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Critical Issue: Enhancing System Change and Academic Success Through Assistive Technologies for K–12 Students With Special Needs

This Critical Issue was written by Penny Reed, Ph.D., former director of Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative and currently a private consultant in the field of assistive technology; Mary Clifford, Director of Instructional Technology, Community Unit School District 200, Wheaton, Illinois; and Asta Svedkauskaite, Program Associate, North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium.

Editorial guidance was provided by Gil Valdez, Ph.D., Senior Adviser - Technology, Learning Point Associates; Director, North Central Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Consortium (NCEMSC); and Director, North Central Regional Technology in Education Consortium (NCRTEC).

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ISSUE: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002) has served as a catalyst in many school improvement efforts. Schools are responding to meet the challenge of these improvement efforts, although in doing so, some are caught in a decision-making and funding quagmire. They ask, "Where best should we focus our funds?" "What are core components of effective systemic change?" "How can we best support teachers so that all students can succeed?" Using technology as a means of closing achievement gaps is one option schools are considering more purposefully and effectively. This includes using assistive technologies for students with special needs and creating a systemic approach to change that benefits all students, including those subgroups identified by the NCLB Act.

Assistive technologies are technologies that support students with disabilities, of which a total of 6.5 million were being served through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 in 2002 (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, 2002). IDEA defines an assistive technology device 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 a child with a disability" (IDEA, 1997, p. 8). Regardless of their previous experience, many administrators and educators are expected to be change agents of school improvement efforts today and be well versed and knowledgeable about assistive technologies, despite the fact that the definition of assistive technology is so broad and the field is relatively new.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | References


In this Critical Issue, we draw from successful assistive technology initiatives in Wisconsin and Schaumburg School District 54, Illinois, to frame our focus on key elements of effective systemic change to improve schools. We discuss the promising benefits of assistive technology, evidenced by projects currently in place in Maryland, Kansas, Texas, and Michigan. We listen to the words of wisdom of teachers, administrators, and assistive technology coordinators, and peek into some exciting classrooms to observe a range of assistive technology devices in use. Readers of this Critical Issue will explore research-supported and evidence-based answers to questions such as: (1) What are key issues around assistive technology? (2) How can assistive technology stop enabling special needs students' dependency on others and empower them? (3) How can it help in reducing achievement gaps and increasing access? and (4) What are some ways to increase teacher quality and collegial support? Although this Critical Issue does not outline a step-by-step process of successful implementation of assistive technology, it does identify critical steps and issues surrounding this rewarding endeavor.

Assistive technology may be virtually any device that increases, maintains, or improves a functional capability of a student with a disability. The functional capability may be related to any task the student needs to do such as communicating, moving throughout the school environment, seeing, hearing, reading, writing, and so on. For any one of those capabilities, there may be anywhere from several dozen to several hundred items that could enhance the student's functional ability. For instance, if a student has difficulty writing legibly, there are many devices the student can use, such as various sized pencils; different pencil grips; slant boards to change the angle of the writing surface; and assorted types of paper with wider, darker, or raised lines. If none of those simple assistive technology devices improve the student's ability to write, it may help to keyboard rather than handwrite. If so, portable word processors can be tried. If more support is still needed for the student to successfully produce legible printed assignments, then a computer may be necessary. There are many software programs that can help with a writing task by providing auditory feedback, changes in color contrast, or word completion with just a few keystrokes. If the student's writing difficulty is caused by a physical disability, there is a range of peripheral devices that can be used in conjunction with the computer to provide larger or smaller keys, color-coded keys, and the ability to type whole words rather than individual letters. Finally, there are software programs for voice recognition that allow the student to speak the words he or she wants to write and have the spoken words recognized by the computer.

Just listing a few of the types of assistive technologies available for the task of writing illustrates why this field can be confusing and overwhelming for many educators. To bring a clear focus to this topic and to dissolve some of the misconceptions around assistive technology, this Critical Issue will shed light on major elements permeating an entire school or district matrix, including policy issues regarding assistive technology, funding, systemic change, access to assistive technology, curriculum, and professional development.

Policy Issues Regarding IDEA and NCLB

At the beginning of this exploration of an effective assistive technology system, it is important to emphasize that assistive technology is not about creating a separate curriculum; rather, it is about giving students with special needs access to the general curriculum (Purcell & Grant, 2002). Special education reform, headed by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and followed by the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990 and 1997, is closely aligned with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The second IDEA reauthorization is anticipated to be approved by Congress in 2004. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the new IDEA bill reflects the president's commitment to apply the same rigorous accountability standards of NCLB to IDEA (U.S. Department of Education, June 2003). Aligning IDEA with NCLB ensures that all the key elements are receiving equal attention in making sure every student is meeting high standards in education. Those elements include federal funding, prevention, early intervention, learning goals, quality teachers, and ongoing professional development (Gaddy, McNulty, & Waters, 2002).

For every student to achieve high standards, NCLB establishes a central controlling measure: adequate yearly progress (AYP). States are required to define AYP so that it "includes separate measurable annual objectives for continuous and substantial improvement" (NCLB, 2002, Part A, Subpart 1, Sec. 1111, [b] [2] [C]) [v]) for all public school students and for separate student subgroups (i.e., students from economically disadvantaged households, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency). When submitting their consolidated plans, states are also mandated to develop their plans in coordination with IDEA.

NCLB addresses all students in public elementary and secondary schools, including students with special needs. It defines a "child with a disability" exactly the same as IDEA, where the term means a child "(i) with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (hereinafter referred to as emotional disturbance), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and (ii) who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services" (IDEA, 1997, Sec. 602, 3, A). Students (3 to 21 years old) are eligible to receive federal financial assistance and special education services if they fall within any of the above categories (Henderson, 2001). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination in programs on the basis of one's disability, and students are eligible to receive Section 504 protection regardless of their eligibility for IDEA services.

In spring 2003, the U.S. Department of Education released IDEA reauthorization principles, which were based on meetings and hearings throughout the country. In an effort to align IDEA to NCLB, the following principles were highlighted:

  • Stronger and increased accountability for results

  • Simplified paperwork for states and communities and increased flexibility for all

  • Doing what works and decreased misidentification of children as disabled

  • Increased choices and meaningful involvement for parents in determining their children's educational needs (U.S. Department of Education, February 2003).

Gaddy, McNulty, and Waters (2002) believe that in order to realize both hopes and promises of IDEA and NCLB, politicians need to particularly focus on increased and flexible funding, processes highlighted in NCLB, a learning-focused accountability system, and ongoing professional development support. The following sections will focus on some of these major components, such as funding, systemic change, and professional development. This Critical Issue will also bring in access and curriculum issues as they all relate to effective assistive technology implementation efforts. Specific case studies will illustrate how all these components can form a strong and enhanced educational system.


Educators almost unanimously agree that funding is one of the top concerns they face in addressing effective uses and adequate resources of assistive technology. There is no specific source or stream of funding for assistive technology except the school district. School districts are required by IDEA to provide for the acquisition of assistive technology for children with disabilities. The law further states they may purchase, lease, or otherwise provide the assistive technology. Given that there is no specific federal or state line item for funding assistive technology, school districts must use IDEA funds or school district general operating funds.

Other funding schools might access to pay for assistive technology can include a variety of sources, such as technology funding. In cases where a student who requires assistive technology is eligible for medical assistance, those funds might also be used for the purchase of some types of assistive technology devices. Medical assistance or Medicaid funding is typically utilized for wheelchairs and augmentative communication devices, which help individuals with their complex communication needs. So, while it is available to help the child in basic life functions, funding may not be available to support writing, for example, as writing is not considered a critical life function.

Frequently, medical assistance guidelines are set in each state, and because each state's medical assistance program establishes specific criteria, coverage varies. For students in transition, vocational rehabilitation funds may be used for assistive technology needed in the workplace or for vocational training. However, this coverage also varies from state to state and in many instances also varies within regions of the state.

Some school districts have utilized donations from service clubs and other community groups or sponsored fund-raising activities to raise money for an expensive piece of assistive technology. They can also apply for Title I grants to receive funding for assistive technology devices. Or they can apply for Title III bilingual grants to support those students who are limited in English proficiency and also have special needs. However, lack of funding does not exempt the school district from its responsibility to provide the needed assistive technology devices and services. If an assistive technology device is needed, the school is required to provide it for the student. In contrast to instructional technology, assistive technology is not optional (Purcell & Grant, 2002). If the assistive technology device was purchased with district funds, it remains the property of the school or district after the student graduates (information on funding is available from the National Assistive Technology Advocacy Project at the Neighborhood Legal Services Web site at ).

Penny Reed's PictureAccording to Penny Reed, a former director of Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI), there exists, however, a misconception that assistive technology is always expensive and therefore teachers are reluctant to recommend it. In fact, assistive technology consists of a continuum of items, from least expensive to most expensive. [1:10, 1.3MB video]

The "Assistive Technology Consideration Quick Wheel" provides an easy-to-understand list of assistive technology arranged on a continuum related to the task to be completed and is available at

Dr. Lynne Rauch's Picture It is important to note once again: Despite prohibitive funding of assistive technology, there are many ways the issue can be addressed. In addition, it can be viewed in a broader, more inclusive perspective to meet the needs of every child, according to Lynne Rauch, Ed.D., superintendent of Schaumburg School District 54, Illinois. [1:50, 1.5MB video]

Systemic Change

Money alone will not alleviate the challenges of improving the education of students with special needs through assistive technology use. One change that can significantly affect the education of students with special needs is the decentralization of assistive technology services. Many school districts have found it challenging to fully comply with the assistive technology requirements of IDEA, especially the broadened requirement in IDEA '97 to "consider" the need for assistive technology in developing every individualized education program (IEP).

One of the reasons school districts are still challenged by the mandate that has been in place since 1990 is that assistive technology has typically been treated as an isolated, specialized factor understood and implemented by only a few specifically trained individuals, not a team. In the early 1990s, Shawnee Mission School District, for example, had a team of 10 people assigned to carry out a three-year grant called TEACH (Technology for the Education of All Children with Handicaps). The team adopted an expert model and made all the decisions and recommendations regarding assistive technology services. Toward the end of the grant period, referrals increased greatly, but there were only four part-time individuals left on the TEACH team. The district, in response to increased referrals, dissolved the TEACH team and formed a decentralized model of assistive technology services, where the team members acted as consultants in assigned areas of the district and worked directly with teachers serving individual students.

The experience at Shawnee Mission School District shows that one effective way school districts can efficiently comply with the assistive technology requirements of IDEA is to change their district guidelines so that the provision of assistive technology devices and services is fully integrated into the special education process of referral, evaluation, plan development, implementation, and review that already occurs for all students with disabilities (Bowser & Reed, 1995; Bowser & Reed, 1998). The process of moving from a centralized, very tightly controlled system of assistive technology services to a decentralized, broad system that empowers each IEP team to make and implement appropriate decisions about assistive technology requires specific "systemic change."

Such a change is indeed possible. Examples of successful efforts to change educational systems reveal what is critical in supporting the acquisition and use of assistive technologies. One is a districtwide effort to change educational systems. In a review of successful change in education, Garmston and Wellman (1995) assert that an effort to improve services in schools must have a dual focus on both increasing the individual service provider's capabilities and expanding the school district's capacity to provide the service. Applying this premise to assistive technology services in schools, defined in IDEA (1997) as "any service that directly assists an individual with a technology device" (Part A, Sec. 602, [2], p. 8), means schools must focus on both increasing the capabilities of the teachers and therapists to provide the services involved with assistive technology use and expanding the school district's capacity to provide those assistive technology services.

In order to increase the school district's capacity to provide these services, it is necessary to look at the "system" as a whole and how it functions in relation to assistive technology. Changes in district capacity will include activities such as:

  • Developing written guidelines that include assistive technology.

  • Ensuring that stakeholders share the same vision of what high-quality assistive technology services could be like through a strategic planning process.

  • Understanding why it is important to provide assistive technology devices and services to students so they do not fall further behind.

  • Providing directions and procedural guidelines for staff about dealing with requests for assistive technology.

  • Providing training and guidance to staff in how to use assistive technology effectively to support student learning.

  • Developing a process and even forms to be used to request or provide assistive technology devices and services.

  • Budgeting for assistive technology devices.

  • Retraining existing staff members and recruiting new staff members with knowledge and skills in the area of assistive technology.

  • Planning for the acquisition of needed assistive technology for both trials and ongoing use.

Such districtwide efforts necessitate the inclusion of a wide scope of school personnel. School administrators, central office administrators, instructional technology personnel, principals, special education teachers, and related service personnel have to work together to significantly move the district forward in unison.

Penny Reed's Picture The former director of WATI, Penny Reed, has witnessed positive changes in districts where schools work together. [1:16, 1.2MB video]

Needs Evaluation

In any districtwide effort, one of the first steps is to identify where the school district is now and to describe where it would like to be. It is impossible to move toward a goal unless a school district knows what that goal is and where it is in relation to that goal. Several tools are available to help schools evaluate their needs with respect to assistive technology:

  • Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services, being developed by a collaborative group of practitioners from across the country, including such leaders in this field as Zabala, Bowser, Blunt, Carl, Davis, Deterding, Foss, Hamman, Hartsell, Korsten, Marfilius, McCloskey, Nettleton, and Reed (QIAT Consortium, 2000). The matrix can be accessed at

  • School District Profile of Assistive Technology Services (Reed, 1997) is another tool to use in developing an assistive technology vision. This tool, available at, is for self-evaluation to determine how the district is performing with regards to assistive technology when compared to an outside standard.

Both the Quality Indicators and the School District Profile are innovation configuration matrices (Hall & Hord, 1987) that were designed to be used by administrators and service providers as tools for reflection, discussion, and planning, specifically for assistive technology. Each describes a number of specific activities every district must do in the provision of assistive technology services and then offers five descriptive variations of the services ranging from "needs improvement" to "highly satisfactory." The service providers that complete the School District Profile or any of the six matrices for the Quality Indicators should include teachers from all buildings and levels, disability services, speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and where appropriate, paraprofessionals. It is important to involve as many service providers as possible, not just a select few. The percentage of staff members who complete the self-assessment will determine its effectiveness in accurately representing how assistive technology services are provided throughout the district. The discussion about the responses should end with the staff deciding what areas are high priorities for change.

The Minnesota Department of Education (formerly, Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning) published its 2003 edition of assistive technology guidelines titled Minnesota Assistive Technology Manual. The revised version is a manual for the consideration and evaluation of assistive technology for students with special needs and provides updated information on issues such as assistive technology competencies, legal requirements, quality indicators of assistive technology services, and various regional and state resources. The manual can be accessed online at

Tools such as the Minnesota Assistive Technology Manual, Quality Indicators, and the School District Profile can be effective to raise the level of concern of some of the key personnel in the district. In general, people do not change when they are feeling complacent. According to Kotter and Cohen (2002), people respond when they start feeling a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, it is often an outside force, such as a due process hearing, that raises the level of concern about assistive technology services. But this can be an expensive way to draw attention to assistive technology needs. Not all school districts need to wait for such an expensive event to occur before beginning to make changes. Using a self-assessment tool to identify strengths and weaknesses in the school district's current system of providing assistive technology services is a more effective and focused way to raise the level of concern and implement effective change.

Procedures and Forms

One area frequently identified as the most problematic with regards to assistive technology is procedures for obtaining or providing assistive technology services. Districts should review the existing policies and procedures to determine where and how assistive technology is addressed. If there is a procedures manual or staff handbook, does it address assistive technology? Does it inform the staff members about how to handle a request for assistive technology from a parent? Is there information about who in the district is knowledgeable about assistive technology and how to contact him or her? Is there a referral process in place? Are there forms to be completed?

The use of forms to request assistive technology can be a concern for the district. The district must utilize forms that guide individual staff members through a process that has been agreed upon as the process to be followed. Forms can be helpful to someone new to the district if they specify how to make a referral, how to conduct an evaluation, and how to consider assistive technology during the IEP meeting. Districts, therefore, will want to educate teachers on the uses of assistive technology request forms as a resource to guide appropriate processes in their classrooms and parental education.


In order to know what type of assistive technology is needed, educators must be able to assess a student's need for assistive technology themselves or have access to someone who can assist them. A widely accepted format for completing an assistive technology assessment includes the use of a group process that addresses the needs of the student, the characteristics of the environment, and the demands of the tasks the student needs to complete. This format is called SETT (Student, Environment, Task, and Tools), a problem-identification and solving tool that was developed by Joy Zabala, an assistive technology professional developer and one of the founding members of the QIAT Consortium, hosted by the University of Kentucky. In this process, the team that serves the student works to identify the difficulties the student is experiencing to explore potential solutions.

Several states have developed useful processes to support educators through a team-based assistive technology assessment process. For example, the WATI "Assistive Technology Assessment" process outlines steps for information gathering, decision making, and trial use to provide teachers with a functional evaluation of the student's need for assistive technology devices. A form outlining this process is available at no charge from the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative. Similar processes have also been developed by the Georgia Project for Assistive Technology and the University of Kentucky. In addition, the University of New York at Buffalo, through its Assistive Technology Training Online Project, offers training in the use of such a process.

Assistive Technology Leadership Team

A thoughtful and informed implementation of evaluation tools, procedure guidelines, and assessment forms establishes one of the core components of a systemic change. But in sustaining such change, a district is dependent upon a committed stakeholder group. So, an important step in successful change is to establish that group of committed people who share a focused vision to allow the change to happen. The Assistive Technology Leadership Team, or planning committee, should be formed based on careful judgment and include individuals with authority to make changes and concern about the quality and availability of the assistive technology services throughout the district. Depending on the need and available resources, possible individuals to consider inviting to serve on this committee might include the following:

  • Special education director

  • Assistant superintendent or superintendent

  • Technology coordinator

  • Teacher(s)

  • Therapist(s)

  • Supervisors of special services (such as vision or hearing services or occupational and physical therapy)

  • Professional development facilitators (if available or applicable)

  • Principal (In larger districts, several principals, one from each section or area of the district, or one elementary and one secondary should be included.)

In deciding whom to invite to serve on this committee, think about their interest and the overall goal, but also think about their connectedness to various groups within the school district. It is essential to select people for the committee who represent and interact with different constituencies within the district to bring in a global perspective. An effective size for this type of group is five to seven people, but the group should not be too large or efficacy will be decreased.

However, in cases where partnerships are formed, larger teams may be effective. For example, the Maryland Assistive Technology Network (MATN), which helps school districts implement and evaluate grants through an electronic learning community forum, is a partnership formed through the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and its Center for Technology in Education. MATN consists of a group of 250 participants, which include assistive technology coordinators, special education teachers, and JHU and Maryland State Department of Education assistive technology leaders. Another successful assistive technology districtwide initiative—ATSTAR Project at Austin Independent School District, Texas—included 56 educators from school campuses, as well as parents, educational support staff, and administrators to develop a campus-based assistive technology service delivery model.

Despite its size, every assistive technology leadership team is charged with challenging tasks. The assistive technology leadership team will want to utilize the information from its self-assessment to target the areas in the district most in need of improvement. They will need to work together to outline specific steps to be undertaken, addressing both the training of individuals and activities or strategies that build district capacity. These are not quick or easy tasks. In fact, Fullan (2003) in a review of change in educational systems warns against quick and easy solutions. He asserts that no sustainable solution can be accomplished without the individuals involved "struggling through the anxieties of complex problem solving toward shared solutions" (p. 29). Therefore, the role of the leadership team is not to mandate immediate change but to create an environment that invites involved educators to discover the changes that need to be made.

Training and Professional Development

In order for a teacher to be successful in assistive technology implementation in the classroom, a great deal of support is needed. Assistive technologies can become "powerful tools for teachers who use proven, research-based teaching strategies, have high-quality professional development, and the support of administrators who are committed to finding fresh approaches to meet the needs of all students" (Gordon, 2002, p. 5). The training component of a school's effort to improve assistive technology services for students must offer a variety of opportunities for teachers, including overview and introductory workshops, specific workshops on assessing students' needs for assistive technology, open labs and demonstrations, workshops on specific devices, and workshops on implementation strategies. For the open labs and demonstrations, and the training on how to operate specific devices, it is often possible to utilize local and national vendors as well as local school district staff or universities that have labs and assistive technology programs.

One example of a districtwide effort to create a leadership team is in Schaumburg, Illinois, where in 1998, School District 54 formed the A-Team (Adaptive Technology Enhancing Academics Through Modification) to play a proactive role in meeting student needs. The strength of the team was that it involved educators and administrators at all school levels, who shared information they received through workshops with their colleagues.

Carol Leffler's Picture Carol Leffler, assistive technology facilitator at Schaumburg School District 54, briefly describes the history and the effect of the A-Team. [3:33, 3.2MB video]

The workshops on implementation strategies may be most effective if they are provided by staff members who work regularly with assistive technology and can share from their actual experiences. Of particular value are ideas and materials that can help organize and order learning information. Tables, charts, and specific examples of how assistive technology is or has been used are extremely helpful. So is the hands-on approach. In general, a variety of schedules utilizing inservice days, after-school sessions, sequences of workshops, and continuing education credits or, when possible, graduate credit through a university are all part of an effective training plan. Some universities such as George Mason University in Virginia, the University of Kentucky, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh are already very successful in preparation of teachers on the use of assistive technology. Northern Illinois University, for example, is now making it a requirement for elementary, secondary, and special education preservice students to demonstrate proficiency by having hands-on experiences with assistive technology. Its Vision Program at the College of Education has been offering training to students on the use assistive technology. Some other universities are introducing assistive technology to teachers during their preservice training, but many are still not offering such training to either special education teachers or general education teachers. If teachers are not introduced, at least, to assistive technologies in their preparation programs, it makes it more difficult to help students and make effective decisions.

In making assistive technology training effective, it is important to involve the building principal or other immediate supervisor in planning the training, selecting the trainees, and following up afterwards to encourage their implementation of new strategies and information. These and other "transfer of training" strategies (Broad & Newstrom, 1992) can be critical to increasing the implementation of new skills.

Ongoing Technical Assistance

Ongoing technical assistance is another aspect of training that is important when it comes to implementing assistive technology. One-on-one help to a teacher can make a difference between a person giving up in frustration or moving forward in implementation. Ongoing assistance needs to be available in person, over the telephone, online, and in writing via newsletters or already-prepared materials sent in response to a question. One of the steps in providing technical assistance is to create a highly visible source of information and help. Teachers and administrators want to know where to seek assistance when they need it. While early adopters of assistive technology typically called vendors for technical assistance, later adopters of an innovation were not as likely to do so (Moore, 1999). In addition, many of their questions are about implementation and not all vendors can, or should, provide that type of help. Service providers within a school district need to know whom to call for help on technical assistance and when and where they can connect with people who could help.

In addition to being available and accessible, the person(s) providing technical assistance within the district or building can be proactive by providing problem-solving forums both in person and online, through open labs, and at other designated times and places for people to come with their questions. The provision of technical assistance is, therefore, an art as well as a skill. It requires the provider to be sensitive to what information and how much of that information the person seeking assistance wants and can handle, and moderate their information accordingly.

Access to Assistive Technology

Service providers need access to a variety of assistive technology for both trial and ongoing use. They need access to both hardware and software to try out, learn to operate, and utilize for trials with students prior to purchase (McInerney, Osher, & Kane, 1997). Large school districts may be able to provide this, but smaller school districts may want to collaborate or seek assistance from an education service agency or their state education agency. Service providers also need access to resources and information about assistive technology. The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI), the Oregon Technology Access Program, the Florida Assistive Technology Educational Network (ATEN), the Georgia Project for Assistive Technology, the Infinitec, and other successful state assistive technology projects operate assistive technology lending libraries that are open to all school districts in their states for this specific purpose. Such successful efforts to improve assistive technology services have demonstrated that access to print, disk, and online resources as well as low-, mid-, and high-technology devices to try out is absolutely necessary for systemic change in assistive technology.

Because school districts are struggling with tighter budget limitations, efforts to make technology resources more available in other ways than applying for funding are important. A Used Equipment Marketplace, which is a free classified ad where anyone can advertise to sell, donate, give away, or seek any assistive technology valued at more than $25, is an inexpensive, but effective way of making some of the necessary devices available to students. The list of items is published periodically in a newsletter or Web site. Individuals contact the Marketplace directly to obtain assistive technology donations. Several states and regions have such programs. Examples include:,, (For a comprehensive listing of sites across the country, see

To make software more available to schools, some projects like the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative, the Indiana Promoting Achievement Through Technology and Instruction (PATINS) Project, the Assistive Technology Infusion Project (ATIP), Maryland Assistive Technology Co-op, and Infinitec in Illinois arrange bulk purchases of various software programs that are especially beneficial for students with disabilities. In Wisconsin, these include software such as a word prediction program, talking word processors, mathematics software that facilitates sequential problem solving, a program that adds symbols above printed words, a concept mapping/outlining program, and programs to scan and read text. By working with vendors and other school districts, it is possible to assemble orders for 100 or more copies of each software program, qualifying school districts for substantial discounts. Groups of neighboring districts, education service agencies, or state education agencies can work together to make this possible. This is especially helpful to small districts that need only a few copies of any one software title and never qualify individually for the lower prices accorded larger quantity purchases.

Another way to increase access to assistive technology is to survey all buildings (or districts, if several districts are collaborating) to create a database of assistive technology that is available within participating schools. Items both currently in use and not in use can be listed so that buildings or districts can borrow from each other, visit a site to see a device being used, or call a service provider for information about how they would rate a particular assistive technology device, how easy it is to use, how often it needs repair, and so forth.

Another strategy for increasing access to resources is to make used computers available to schools and families for use with students with disabilities. Many districts, groups of districts, and states have formed partnerships with the National Cristina Foundation and other computer reutilization projects to obtain and deploy used computers with appropriate software to be used by students. Infinitec in Illinois has been a leader in this effort, providing over 20,000 computers to Illinois school districts for use by students with disabilities at school or home. While such a strategy may be very successful and helpful, it should be used with caution because transitioning used equipment to schools could potentially cause hardware incompatibility issues, raise misperceptions within the community, or increase maintenance problems caused by the outdated equipment.

Universal Design

Apart from making assistive technology available for students, increasing access to learning for every student can be accomplished through universal design principles. Section 508 of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines Universal Design as,

"a concept or philosophy for designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities, which include products and services that are directly usable (without requiring assistive technologies) and products and services that are made usable with assistive technologies." (Sec. 3 [a], [17], p.10)

According to Section 508,

"The use of universal design principles reduces the need for many specific kinds of assistive technology devices and assistive technology services by building in accommodations for individuals with disabilities before rather than after production. The use of universal design principles also increases the likelihood that products (including services) will be compatible with existing assistive technologies." (Sec. 2 [a], [10], p. 4)

In the field of education, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a new paradigm for teaching, learning, and assessment (Hitchcock & Stahl, 1999-2002). In order for this paradigm to become a reality, schools need flexible materials from curriculum developers; policies supporting individualized goals, instruction, and assessment; and professional development for teachers (Hitchcock & Stahl, 1999-2002).

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) ( has been one of the lead agencies in the development of the concept of universal design and several universally designed products, such as Thinking Reader. CAST took the concept of physical accommodations in buildings such as ramps, sidewalk curb cuts, automatic doors, or elevators, and applied it to K–12 curricula and learning devices (Gordon, 2002). In education, this concept means flexibility and accessibility of learning materials to the widest student population. So while automatic doors were developed primarily to make buildings accessible to individuals with physical impairments, they are also available to any person who needs assistance, for example, who is pushing a stroller. Likewise, the core of the concept of universal design is that there should be multiple ways of accessing information and multiple ways of demonstrating knowledge.

Learners differ in their understanding and skill development, and so UDL is a necessity in developing flexible curricula, tools, and texts. When using a computer, universal design makes it possible to get meaning from a textbook by hearing written text spoken, seeing QuickTime® movies of a concept in action, having print enlarged or text or background highlighted in different colors, etc. In other words, it takes away some of the obstacles, whether they are physical limitations, decoding problems, visual limitations, or cognitive difficulties, so students do not have to struggle as hard to meet their needs and access learning materials. Students are provided with multiple means to represent information, such as taking a test on a computer by keyboarding instead of handwriting, demonstrating knowledge by talking to the computer or the recorder, or using graphing software to create a chart instead of handwriting.

UDL is also a tool that can address not only the needs of students with disabilities but other students as well. So students with limited English proficiency or those with a lack of knowledge can make effective use of UDL. However, universal design does not meet everyone's needs. UDL primarily addresses reading and writing needs, so students without access to a computer cannot take advantage of UDL accommodations. In addition, the UDL environment cannot be created by a single curriculum or software program (Hitchcock & Stahl, 1999-2002). Schools need a variety of tools, programs, materials, and Web sites that can be used with different students for their different needs (Hitchcock & Stahl, 1999-2002). So even though UDL is a promising concept, not all students' needs can be met by universal access, and schools need to be very creative and flexible to provide a universal access environment.

Learning and Instruction

The use of assistive technology is critical to support learning and teaching of students with special needs. Assistive technology helps a student do something he or she cannot do successfully without it. Using strategy-embedded digital books, for example, gives students different opportunities to work with the text with more concentration and depth (Gordon, 2002). Students feel encouraged and motivated as they are supported with a device that can make them a strategic, engaged, and self-aware learner, as well as a device that teaches them comprehension strategies, story grammar, and decoding (O'Neill, 2001; O'Neill & Dalton, 2002).

When students receive support through the use of visual aids, models, demonstrations, creation of nonthreatening environments, or building on prior knowledge, it can truly enhance their learning. Researchers at CAST conducted a three-year study using a CD-ROM research prototype titled Thinking Reader to compare the effect of computer-supported instruction versus traditional strategy instruction on the reading comprehension of struggling readers in middle school. Thinking Reader embeds decoding, strategy, vocabulary, and self-assessment supports into digital versions of novels. This study demonstrated that reading age-appropriate novels in digital formats with embedded strategy and comprehension prompts enabled students to gain approximately a half-year in grade level (0.53 grade equivalents in computer-supported group as opposed to 0.2 grade equivalents in the traditional group) (Dalton, Pisha, Eagleton, Coyne, & Deysher, 2002).

Teachers need to be knowledgeable consumers of assistive technology. The more a teacher is knowledgeable about available technologies, the more he or she can assist a student with special needs. For example, if a student is having difficulty with writing a word, a teacher can choose from many available items and devices, such as word cards; picture symbols printed with words to support the recognition of words; Intellikeys that enables composing sentences using whole words either with or without picture symbol support on the computer; or using talking word processors or word prediction software on the computer. To help a student with special needs, teachers can start by looking at low-tech options, and if those fail in helping the student, then they can choose more sophisticated assistive technology devices.

Community of Learners and Collegial Support

Another critical aspect of improving assistive technology services is the presence of collegial support. Service providers and administrators benefit when they have access to other professionals who are confronted with similar challenges. Creating a community of learners can provide participants with the feedback and support that are essential in undertaking new efforts in introducing assistive technology into the school system. It is important for educators to have opportunities to discuss with other professionals what is being attempted, what seems to be working, what does not seem to be working regarding assistive technology implementation, and to reflect on why. Successful implementation of assistive technologies includes a resource person who teachers can contact when something is not working or when, conversely, everything works perfectly in the classroom, and the success needs to be shared among colleagues. In this way, such support goes beyond technical assistance. In addition, it comes not from the assistive technology experts in the school district, but from peers who might have struggled to learn new information about assistive technology.

The collegial interdependence that can lead to collegial support has been promoted in Wisconsin, Oregon, and other states as they set up intra- and inter-agency working/planning groups, labs, and equipment fairs. It has also been facilitated by looking for existing networks, such as reading teachers' associations, branches of the United States Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (USAAC), the Technology and Media Division of the Council for Exceptional Children (TAM), and others. National conferences such as the California State University Northridge Conference (CSUN), the Council for Exceptional Children Conference, the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference, or the Closing the Gap Conference are also great venues to expand teacher networks and share with colleagues. Any structure connecting teachers with common interests or similar situations can be utilized to promote collegial support and encourage them to help other colleagues.

In Wisconsin, WATI's Leadership Institute was especially important in creating collegial support because it brought educators and administrators together from across the state and encouraged them to plan how they could help others in their school district. One hundred and fifty service providers from across the state were nominated for participation by someone else in their district or geographic area who identified them as being a "leader" in assistive technology. Letters were written to their district superintendents and special education directors, explaining the program as well as to the nominees inviting them to participate. The Leadership Institute participants meet twice a year. A nationally recognized speaker is often brought in to provide training. They regularly receive specific materials selected to assist them in helping others increase their knowledge of assistive technology. At one training every two years, participants work in regional groups to develop regional plans for providing information and training to each other and their colleagues.

In Maryland, the Maryland Department of Education in collaboration with the Center on Technology at Johns Hopkins University has created a statewide virtual community of learners. Members from school districts throughout the state regularly receive information and ideas from this virtual community. In addition, national speakers are invited to follow up on training by participating in live chat rooms devoted to specific assistive technology topics. In this way, teachers and therapists who attended training can be provided follow-up information and answers to questions that arose after training or problems that have occurred. On a larger scale, the Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services has also created a virtual forum for collegial support with the QIAT electronic mailing list. It is open to anyone and can be accessed from

Effect of Action

When the critical components discussed within this issue are put into action, the cumulative effect can be surprisingly powerful. Schools are complex organizations, and effecting change will require them to think globally while acting locally (Wheatley, 2001). Strong leadership teams have the power to affect the context (i.e., the classroom) in which a teacher works, and it is critical not to overlook its importance or to take it for granted (Gladwell, 2000). Professional development centering on focused vision of informed assistive technology implementation should be treated deliberately and utilized as an agent for successful change. Once the components are in place, schools are ready to create systemic change. Such components provide a foundation for an effective, efficient system of assistive technology services as well as a network of educators who can support each other to be confident and effective service providers.


  • School districts will seek funding to pay for assistive technology through a variety of sources, including traditional and nontraditional sources.

  • Every individualized education program team will have sufficient knowledge and support to consider the student's need for assistive technology in a legal and ethical manner.

  • Every teacher will understand and use universally designed materials and simple low-tech devices to support struggling students.

  • Every teacher will know the procedure to follow if a parent of a child with a disability requests assistive technology for that child.

  • Key individuals in the district will be identified to take the lead in acquiring more in-depth knowledge in specific areas of assistive technology.

  • School districts will decentralize the support system: They will assign individual assistive technology leaders within the district sectors to be contact persons regarding questions about assistive technology.

  • Every administrator will know the laws regarding assistive technology, the key individuals to contact for more information, and the importance of their own role in providing assistive technology services that are both efficient and cost effective.

  • The provision, implementation, and evaluation of assistive technology services will be a routine component of all service providers.


In order to achieve the Improvement Goals listed above, school districts should consider using the following Action Options to improve their assistive technology services:

  • Develop a shared vision of assistive technology services based on assessed need.

  • Create a leadership team to direct the implementation of that vision.

  • Develop necessary policies, procedures, and forms to guide district staff in the provision of assistive technology devices and services.

  • Assure access to assistive technology for both trial and ongoing use.

  • Provide training to all staff members tailored to their needs.

  • Create a community of learners to provide collegial support to build on what has been learned and to continue to increase knowledge and support effectiveness in the future.

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: One of the pitfalls in successfully integrating assistive technology can be attributed to misconceptions regarding both the cost of assistive technology equipment and funding sources for assistive technology. Some teachers are hesitant or even fearful to recommend assistive technology because they think it will cost their district a lot of money. Moreover, some parents may even think and feel the same way, especially in smaller communities and districts, where the entire community is very aware of the financial limitations of their district as they work closely with the district staff. But it is not necessarily true, as assistive technology is frequently not expensive and there are many low-technology devices to help students with special needs. Most importantly, assistive technology is required by law.

The lack of professional development for school personnel in the assistive technology may also cause challenges in implementing successful changes regarding assistive technology within classrooms. According to Harry F. "Bud" Rizer, Director of the Center on Disabilities (COD) at California State University, Northridge, "Training in AT is a crucial ingredient to the successful integration of the technology to the planned application" (Rizer, 2003). However, based on informal surveys and anecdotal evidence, he maintains that acquiring funding for training is much harder than actually locating funds for buying assistive technology equipment. Plus, the more expensive the item, the more costly the training: For every dollar spent on actual technology, four dollars are spent on integrating the technology, which may include costs related to traveling to training programs, buying materials, hiring consultants, and getting postsecondary educational training, finding substitute teachers (Rizer, 2003). If educators are not trained adequately, they may not be aware of many various assistive technology options, may be unable to make appropriate equipment referrals, or miss funding opportunities (Rizer, 2003). When teachers are not taught about assistive technology—especially, about low-tech devices and readily available items—they are often missing a whole range of devices that could really make a difference for students. Preservice and inservice teachers alike need to be continually introduced to a range of assistive technologies available to their students. An online survey posted to the COD Web site showed that 87 percent of the respondents perceive the need for future professional training increasing, and 44 percent identify the lack of financial support as one of the challenges in acquiring training (Rizer, 2003).

At the university level, training may be inhibited by the lack of assistive technology equipment. Some teacher-training institutions may find it very challenging, to say the least, to keep up with a range of assistive technology and have it available or have faculty members who know how to use it. Often, accreditation guidelines do not state explicitly how assistive technology is taught during teacher training programs. So if one assistive technology device is introduced over the course of the entire teacher program, the requirement, in theory, would have been met.

Also, having just one person in the entire school district responsible for being a contact person for assistive technology concerns can be an obstacle to providing support for teachers. Historically, that person has often been a speech and language pathologist, a special education teacher, or an occupational therapist. But it takes more than one person to effect change. Taking a districtwide perspective and designating one contact person per building can be the first step. Districts can also consider forming a team of educators who will become resource agents in their buildings. In 1998, Schaumburg School District 54, Illinois, formed such a team, called the A-Team (Adaptive Technology Enhancing Academics Through Modifications), whose goal was to be proactive in meeting student needs. The A-Team met once a month after school, for a few hours, where they were trained using technology resources to meet needs of students with disabilities. The team members received the assistive technology resource, brainstormed ideas on how to use the specific device, and took it to their buildings and shared it with other educational staff members. One critical step in forming such a team is ensuring it comprises key educators (such as special and regular education teachers, occupational and physical therapists, and others) and administrators.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Implementing effective changes in terms of assistive technology requires a districtwide effort. When administrators and educators work as a team, change will likely occur. Some fragmented efforts may also impact the district on a smaller scale, but to a less visible extent. It is not to say, however, that every school teacher and every administrator needs to know how to operate every single assistive technology device. But ideally, there should be one person in each building—and at a minimum, in the district—who knows how to operate all assistive technology devices and can provide assistance to teachers when needed.

The practice of hiring a full-time aide for a student may be ineffective, both for the school and for the student. Providing a full-time aide for the student throughout the school year, as opposed to providing an appropriate assistive technology device, can be expensive. But more importantly, a focus on preparing students for an adult life is a proactive strategy for schools to consider.

Some individuals may believe that providing one student with an assistive technology device to help him or her complete a task when another student without a special need does not get to use the same device is not fair. Communicating to parents and teachers about why the device is used with one student and not the other can help solve this misconception and educate students at the same time. An appropriate way to approach this type of a situation is to determine what the specific device can do for both students: How difficult is it for the students to complete the same task without the device? Is it an obstacle for the students if they do not use it? If the device is necessary to help the student with his or her functional capabilities, then it is an assistive technology device.


Statewide Initiative

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Date posted: April, 2004

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