First, let’s define Assistive Technology (AT). The best information I found was, surprisingly, on the PBS website:
Assistive technology is any device that helps a person with a disability complete an everyday task. If you break your leg, a remote control for the TV can be assistive technology. If someone has poor eyesight, a pair of glasses or a magnifier is assistive technology.
Assistive technology includes many specialized devices as well, like typing telephones for people who are deaf and motorized wheelchairs for people who cannot walk. Assistive technology can be “low-tech” (something very simple and low-cost, like a pencil grip), or “high-tech” (something sophisticated, like a computer). Assistive technology can be critical for the person using it – if you wear glasses, think how hard it would be to get through the day without them!
The federal government recognized the importance of assistive technology for students when it revised the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 and again in 2004. IDEA states that school districts must consider assistive technology for any child in special education. That means that for any child receiving special education services, the educational team must ask if there is a device that will “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities” of that child. If the answer is yes, the school district must provide certain services:
- a qualified evaluator must complete an assistive technology evaluation;
- if the evaluator recommends a device, it must be acquired;
- and if you, your child or the staff in your child’s school need training to use the device, that training must be provided, too.
There is the information. It sounds pretty good….yet in my experience it’s a slippery slope.
In third grade #1’s reading scores started on a sharp decline, actually showing that he made backwards progress during the school year. In fourth grade his teacher suggested he start listening to all the books he was reading (the curriculum is designed around independent reading), telling me this is Assistive Technology and a way that has been found to help children with learning disabilities or children who are struggling. Because he had always loved listening to books on CD at home I thought, “GREAT! At least he’ll be looking at a book and taking something in instead of staring into space.” (which was his mode of operation in 3rd grade) Becuase he was now listening, he really blasted through those books, but did he learn to read better? No. Did anyone teach him? No. He was put in a corner with headphones on during reading where he quietly spend all of his reading time for the next TWO YEARS. Because I was dealing with so many issues with #2 (and other complicating factors) I wasn’t paying much attention to the fact that no one was actually teaching him how to read (although the school did believe they were fulfilling their requirement for reading instruction). What did he learn? Reading is not for me and I can only “read” a book if I listen to is, so why even try. He had no confidence and no competency when it came to reading.
When #2 received his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) the school also wanted him to use a lot of Assistive Technology. Although its against the law, they suggested I get him an iPad so he could dictate his work to a computer at all times. There is also an app that will read material out loud. I was a little smarter the second time around and I asked, “What is your plan to actually teach him how to read and write without the use of a computer?” They had no answer….except that they believed an iPad was essential for his life because they doubted he would ever read or write (I have proved them wrong). And don’t get me started on the numerous ways I was outraged when they suggested the district could assign him a scribe…an actual person sitting next to him all day long doing all of his writing so he wouldn’t have to.
Assistive Technology, to them, was a crutch. A replacement for actual teaching. A replacement for actual learning. An excuse to not do the hard work….for both the teacher and the student. Would #2 like to play on an iPad all day? Y-E-S!!! Would #1 like to listen to all his books on an iPod? Of course. Will their mother allow this….N-O! Sorry children, your mother is stubborn….and a Scandinavian Lutheran with a strong work ethic.
Last Friday the New York Times had a wonderful article, When Helping Hurts. It focused on the harm that helicopter parenting can do to our children.
“it [help] must balance their need for support with their need for competence. We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts.”
I think this ties in perfectly when thinking about Assistive Technology. With #2 I use AT for homeschooling, however, it looks much different than what the school was proposing. He does use a computer for writing…but he is not dictating into a microphone. He is typing with Microsoft Word. He does write with paper and pencil, but is more motivated to write a paragraph when he can type it. He is delighted when he can look through a list of spelling suggestions and figure out the correct way to spell a word. He is still doing the work and using the skills he has learned through the Wilson Reading System. He uses a Kindle to read, but he is still the one reading. #3 uses large pencils, but he is the one doing the writing.
The main point is this: when dealing with learning disabilities Assistive Technology should be used as an aid to help the child do the learning and work independently. Use AT to aid in competency, not harm their confidence. The AT should not be the thing that is doing the actual work. Any more invasive of AT should be used only as a last resort after many interventions and instructional methods have been tried.
The look on #1’s face when he got to the end of his first book during the fall of 6th grade was priceless. He looked up and with a big smile said, “I just read an entire book by myself! That is the first time I’ve done that since 2nd grade!”
Don’t use Assistive Technology because the child CAN’T do something….use Assistive Technology because they can.