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Jun 13
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by Jess

Assistive technology is expanding the opportunity for children of all ages with cognitive, sensory, or physical impairments to achieve greater levels self-confidence, while also providing the ability to become better integrated into the mainstream environment at home, in the community, and at school. 

Definition of Assistive Technology

Assistive technology equipment is any mechanical device that compensates for a cognitive, sensory, or physical deficit. Assistive devices may be homemade, purchased in a store, or ordered from a special manufacturer and are used by children (and adults) to assist with “activities of daily living.”  Assistive technology covers a wide range of equipment from pencil grips, helmets, and paper weights to such “high tech” items as voice synthesizers, Braille readers, hearing devices, motorized wheelchairs, and computers.  As per Sherril Steel-Carlin of Education World magazine, assistive devices include all of the following:1

  • hearing aids and amplification devices that enable hearing-impaired students to hear what's going on in the classroom;
  • glare-reduction screens, screen magnifiers, and Braille note-taking devices that enable visually impaired students to participate more fully;
  • voice-recognition software that turns the spoken word into type on a computer screen so students unable to move their limbs can take part; and
  • technologies that enable severely disabled students to control their computers simply by following letters and commands on the computer screen with their eyes.

Considerations in Selecting Assistive Devices

When parents first learn of assistive technology, they rightfully become very excited. Who wouldn’t want a hearing device for a child with auditory impairment or augmentative communication equipment for a child with speech difficulties? Everything looks great but selecting the most appropriate technology will require that you have some understanding of your child’s present level of functioning.

Suggestions for purchasing decisions

A report prepared by the Parent, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) in collaboration with The Federation for Children with Special Needs states that “there are certain basic requirements for any individual to be successful with technology, and it is important to face these requirements squarely. There is nothing more disappointing or discouraging than purchasing expensive equipment for a child which is beyond his or her capabilities to use.”2

1.  Computer use

While neither a physical or sensory impairment precludes the use of computers, cognitive functioning is an important factor. The major cognitive skill needed to effectively use a computer is an understanding of cause and effect. Your child must cognitively understand that when he or she performs some activity (tapping a key, hitting a switch, blowing through a straw) his or her behavior causes the computer to become activated.  Cognitive awareness of cause and effect will enable your child to repeat the behavior on a consistent basis. 

Because computers are interactive your child must also be able to make rational and meaningful decisions between alterative solutions. This can be a simple “yes” or “no” response but it must be voiced only after careful thought and not be based on a guess.

2.  Augmentative Communication

Augmentative communication devices translate thought into speech. These devices serve no purpose unless your child has intentional speech, whether this is to ask a question, respond to a question, express a need, or make comment. 

The type of augmentative communication device chosen should match your child’s current level of functioning along the communication continuum, from simple ”yes” or “no” responses to an understanding of  symbols, syntax, and word order.  It is of no benefit to purchase highly advanced equipment that requires a full understanding  of complex communication skills when your child is still at the “yes” or ”no” stage.

Augmentative communication devices do not teach communication but provide a method for children to audibly express their ideas, opinions, and needs.  If your child is not at the cognitive stage where these thoughts can be verbalized, these devices will be of no assistance.

3.  Physical and Sensory Impairment

While the development of certain skills is important before a child may operate computers or other electronic devices, it is not necessary that your child successfully pass through every developmental stage in order to utilize assistive technology.  Indeed, it is often the case that assistive technology can augment specific development stages. The PLUK report provides the example of keyboarding skills which need not be mastered before a child is able to use a computer.  Many children successfully use such equipment via a “hunt” and “peck” method, using two fingers, or by blowing air into a straw. In a like manner, children who have limited verbal skills may still use augmentative communication devices while they continue to develop language proficiency.  


The important point with all assistive technology devices is to meet your child “where s/he is at.” Because assistive technology can be expensive, it is best to perform significant research, including conferences with teachers and child development professionals before any purchasing decisions are made. Suggestions when researching assistive technology include:

  1. Being realistic about your child’s current level of functioning in each of the three modalities noted above (cognitive, speech, and physical/sensory);
  2. Remaining flexible with regard to the different types of technology that will be appropriate to your child’s abilities.   

Daniela Baker is a social media advocate at CreditDonkey, where she evaluates student credit card offers.  She is a full-time mother of two.  Daniela used to help provide German to English translation and hopes this article will help parents understand how Assistive Technology can help. 

Additional Resource:
Teach-nology: Assistive Technology Links - provides a comprehensive list of links to information regarding associative technology and relevant associations.

References and Sources:
Sherril Steele-Carlin, Assistive Technology Helps Challenged Kids Get the Most from Learning, Education World, (2006) http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech/tech086.shtml 

Report by the Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) in cooperation with The Federation for Children with Special Needs,  Katharin A Kelker, ed., Ed.D. http://www.pluk.org/AT1.html#

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One Response to “What Is Assistive Technology and How Can It Help Your Child?”

  1. There are supports available for families, schools, districts, and states around accessible instructional materials. Get to know the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) http://aim.cast.org/.

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