What are the school’s responsibilities regarding assistive technology?
Page 4: Considering AT
Assistive technology tends to be underutilized by students with high-incidence disabilities like LD and ADHD. In practical terms, what this means is that many students are left to needlessly struggle in the classroom. However, when students have access to needed AT devices and services, they typically experience better academic outcomes.
A meta-analysis of 56 research studies on the effectiveness of different types of AT indicates that AT can lead to improved academic outcomes as well as increased satisfaction with learning for students with LD. However, to be effective, the AT must be individualized to meet the student’s unique needs. (Perelmutter, McGregor, & Gordon, 2017)
Method of reviewing research on a given practice or program in which a systematic and reproducible literature search is conducted, specific criteria are used for including research studies in the analysis, and the combined statistical results of these studies yield an effect size for the practice or program across the studies reviewed.
The Consideration Process
IDEA requires IEP teams to take into account whether a student with a disability requires AT devices and services to achieve the goals and objectives described in his IEP. To this end, it is important to have at least one person on the IEP team who is:
Skilled in assessing the student’s performance to determine the need for assistive technology
Knowledgeable about the array of available AT devices and services
Able to provide information to other team members about potential AT options
Prepared to search for and identify new AT options
The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI) has created resources to help educators make decisions regarding AT. One such resource, the WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide, can help IEP teams structure their conversation about AT.
Ideally, everyone who works with the student (e.g., teachers, related service providers, parents) should be able to supply information to the IEP team about the need for AT. Though IEP teams are required to consider AT, there is no federally designated process for doing so. Consequently, many state educational agencies develop their own manuals or guidelines, or they use or adapt those developed by other states or AT organizations (such as the one listed in the For Your Information box). This enables educators to follow a systematic plan to ensure that AT is considered, that the needs of students with disabilities are being met, and that resources are being used wisely.
By following a guide, the team can better and more efficiently structure their discussion about the student’s:
Level of functioning
Areas of strength
Areas of need
Previously implemented strategies and accommodations, successful or otherwise
Current use of AT devices and services
By addressing each of these points, the team might conclude that the current interventions are working and nothing new is needed, the current AT devices or services are appropriate, new AT is required, or more information is needed.
Listen as Megan Mussano discusses one process that IEP teams can use to consider AT for students with disabilities (time: 3:43).
Megan Mussano, MS CCC-SLP/L, ATP Assistive Technology Coordinator, Illinois K-12 School District Instructor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Aurora University
During every annual review, an IEP team must consider does that student need AT, yes or no? It’s a brief process when you’re sitting down at the IEP. You really don’t have to go in depth necessarily. So you do need one person at the table with at least some knowledge about AT so that the team can feel that they are informed consumers and able to actually answer that question, yes or no. And you work up to it. So first you work your way through the IEP. You clearly identify the student’s present levels, their goals, what they need. You identify tasks that they need to perform in the educational program. And then the team sits down and says, “Does the student need AT to accomplish the goals we just wrote into this IEP?”
A long process is not really functional for a lot of IEP teams. Think about it. It’s very common to only have a 45-minute meeting. And the assistive technology is such a small part of what everyone else wants to talk about that this often isn’t the priority. So it has to be done in a way that it’s practical, it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s functional so that it does get addressed appropriately, so that it does get considered.
So how do we do that? We say things like, “Are they currently able to accomplish what they need to access the curriculum?” If the answer is “no” then we say, “Is there any assistive tech that might be a solution for that?” So if you have data that supports using assistive tech, you write it into the IEP. If the answer is, “No. They don’t need AT,” there’s a whole statement you can write in for that. But if the answer is the team isn’t sure then you put a pause on it and you go ahead and you gather more information.
The federal mandate says you have to consider assistive tech, but what is the process of considering? You talk about the student, their strengths, their weaknesses, the environment. Where do they need the AT? What is around them already? What do they have access to? What do they need? Are we looking for AT just in the school or are we looking for it at home, how it impacts the student, and where they need the assistive tech. Then you talk about the task. What is it you’re truly trying to accomplish? This often links back to an IEP goal. Are you looking for support with spelling? Are you looking for expressive communication like a communication device? Are you looking for organization? So you come with the problem first and then you discuss possible tools that could alleviate or break down some of the barriers to that problem.
When you work through that process, you discuss everything you need to then come up with an AT tool. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there in the world say, “My kid needs an iPad.” They start with the tool, and they’re missing everything else that comes before it. You really want to feature-match. You want to look at the features of the device or the features of the assistive tech tool and feature-match that to the student’s needs.
The AT process can be separate from the IEP. You can sit down and have a meeting at any time of the year. Really, just what you’re doing is kind of informally gathering information, talking as team members, consulting, saying, “Here’s an area of weakness. Here’s something we want to try.” You provide that tool. You trial it. If it’s successful then it can be written into the IEP. We don’t want anyone to think that AT can only be added at the IEP once a year, because that’s not fair to the student. Assistive technology can be considered throughout the year at any point in time, but it has to officially be considered during the IEP.
Keep in Mind
Here are some other considerations to take into account when planning a discussion about AT during a student’s IEP meeting.
Determining a student’s AT needs is an individualized process. The needs of one student with a learning disability may not be the same as the needs of another. Additionally, a student’s AT should match his needs as opposed to being determined by the AT that is readily available.
Discussions about the provision of AT can and should be brief, perhaps as little as fifteen minutes of the allotted meeting time. In those cases when the team cannot reach consensus regarding the type of AT needed, an AT evaluation might be helpful.
Remediation versus Compensation
As they determine whether a student would benefit from AT, IEP teams should also discuss whether the student needs remediation or compensation. The table below defines these terms and describes the purpose of each.
Providing additional instruction, training, or coaching to help a student improve her performance.
To help a student independently reach a specified level of mastery in a skill with appropriate supports.
The student reads along with an audio book to increase fluency.
Providing other options to make up for a student’s difficulties performing specific tasks.
To help the student work around the challenge related to the disability.
The student with below-grade-level decoding skills listens to an audio book for his literature class.
*Note that the same type of AT can be used to serve both purposes.
Listen as Daniel Cochrane discusses the difference between remediation and compensation and the importance of balancing the two (time: 3:53).
Daniel Cochrane, MA, MS, ATP Assistive Technology Specialist Clinical Instructor, University of Illinois at Chicago
To remediate means to fix. And the usual approach has been to sort of, quote, fix disability by doing something to change the person like providing intensive instruction or therapy. So take the dyslexic student. There are some very specific and effective ways to teach reading decoding skills to kids with dyslexia. But if disability is located in the interaction between the person and the environment, we can address the problem of disability from the other direction. We can change the environment. And this is essentially what compensation is. It’s about changing the task demands how an activity is expected to be done in a particular environment, not just the physical, it’s the social, the cultural, the institutional expectations. So for the student with dyslexia, we changed the visual environment of reading into an auditory environment, using audio books or text to speech software. We need to think about remediation and compensation because we need to change the mismatch between the person and their environment. And if we just focus on changing the person remediation, it doesn’t address the whole problem. We need to increase student’s skills, but we also need to decrease barriers that the environment places in their way.
I’d like to talk about the idea of the balance between remediation and compensation. I think the balance between the two is usually inside the activity itself in what are called the task demands. So sometimes it is a wholesale switch for some functions. A wheelchair, for example, completely replaces the mobility function of walking. But most of the high incidence AT we use in schools is compensatory for only one or two of the task demands that are inside a particular activity. So take my favorite tool, speech recognition, for example. It compensates for, completely removes actually the physical task demands of transcription both handwriting and typing, and completely removes the cognitive task demand of spelling. But it does absolutely nothing to compensate for the most important cognitive task demand of writing, which is communicating in a coherent and logical way. We could also think about text to speech or audio books this way. They compensate for the visual task demands of seeing print and the cognitive task demand of decoding. But they don’t compensate for the cognitive task demand of comprehension, which usually still needs to be worked on through skill building strategies, in other words, remediation. So it’s important, I think, to understand that the balance between remediation and compensation is often something that we find inside the activity itself. It’s not this, either or approach for the whole activity. And using AT doesn’t usually mean that there’s nothing left to work on in terms of skills. So using the compensation doesn’t mean that you also aren’t doing remediation. There are plenty of skills to work on still. And I think a lot of times with AT, then we can focus on the most meaningful task demands of an activity like comprehension for reading or composition for writing, rather than sort of getting stuck on lower-level skills that we could just as well allocate to technology.
I think it matters that we’re always doing both. But I do think that the balance between these approaches shifts as the student gets closer to graduating. Because after graduation, the opportunities for working on skill building are quite limited. We’re expected to have those skills. So we need to prepare students with disabilities to advocate for the environmental changes, which would be the reasonable accommodations they’re afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I do think this means switching our focus and their focus to compensation during high school.
Revisiting the Challenge: Determining AT for Brooke
Before the IEP review meeting, Mr. Edwards asks Brooke’s teachers for information that will help the team determine Brooke’s strengths and areas of need. During the meeting, the IEP team reviews and briefly discusses Brooke’s current performance level and agrees that Brooke’s current AT is beneficial. Here are some of the highlights of that discussion:
Brooke’s mom is pleased that she is adjusting well to her new school. Though previously she read everything aloud to her, she is pleased to report that Brooke is reading independently at home with her text-to-speech software.
Brooke says that she can read on her own in school and at home with the support of the text-to-speech software. Brooke continues to struggle with writing and still gets help organizing her ideas from her mom.
Ms. Adelaide and Brooke’s social studies teacher report that Brooke is not able to complete her reading assignments in her science or social studies textbooks, which are not available in a digital format. Ms. Adelaide likewise reports that Brooke struggles with written assignments and turning in homework assignments.
The IEP team now uses the WATI AT Consideration Guide to assess any additional AT needs. They take into account the tasks Brooke struggles with (e.g., reading textbooks and turning in assignments), the environments in which she performs these tasks (e.g., home, school), and her preferences and abilities. The team suggests that Brooke use a digital book service to access her textbooks. They also suggest that she try out a task-management program to help her complete and turn in her assignments on time. They make this recommendation without specifying a brand name so that those implementing the AT have the flexibility to try out several apps or programs and choose the one that best meet Brooke’s needs without reconvening an IEP meeting.