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The Need for Assistive Technology in Educational Technology


Terence Cavanaugh Ph.D.
College of Education and Human Services
University of North Florida
United States of America


This paper addresses definitions, services, levels of technology and application of assistive technology concepts as they relates to education.  An overview of the NCATE and ISTE guidelines concerning assistive technology, and the current elements of the graduate educational degrees concerning assistive technology is provided.  Federal legislation concerns the application of assistive technology in an educational setting and its possible impact on educational technologists.  A model is proposed for a course concerning assistive technology and universal design to better prepare instructional technology graduates to enhance the performance of students with disabilities and design educational material for increased accessibility.  This session is intended for educators in instructional technology and exceptional education programs.

Disabilities rights leaders have said that the application of technology will be the equalizer of the 21st century (Flippo, Inge & Barcus 1995).  Through the use of assistive technology (AT) devices, many students can decrease their isolation and become an important part of a regular classroom, their least restrictive environment.  Assistive technology is a basic tool in the educational process for any individual who may be experiencing a disability.  Technology that is used as tool in education is the basic definition of educational technology.

This paper will address assistive technology and services, overview the current assistive technology elements of graduate educational technology degrees, and present a model for including assistive technology to better prepare instructional technologists to participate and enhance the performance of students with disabilities.

What is Assistive Technology?

The Technology-Related Assistance for Individual with Disabilities Act of 1998 (PL 100-407) gave us the first legal definition of assistive technology devices and services.  An assistive technology device was defined as: 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. An assistive technology service was described as: any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology service.

What are the Levels of Assistive Technology Use?

In considering assistive technology, you must consider the environment, the individual, and the characteristics and levels of the technology (Gitlow 2000). Assistive technology may be classified as high, middle or low tech. The concept of a high technology device usually includes items that require computers, electronics or microchips to perform some function. Low technology usually does not require an outside power source. An example of high technology is a computer. The application of technology could range from having a computer read a book (high tech) to printing out material in a larger font to a student using a magnifying glass (low tech) to read material.

Along with considering the level of the technology, consider the levels of how the necessary assistive technology item will be applied.  The levels in applying the assistive technology solution include whether the item is personally, developmentally, or instructionally necessary (Judd-Wall 1999).  The personally necessary level is concerned with assistive technology devices that are used by an individual student, such as a pair of colorblind glasses to enable a learner to more effectively interact with his/her environment.  Developmentally necessary devices may be shared among individuals.  These devices help meet an educational need based on a developmental delay, which ideally would be improved, eliminating the need for the item in an individual’s future.  Lastly, instructionally necessary devices are those that modify the instructional process at a course or grade level, and do not need to be moved with the user as he or she progresses to the next level in education.

What is Educational Technology?

Educational or instructional technology can be hard to define.  At its simplest it can be the application of technology in teaching or education, but many feel that it is much more than that.  Perhaps the most encompassing definition is from University of North Carolina Media Services (1997) which states that: “Educational technology is the application of research, learning theory, emergent technologies, and child and adult psychology to solving instructional and performance problems.” The Presidential Commission on Instructional Technology highlighted four areas in which educational technologists perform: 1) design of instruction, 2) production of instructional products and services, 3) management of instruction, and 4) evaluation of instruction.

Assistive Technology in the Graduate Educational Technology Program

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) accreditation in association with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) requires that assistive technology be addressed within such higher education programs as educational computing and technology leadership.  The guidelines and standards for those programs state that a graduate of such a program should “demonstrate awareness of resources for adaptive assistive devices for students with special needs” and be able to “identify and classify adaptive assistive hardware and software for students and teachers with special needs and locate sources to assist in procurement and implementation” (NCATE 1999).

However, assistive technology is, for the most part, only discussed as a small component of technology integration classes or is thought of as being part of the “special education” section.  There exists the need for the addition of a course devoted to the application of assistive technologies, awareness of the possible limitations of users, and universal design in a graduate educational or instructional technology program.

A review was conducted of instructional and educational technology programs within the colleges of education across Florida’s state university system.  According to their published programs of study, none of the state colleges of education was offering a course specifying assistive technology in its title or available description.  A similar limited review was conducted of universities nationwide that offered graduate programs in educational or instructional technology. From this survey, it was found that less than twenty percent of the colleges that offered an educational technology degree provide courses focusing on assistive technology.

Impact on Instructional Technologists

As part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act IDEA amendments of 1997 and 1999, statements now require assistive technology devices and services to be considered on an individualized basis and become a part of the individual education plan (IEP) if the child needs them to benefit from his educational program.  The individualized education program (IEP) is a written statement for a child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised at the child’s school.  The IEPs occur each year for every child with a disability and they are developed by members of the IEP team including parents, teachers, special education teachers, administration and others. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 is the most extensive new law with wide ranging effects. This ruling requires that all US federal agencies make their information technology accessible to their employees and customers with disabilities.  The law gives federal employees and members of the public the right to sue if the government agency does not provide comparable access to the information and data available to people without disabilities. Section 508 applies to Web sites that are produced for government agencies. All state agencies that receive federal funds under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 are also required to comply with Section 508 requirements.  Schools seeking to comply with legal requirements regarding students with disabilities need faculty with knowledge of assistive technology applications. Based on NCATE accreditation requirements, it would be reasonable for a school administrator or other official to expect that an educational or instructional technology graduate from an NCATE accredited program would be able to effectively contribute to a student’s IEP team.  These expectations would include that such a graduate be able to make effective judgments and recommendations concerning assistive technology and universal access.

Assistive Technology Course Development

With the rapidly aging population of the United States, there is also a growing need for assistive technology and universal design.  To receive federal funding organizations must be IDEA and Section 508 compliant.  There exists a need to provide instruction on assistive technologies and methodology to make technology products such as computer programs and web pages handicapped accessible.

Instructional and educational technology specialists require more extensive experience and education concerning assistive technology than they currently receive.  Instructional/Educational Technology graduate programs should devote a course to the presentation of the basic concepts and applications of assistive technology.  This course could be offered as a requirement in the current university master’s instructional technology program and as an elective in its master’s of education or exceptional education programs. The NCATE and ISTE standards state that for initial certification, a teacher should  “demonstrate awareness of resources for adaptive assistive devices for students with special needs.” These standards would be well met by such a course. The technologies and strategies presented in a course concerning the application of assistive technology would also address many of the other NCATE guidelines associated with specialty programs such as educational computing and technology leadership.

An assistive technology course could be designed as an introductory or survey course in the application of technology as assistive and adaptive devices, software and strategies. This course could present strategies for students who are physically or mentally impaired, and may be in a mainstreamed situation.  The purpose of the course material would be to teach about the use of technologies to overcome handicaps and improve functionality.  Course topics could include: basics of assistive technology; legal/ethical issues associated with assistive technology; assistive technology and the individual education plan (IEP); levels of assistive technology; technology adaptations; Windows and Macintosh built-in accessibility tools; text-to-speech and speech-to-text; universal design and the internet; English as a second language, and physical and learning disabilities.  An additional facet of such a course should also be designing web-based information to be universally accessible, covering such topics as making web pages more accessible and designing multimedia to overcome user handicaps. The assessments and activities of the course should include hands-on experiences with assistive technologies. Activities should be designed to include visitations to schools or labs to see assistive technology being used, the application and use of text-to-speech and speech-to-text programs, experiences with adaptive switches and toys, and even experimentation with environmental control hardware and software

During discussions and interviews with inservice teachers, counselors, physical therapists, parents, and assistive technology organizations, a need for training and education in the area of assistive technologies was identified.  Through continuing discussions, some basic areas of need in assistive technology education were identified. Visitations were conducted at the Assistive Technology Educational Network (ATEN), Florida Diagnostic Learning Resources (FDLRS) and Florida Instructional Materials (FIMSE) labs. The goal of the visitations was to learn about the state of the art and the programs being offered, and to understand the components of the AT community. Additional research continued through conducting a literature survey in the field, observing at schools and labs, and studying current Exceptional Student Education (ESE) and Instructional Technology (IT) programs offered at universities. In order to begin to fill the need that was perceived, a course outline was developed and components were taught at daylong hands-on workshops designed to introduce instructional technologists and teachers to assistive technology.  From these preliminary discussions with professionals in the assistive technology community, it was found that an assistive technology course would be appreciated and that course delivery through distance learning would be preferred.  Many of the potential students expressing interest in such a course were unable to travel to a university. As an educational technology program course, it would have an added benefit as a recertification course for ESE professionals and general education teachers. 

After an initial course outline was developed, members of parent support organizations such as the Statewide Advocacy Network on Disabilities (STAND), university professionals in special education, assistive technology state organizations such as Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS) and Assistive Technology Education Network (ATEN), future students in exceptional education, and other instructional technology professionals were asked to provide feedback on the course design, goals, topics and assessments.  All were extremely pleased with the idea of the material becoming available for instructional technologists, exceptional student education (ESE) and general education educators. In its current form, the AT course “Technologies for Special Populations” is designed as an introductory course in the application of technology as assistive and adaptive devices in education.  The course itself should model effective design practices. For example web pages will be designed for universal access and course materials and multimedia will be developed to be handicapped accessible.  Because of its online delivery, the course serves as a model of information presented through an assistive medium.

Course Learning Strategies

The Technologies for Special Populations course stresses hands-on experiences with various assistive technology approaches and devices.  One of the main course goals is designing methods for a student to have actual experiences with the technology going beyond readings and looking at images about the technology.  Students are expected to purchase, train, and use voice input systems, install and use an environmental control system, purchase and use a voice repeater, and use speaking software and hardware devices.  Student interactions with assistive technologies fall into five areas.  Students interact in an online forum, they have field experiences, and they complete technology projects, in addition to using standard materials such as tests and papers.

One of the strategies used in the Technologies for Special Populations course is the forum. Students participate for themselves and also analyze what other students have done and provide feedback to their classmates’ thoughts.  Forum topics include case studies that students use in experimenting with, suggesting and explaining assistive technologies.  Further forum topics encourage students to discuss and evaluate the impact that the assistive technologies have on them while they use various devices and programs such as environmental control, voice input, and text-to-speech.

Students will be required to observe the use of assistive technology as part of their field experiences.  Students are asked to observe a student who uses assistive technology devices, or investigate and visit an assistive technology demonstration lab.  Using an assistive technology device checklist and observation form, students would observe assistive technologies being used and then contribute in an online exchange concerning their observations.  Additional experiences include assistive hearing, assistive audio, voice control, DVD applications, and environmental control.

Currently projects are being designed to give students additional experiences with assistive technology in evaluation, adaptation, and creation of assistive technology devices.  Students evaluate web sites for universal access, compare various assistive technology software products, compare assistive technology hardware tools, and even complete an evaluation of a student related to the use of a specific assistive technology.   Students will use software to create a communication board that augments communication within a specific class or function. Additional support is being sought for the creation of a supplemental traveling assistive technology box. Sent through the standard mail system, this box would provide students access to the more expensive technologies including touch screens, alternative keyboard inputs, talk boxes, close captioning devices, and more.

The full course syllabus is available online at http://www.unf.edu/~tcavanau/syllabi/AT_syllabus.htm.


Defining Educational Technology (1997). Media Services, University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Online at http://www.uncc.edu/lis/media/edtech.html.

Educational Computing and Technology Leadership Standards (2000) NCATE Guidelines for Educational Computing and Technology Leadership. Online at :http://www.ncate.org/.

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Galvin, J., & Scherer, M.J. (1996). Evaluating, selecting, and using appropriate assistive technology. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.

Gitlow, L. (2000). Assistive Technology. Online at: http://www.ume.maine.edu/cci/FACTSFC/articles/assistec.html.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1992. (P.L. 101-476).

International Society for Technology in Education (2000). Teacher Technology Standards. Online at http://www.iste.org/.

Judd-Wall, J.(accessed September 1999). Necessary categorizations. Online at:http://www.aten.ocps.k12.fl.us/links.html.

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Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, 1988. (PL 100-407).

Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act Amendments, 1994. (P.L. 103-218)

Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998, Section 508