professionals (Peterson-Karlan and Parette, 2007).
Many technologies in society have become ubiquitous,
that is, they are so prominent and accepted that they
appear to be everywhere and used routinely by many
people. Not many individuals would argue that ubiqui-
tous technologies (e.g., light switches, cell phones, the
Internet, information search software, electronic calcula-
tors, and word processors with spell-check features) are
unimportant given their impact on the society’s quality of
life, particularly with regard to how they increase effec-
tiveness, efficiency, and comfort or ease of doing things, as
well as productivity in the workplace. Sadly, however, the
broad acceptance and inherent use of technology that
permeates the broader world context, particularly in
work settings, are much less frequently observed in school
environments (Peterson-Karlan and Parette, 2008).
Presented in Table 1 are three categories of primary
technologies used in today’s schools accompanied by
descriptions and examples. These categories, broadly,
include (1) information and communication technology
(ICT); (2) instructional technology (IT); and (3) assistive
technology (AT).
Medical technologies, though a specific technology
category by itself, are not included given the limited
relationship to educational milieus. More detailed elabo-
ration on the first two categories may be found elsewhere
(cf., Grabe and Grabe, 2007; Lengel and Lengel, 2006;
Roblyer, 2006; Smaldino et al., 2005). In general, however,
neither ICT nor IT by themselves enable all students to
learn and participate in the general education curriculum
(see Figure 1).
Students with disabilities are now included in general
education classroom settings to a greater extent than ever
before. Yet, these students often demonstrate gaps in their
ability to perform at expected levels in various academic
and life-skill areas (see Figure 2). Given the current
pressures on public schools for all children to achieve
(No Child Left Behind Act, 2001), the potential for tech-
nology to provide access to and support learning for
students with disabilities and narrow the gap between
abilities and expected educational performance levels
has received considerable attention (International Society
537
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for Technology in Education, 2005a, 2005b; SEAT Cen-
ter, National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI),
and University of Kansas (KU), 2006; Thurlow et al., 2007).
For students with disabilities, AT (1) must be considered
by education professionals when developing any individ-
ual education plan (IEP; Individuals with Disabilities
Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA, 2004);
20 U.S.C. 1401 }614(B)(v)); and (2) is often required to
ensure their inclusion and effective participation in the
general education curriculum (Center for Technology in
Education, Johns Hopkins University; and Technology
and Media Division (TAM) of the Council for Excep-
tional Children, 2005).
Blackhurst (2005) noted that AT was developed for
people with disabilities to (1) make the environment more
accessible, (2) assist them in learning, (3) enable them to
compete in the workplace, or (4) enhance their indepen-
dence or otherwise improve their quality of life. The IDEIA
2004 defines an AT device as ‘‘any item, piece of equipment
or product system, whether acquired commercially or
off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to
increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of
individuals with disabilities’’ (20 U.S.C. }1401(251)).
There are now more than 25 000 AT items, equipment,
software, and product services (Abledata, as cited in Edy-
burn, 2000) to consider for use with over 6 million students
of ages 6–21 with disabilities. However, AT also includes
services that support the acquisition and implementation
of the AT. IDEIA 2004 defines AT services as ‘‘any service
Table 1 Categories of technology impacting schools
Category Description Examples
Information and
communication
Helps to communicate and interact with others;
produce work; problem-solve; find information;
and manage ourselves, our homes and lives
more efficiently and effectively across settings
Copy machines; word processing and graphics
software; Microsoft
W
PowerPoint; cell phones; text messaging; blogs;
Wikis; and the Internet
Instructional Increases instructional Computers; DVDs; projection devices; digital
audio and video recording or editing devices or
software used by teachers to prepare or present
information; whiteboards; and educational
software
effectiveness (learning in a better way than
without the experience)
efficiency (same amount of learning occurs but
in a shorter time)
appeal (increases possibility that students will
devote time and energy to the learning task)
Assistive Compensates for difficulty in accomplishing
functional tasks at an expected level of
performance
Foam pencil grips; visual schedules; graphic
organizers; electronic communication systems;
wheelchairs; hearing devices; text-to-speech
software; talking word processors; and seating
and positioning systems
Instructional technology Assistive technology
Used to:
- Teach or learn functional
skills
Used to:
- Compensate for inability to
perform functional
tasks
- Help students do things they
could not do at an expected
performance level
- Supplements or expands
the curriculum
- Remediation of learning
functional tasks
Students can learn or perform
functional tasks without IT
Students cannot learn or perform
functional tasks without AT
Figure 1 Distinctions between IT and AT. From SEAT Center, ã2007. Understanding Assistive Technology.
Functional performance across time
Functional performance level
Expected level of performance
Performance with AT Compensatory
function
of AT
Performance without AT
Figure 2 Performance gap exhibited by students with
disabilities across time, with AT compensating and closing the
gap. From SEAT Center, ã2007.
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that directly assists an individual with a disability in the
selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology
device’’ (20 U.S.C. 1401 }602(2)). Such services would
include (1) evaluation of the child’s needs, including a
functional evaluation of the child in his or her customary
environment; (2) purchasing, leasing, or otherwise
providing for the acquisition of AT devices by the child;
(3) selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting,
applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing of AT
devices; (4) coordinating and using other therapies, inter-
ventions, or services with AT devices, such as those asso-
ciated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and
programs; (5) training or technical assistance for the child,
or, where appropriate, the child’s family; and (6) training or
technical assistance (20 U.S.C. 1401}602(2)(A-F)).
The IDEIA 2004 definition places emphasis on the
compensatory nature of AT, that is, it compensates for
something a child cannot functionally do or perform.
A more easily understood, or working definition of AT
for practitioners is that it is a tool (or strategy) that allows
a person to do a task he or she could not do without
the tool (or strategy) at the expected performance level
(Parette et al., 2007). While IT and ICT may be helpful
to teach new skills, remediate problems demonstrated
by students with disabilities, supplement the curricular
experiences of students, and facilitate access to and the
manipulation of digital information, it is not individua-
lized. AT is individually matched to and uniquely
required for a student to participate in the curriculum
or classroom and make educational progress (Lewis, 1993;
Rose et al., 2005).
Considering AT
Since AT is compensatory and its use in educational
settings should culminate in positive outcomes (i.e., prog-
ress toward educational goals; Parette et al., 2007), how it is
considered by education professionals when developing
and implementing program plans is of paramount impor-
tance. Numerous planning frameworks and models for
making decisions about AT have been proposed over the
past two decades (cf., Blackhurst, 2005; Bowser and Reed,
1995; Center for Technology in Education, Johns Hopkins
University; and Technology and Media Division (TAM)
of the Council for Exceptional Children, 2005; Chambers,
1997; Parette and VanBiervliet, 1990, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c,
1991d, 1991e; Parette et al., 1991; Scherer, 2002; Zabala,
1993; Zabala and Carl, 2005). While providing some
degree of guidance for AT decision making, educators
and service providers may sometimes be uncertain
about the practicality of these differing approaches and
their relevance to the day-to-day activities in public
school milieus. Of particular importance is that some
educators currently do not have a broad understanding
of how seemingly different elements of AT consideration
(e.g., student and school environment characteristics, edu-
cational demands and tasks within specific environmental
settings, and AT tools and their features) interface and lead
to effective decisions about what AT tools children with
disabilities receive.
To facilitate a better understanding about what must be
considered to effectively choose and implement AT with
students having disabilities, Figure 3 presents a framework
that incorporates (1) what the field knows about human
factors (Cook and Hussey, 2002; King, 1999); (2) the rela-
tionship between human factors and educational activities
in which children participate (Cook and Hussey; King); and
(3) understanding of the nature of tools that can be used by
students with disabilities to make progress in the curricu-
lum (Cook and Hussey). The following section describes
three specific dimensions of AT decision making that are
integrally related: (1) activities and their embedded tasks,
(2) the demands created by activities and tasks, and (3) the
manner in which individuals can appropriately respond to
demands.
Activities and Embedded Tasks
Education professionals working with students with dis-
abilities are keenly aware of typical daily activities in
which students participate and in which they must be
successful to make progress in the curriculum. For exam-
ple, preschool children may participate in activities such
as opening activity, choice time, reading time, free play,
and lunch. Elementary-age children would participate in
daily activities such as language arts (reading andwriting),
mathematics, social studies, science, or art. High school
students’ activities would include specific content courses
such as American history, geometry, English literature,
biology, and physical education.
Regardless of the age level, each activity in which a
student participates has embedded tasks. For example, to
participate in free play, the preschool child may have to
complete tasks such as (1) scanning the available activities
and choosing an activity in which to engage, (2) engaging
in the activity in a meaningful way, and (3) terminating the
activity, often by putting materials away. To participate
in language arts at the elementary level, a student might
(1) read a text passage and then write a story about his/her
own similar experience, (2) engage in writing to include
completing tasks of planning the topic and making a con-
tent outline, (3) transcribe an initial draft, (4) edit and
revise the composition, and (5) finally submit it to the
teacher. At the high school level, to participate in history
class, a student might (1) participate in class discussions,
(2) listen to a presentation or view a video, (3) take notes,
(4) read a text assignment, (5) write assignments in a
planner, (6) complete and/or submit homework, and
(7) take exams. Thus, participation may be viewed as
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a series of related tasks that culminate in successful
completion of a specific activity by the student with a
disability.
Demands on Human Users
Whatever the human activity in which students of any age
and ability level participate, the embedded tasks present
demands on students. These demands include (1) physi-
cal, (2) cognitive, and (3) sociolinguistic (King, 1999).
Each is described in the following section.
Physical demands
Many tasks associated with school activities place physi-
cal demands on any human participant. King (1999)
described physical demands as the amount of muscle
strength and movement ‘‘required to initiate, pursue, and
complete a task’’ (p. 60). These demands would include
such specific things as range of motion (i.e., ability to move
joints, arms, and legs in various directions), resolution
and repetition of movement, and sustained movement or
position. For example, a preschool child participating in
a lunch activity would be confronted with the task of
sitting at a table. This demands that the student sit upright
in chair at a table (which requires balance, hip stability,
and flexion of the hip joints). To make a choice at the table,
the child must coordinate muscles of the arms and hands
to reach and grasp a preferred food item or manipulate a
cup, plate, or utensil. These examples illustrate that
many tasks within an activity require a student to do
Activities
Task Task
Task
Task
Physical Cognitive Socio-
linguistic
Response to demand requires
Human ability alone Human ability mediated
by tool use
Symbolic
interpretation
Social interaction
Creates demands on human participants
Task
Are composed of
Create a new
tool
Assistive
technology
Adapt an
existing tool
Figure 3 Relationship of tasks and their demands within activities to responses by humans to these demands. ã2009, G. R. Peterson-
Karlan, Permission is granted to use my figure for this publication. GRP-K, 7/13/09.
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something physically, and such demands may or may
not present challenges to a particular student having a
disability.
Cognitive demands
Generally speaking, most tasks that students are pre-
sented with in their school activities have varying degrees
of cognitive demands (i.e., the amount of thinking re-
quired to complete a task). King (1999) noted that these
demands may include (1)sensing (i.e., visual, auditory,
and tactile–kinesthetic); (2) remembering (i.e., factual
memory); (3) discriminating (i.e., differentiating); (4) ana-
lyzing (i.e., problem-solving); and (5) sequencing actions
(i.e., sequential memory). For example, when a high
school student participating in history takes notes (the
task), he or she must be able to hear the teacher who is
lecturing or see notes displayed with a liquid-crystal
display (LCD) projector (sensing); must remember infor-
mation from the reading homework; and must sort out
unimportant information presented during the discussion
from important content over which he or she might later
be tested (discriminating). Finally, the student must write
from left to right while note-taking using sequences of
letters to spell words (sequencing).
Sociolinguistic demands
Tasks within school activities frequently present sociolin-
guistic demands on users. King (1999) stated that linguistic
demands include ‘‘the amount of symbolic interpretation
and processing that the user must invest’’ (p. 61). Linguistic
demands posed by a particular task can also include inter-
pretation of symbols and text. For example, when a young
child is presented with a list of possible activities in which
he or she may participate during choice time, both pictures
and/or text representing the activities must be processed
and interpreted. For some children, the text alone might
not present an undue cognitive burden for interpretation,
while for other children, both text and a picture (or picture
alone) might be required for interpretation to occur. For a
high school student presented with the task of note-taking,
he or she would typically be presented with the linguistic
demand of recognizing and understanding the meaning of
text written by the teacher on a whiteboard.
Symbolic interpretation, however, often does not occur
outside the context of a social interaction. For example, if
a teacher uses a whiteboard to write a list of steps needed
to complete a project, and then asks the class, ‘‘What do
we do to complete this project?’’ There are social demands
placed on all students to be able to participate in the task
of responding to the teacher. First, the student must
attend to the teacher who is asking the question. Second,
the student must signal a desire to respond (e.g., raising
one’s hand vs. blurting out an answer). Third, once the
student’s signal is recognized by the teacher (e.g., ‘‘Johnny,
can you tell us what we do next?’’), the student must
appropriately communicate an answer to the question
and terminate the communicative response appropriately.
In other types of tasks, social skills such as turn-taking,
civility, and use of manners are embedded in the activity
and are important considerations to fully understand what
a student must do to be successful in a targeted activity
that has many tasks.
Response to Demands
When students with disabilities participate in school activ-
ities having a cadre of embedded tasks (with associated
physical, cognitive, and/or sociolinguistic demands), they
either do the task alone or use tools as a way to accomplish
the task. In the former instance, many students with dis-
abilities typically will exhibit some abilities to perform
certain tasks within educational activities. For example,
during math class in the elementary classroom, a student
may be able to understand text in a story problem if it is
read aloud and provide an answer, but has difficulty if
asked to read the text in which the problem is detailed.
In this instance, the student uses human ability alone to
understand, process, and express an answer. However,
because he has difficulty decoding (reading) the text –
another task embedded in the activity – compensation is
required to enable him to complete this more demanding
task that requires a tool, such as digital text with speech
output, which may not be typically used by others.
Human ability mediated by tool use
In many academic tasks, demands (whether physical, cog-
nitive, and/or sociolinguistic) are typically met using a
tool. Ubiquitous tools in school settings include things
such as paper and pencils to record information for later
use, the school planner, and a pencil or pen to record
assignments and dates that must be remembered later,
three-ring notebooks to organize materials and backpacks
to help carry books and notebooks. Tools are used in
school settings to (1) enhance effectiveness, (2) reduce
effort, (3) reduce errors, (4) increase speed, (5) improve
quality, (6) reduce physical effort, and (7) reduce cogni-
tive effort. It is important to note that each tool created to
help accomplish a task also imposes its own physical,
cognitive, and sociolinguistic demands on the tool user.
When a tool must be used to compensate for functional
inabilities to complete one or more specific tasks, it
becomes an AT tool. Some AT tools are created specifically
for persons with disabilities. For example, wheelchairs,
hearing aids, and Braillers are created specifically to com-
pensate for the physical and sensory needs of persons with
disabilities. Text-to-speech screen readers and web brow-
sers are created to compensate for inabilities to differentiate
between screen text by persons with visual impairments
or to decode print by persons with learning disabilities.
However, many existing tools can be adapted to provide
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compensatory benefits for a student with a disability. In the
case of a student with physical disabilities who has difficulty
grasping standard eating utensils, oversized, padded handles
or a change in the handle angle can provide the needed
compensatory effect. For the student with a learning dis-
ability who has difficulty with spelling andword use, a spell
checker and/or thesaurus with text-to-speech capability
can provide needed compensatory effect.
AT Outcomes and Today’s Classrooms
In today’s school settings, ensuring the student’s access to
educational opportunities is not sufficient; successful par-
ticipation of students with disabilities in the general edu-
cation curriculum and monitoring that progress is of
utmost importance (Thurlow et al., 2007). More specifi-
cally, using research-evidenced and data-based practices
in classrooms has become a singular focus in the field of
special education (Gersten et al., 2005; Horner et al., 2005;
Odom et al., 2005; Parette and Peterson-Karlan, 2008).
This is now true of AT consideration as well (Peterson-
Karlan and Parette, 2007, 2008). There are three impor-
tant phases in which data are crucial: (1) when identifying
the problem for which AT is needed, (2) before making
final a decision to acquire or purchase a particular AT
solution, and (c) during long-term implementation of the
ATsolution (i.e., collecting data while the student uses the
AT solution for the purpose intended; Parette et al., 2007).
Implicit in these phases are outcome questions for which
data must be generated: Is AT needed? Is the AT effective?
Over time, is the AT effective in supporting educational
progress? Specific data-based strategies for assessing out-
comes of AT consideration at each of the decision points
have been reported elsewhere (see Parette et al.), but those
strategies involve documenting the performance gap
introduced in Figure 2, measuring the compensatory
effect of the introduction of ATand monitoring the effect
of continued ATuse on educational progress. Concurrent
time-series designs in which performance with and with-
out AT tool use is measured at specific points (e.g., during
trial implementation with the AT) and is repeatedly sam-
pled over time (e.g., quarterly in the school year) are used
to determine whether AT is effective, needed, and con-
tributing to students’ educational progress.
Conclusion
This article has emphasized the increasing role of technol-
ogy in education settings, with particular emphasis on
consideration of AT for students with disabilities. The
legal mandate of IDEIA 2004 to consider AT when devel-
oping individual education programs, requires education
professionals to better understand the compensatory nature
of AT within the context of human factors, educational
activities, and the demands of tools on users (both physical,
cognitive, and sociolinguistic). Of particular importance
was the presentation of the concept of tasks being embed-
ded within primary educational activities inwhich children
participate. These various tasks present demands which
require a student to use human ability alone or a tool.
The use of data in AT decision making has also been
emphasized, typically occurring at three distinct phases.
Each phase, in turn, has specific questions that education
professionals must address to ensure that effective deci-
sion making for the student has occurred.
See also: Curriculum-Based Assessment and Students
with Special Needs; Functional Behavioral Assessment;
Instructional Accommodations for Children with Special
Needs In Inclusive Settings; School-Based Services for
Children with Special Needs.
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Further Reading
Bryant, D. P. and Bryant, B. R. (2003). Assistive Technology for People
with Disabilities. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Cook, A. M. and Hussey, S. M. (2002). Assistive Technology: Principles
and Practices, 2nd edn. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
Dell, A. G., Newton, D. A., and Petroff, J. G. (2008). Assistive
Technology in the Classroom. Enhancing the Experiences of
Students with Disabilities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill
Prentice Hall.
Edyburn, D., Higgins, K., and Boone, R. (eds.) (2005). Handbook of
Assistive Technology Research and Practice. Whitefish Bay, WI:
Knowledge by Design.
Johnston, L., Beard, L. A., and Carpenter, L. B. (2007). Assistive
Technology. Access for All Students. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
Peterson-Karlan, G. R. and Parette, H. P. (2005). Millennial students
with mild disabilities and emerging assistive technology trends.
Journal of Special Education Technology 20(4), 27–38.
Assistive Technology and Educational Practice 543
Author's personal copy
International Encyclopedia of Education (2010), vol. 2, pp. 537-543
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