Q&A with Dr. Christopher Lee
In this Q&A with assistive technology expert Dr. Christopher Lee, learn more about using AT to support students with learning disabilities, finding the right AT tools, AT evaluations, self-advocacy, and much more.
Dr. Christopher Lee has spent his entire career in the AT field, serving a professor at the University of Georgia and subsequently at the Georgia Institute of Technology (aka Georgia Tech). In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he worked closely with schools and universities statewide to help them improve their services to students with disabilities.
Dr. Lee served from 2005-2017 as the founding director of the Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC), a statewide initiative that was incubated out of the University System of Georgia to help post-secondary disability services offices provide complete, timely, efficient accommodations to students with print disabilities so they can be more independent and productive in their academic environments.
In December, 2017, Dr. Lee founded and now runs the CML Group, which is dedicated to advancing accessibility in the public and private sectors. Learn about Christopher Lee's personal journey in this related article: Q&A with Dr. Lee: My Story.
How would you define assistive technology? It’s not a very user-friendly term.
No, it’s not. You can go to different agencies and they define it a different way but assistive technology is any piece of equipment, whether it’s low tech or high tech, that actually helps an individual become more successful. It can be anything from a walker for mobility issues to the voice recognition software for somebody who needs to speak into the computer to be able to write.
How has our perspective changed on that over time?
We've done a better job of incorporating assistive technology beginning in 1992 or 1993, when Congress passed the assistive technology act. The law provides funding to each state to promote the acquisition of assistive technology and training as well. And that law has made a big difference. The big challenge now is funding assistive technology and not so much the technology itself but also the training and technical assistance around helping teachers use the assistive technology so they can actually incorporate it into their classroom.
What are some lessons we've learned about using assistive technology to support students with learning disabilities?
One thing I've learned is that you have to be patient. You have to be willing to try lots of strategies, a lot of assistive technology in the classroom, before sometimes it sticks with the student. Just because you have one student where assistive technology has worked well doesn’t mean it will work with the next student. Even if they have the same disability. That's because there are lots of variables involved for each student.
So you have to learn to take a step by step approach. You can’t just throw the most expensive or the shiniest technology at the student and expect it to stick. Sometimes you have to phase in technology slowly or try a few different options before you find something that works.
I’ll give you a good example. Sometimes, the service provider or the AT specialist, throws the voice recognition software at a student and it doesn’t work. A lot of times that's because the provider hasn’t used this step by step process where, for example, you teach the student the core skill of how to dictate before they jump on to the computer trying to dictate in that environment.
So there’s a step by step process to be done before you throw technology to students. Here are two examples. One was with a girl I'll call Haley. She was in the 9th grade at this time and we gave her a grammar checker called Ginger, which is a great tool. Haley had very serious dysgraphia. She really needed a good grammar checker and spell checker. But she just wouldn't use it. And it wasn’t for a whole year — until she continued to fail every time she brought home a paper — that she finally picked it up. And I kind of knock myself in the head sometimes because maybe there were things we could have done to get her to use this software. So that's a lesson learned: for many students you don’t just give them the software; you introduce it to them step by step.
Another student I worked with, we’ll call him Jay, was one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever dealt with. He was just coming out of third grade. It was summer time and his mother brought him to me. She had just got him a very comprehensive assessment and it had 18 or 19 pages. It was a really good one. And it had a lot of recommendations on the last page, but the recommendations really didn’t tie in to the rest of the assessment. The mother didn’t know what to do with all the recommendations. So she came to me and it was my job to spend an hour a week with Jay trying to integrate assistive technology and get him accustomed to using assistive technology so that when he entered fourth grade, he would be able to use technology effectively.
And Jay struggled a lot. He had a lot of different issues. He had some auditory processing deficits, he had dyslexia and all the language-based issues and he had ADHD. He also struggled with dysgraphia and just had low self-esteem. And Jay really touched me because I could see myself in Jay, because he had a lot of the same issues that I had growing up. So I walked in there thinking that I could help him.
And boy, I made all kinds of mistakes. We tried all kinds of technology and the first thing I focused on was his handwriting, which was just a mess. We tried writing guides, we used large paper with lines, we tried all kinds of things.
But nothing really worked until we tried a gripper with a pencil and pen gripper. It was just like a tennis ball and the utensil went through the middle of it. And what we found was that previously, Jay would be so frustrated when he was writing that he would press so hard onto the paper that the pencil would break and there was a lot of frustration there. But once we gave him this tennis ball-style gripper, he seemed to put his frustration around the ball and he started doing a lot better.
The other thing that was really interesting was that Jay was left handed. He had a notebook and the notebook had those metal rings on the side that kept the pages bound. And Jay would keep pushing the notebook at an angle. He moved it around at an angle so it was almost flipped upside down, it was such an odd thing to see. And so we got him a notebook that had metal rings on the top and that didn’t bother him nearly as much because now he could keep his hand much more flat when he was writing.
Then we tried keyboard shortcuts and started looking at keyboards. I thought "Shortcuts, oh my gosh, this has worked with so many other students. We’ll teach him all these shortcuts and he’ll be more productive, he'll be faster, he'll have to do less typing." But that didn’t work at all. The keyboarding was a challenge and it took us a while to figure that out.
I wound up spending four months with Jay and it wasn’t until the third month that we tried a kind of keyboard and gaming learning tool. That made such a difference because he liked the game and all of a sudden his keyboarding skills jumped up and that was exciting.
I think in the fourth month we also tried Dragon Naturally Speaking and that bombed. Voice recognition software bombed completely. He didn’t like it, he wouldn't use it, and that was challenging for us. We had started off using it where it was on his computer. We loaded it onto his computer so he could speak and the computer would write the words for him.
What we found is that we should have downloaded the app, the Dragon Dictate app which is free, and allow him to practice using that app before we gave him the full blown Dragon Dictate system on his computer. If he could say a word with the app, we’d spell it out for him and then he would type the words himself. He started using the app so much that eventually, with this step-by-step process, he started using Dragon Dictate on his computer.
For many students, talking into a machine doesn't come naturally. How do you work with students on this skill?
We need to teach them, one step at a time. Sometimes I ask students to write down one complete thought, type a complete thought, line by line. Where you're not asking them to connect their thoughts into a long essay, and you're not asking them to worry about spelling or punctuation. You're just asking for one thought. And we know that's hard for some students too.
So maybe you begin by having someone sit down with the student, and the student says their complete thought and the other person writes it down. And through that interaction — that reciprocity between teacher and student — the student gradually learns how to communicate effectively using complete thoughts.
So you’re introducing a social component, a relationship component that allows the student to get some feedback as opposed to just talking into a machine. That's so important and the reason is that it’s all about trust. The students, in many cases, because of their academic struggles, don’t have a lot of trust in the teachers. They’re afraid of being caught, they’re afraid that someone is going to find out they’re more stupid than they are.
So building that relationship with somebody that they feel comfortable being vulnerable with, it’s huge, that social component is part of the solution.
How do we go about finding the right tool for a particular child?
One thing that’s very important that’s not being done now, as much as it should be, is that when you go through an assessment, to show your strengths and weaknesses, you should match that assessment with an assistive technology evaluation. Is the student's dysgraphia so severe that keyboarding is going to be difficult for them? Do they have tremors, do they have whatever it may be. You’ve got to marry the two and once you do that you're in a much better position to choose the right tool.
You have to think about the environment, too. For example the speech to text, you know if you’re in a noisy environment, it’s probably not going to work really well. If you’re using a Mac, you know that there are different types of speech to text programs on Macs versus PCs. And you try to find a specialist in your school district who can help guide you to the right vendor, and the specific product that you need.
Are there some common misconceptions about assistive technology that you wind up encountering with either parents or teachers?
The biggest misconception is thinking that AT is going to solve everything. Thinking that just because I use a talking word processor or speech to text software, I’m not going to have any problems. And that’s just not the case. Assistive technology helps fill the gap and it makes you a little more productive, hopefully a lot more if the technology is a good match. It might speed things up a little, so you’re not as slow. But I tell my students that even with the best technology, you’re still going to have to get up a little earlier in the morning than everyone else.
Your disability, depending on what it is, means that it will probably always take more time for you to do things.
Teachers who don’t use assistive technology or don’t use it much sometimes cite a lack of money as a reason. Are there some good low tech solutions out there and some tools that are either free or very inexpensive to use?
Funding is definitely an issue, along with a lack of training for teachers. nd in some cases that's compounded by the teacher's own anxiety about using technology. I think most teachers are comfortable now with everyday technology such as cell phones and digital calendars. But they're less comfortable helping students with more specialized adaptive technology. And there are actually a lot of inexpensive, low tech related items that we could be using with more students.
I’ll give you an example. One tool that I've used with students is a magnifying strip. This is a strip that you put on the text of the book and it highlights the text and makes the text pop up. It might be yellow or any color and you just place it over the text that you want to highlight.
As you move the strip along the text, it magnifies those words and it helps many students with eye tracking. lot of students with specific learning disabilities related to decoding and reading fluency really struggle with eye tracking. They skip around the page so they may start from left to right but they jump over words or they jump down to the next sentence before they finish the first one. With the magnetic strip, many students find that they can follow along more easily. hey're using that tactile approach, they're touching it now, and it helps them stay focused.
Enlarged text is another good example. I've found that a lot of technology that was originally developed to help older people remain independent is also helpful for people with learning disabilities. So when I'm looking for inexpensive or low tech tools, I often use resources like Google's independent living center for assistive technology, along with other guides for independent living. And you can find tools there that are really helpful for students with disabilities.
Are there tools that you've found to be effective that you wish were more widely used?
One free tool that I like is the Dragon Naturally Speaking app that you can download and you can have that speech to text app on your phone. And there’s a great site tied to the Tools for Life program and it gives you a list of all the free apps out there. There are about 300 apps, I believe, listed there.
Are there places where parents or educators can go to find reliable help?
I would recommend the state assistive technology programs. Every state has one and ATAP is the leading organization that handles the technical assistance for these technology programs. These state programs can be a very helpful resource for parents and teachers. Some of these centers also offer training and technical assistance to teachers as well as supporting parents through their website and other trainings that they do.
There are also assistive technology conferences held throughout the U.S. and those conferences can also be a great source of ideas and support.
Are there things we can do to help students become more engaged in finding the right assistive technology solution for themselves?
I think that goes back to the assistive technology evaluation. If the student works closely with a professional, and they work together as a team, pretty soon the student can become the expert and the specialist can step down. And sometimes the student starts helping other students in their class, or other students that even don’t have learning disabilities and everyone benefits from that.
It all begins by giving students some exposure to assistive technology. They’ve got to understand it. When I was at Georgia Tech, we had K-12 students coming through all the time. Students would get to tour the assistive technology lab, so they got to play with all this really cool assistive technology.
And one thing we would do is introduce them to these tele-presence robots and they would just be so excited and once you get them excited about some of the really shiny stuff, they love it, and they also get excited about participating in some of the more basic tools as well.
I think exposure is the key. If we’re not exposing these students, it’s going to be hard to get them to take more of a lead in coming up with their own technology solutions.
What are some things that parents and teachers can do to help support a child?
Communication skills are crucial and I think we need to focus much more on teaching students when and how to talk about their own disability.
It's important for us to role-play with our students, so they learn how to talk about their disability from a practical standpoint, sometimes with just a few words. And from a medical standpoint in some cases, especially as they get older. They need to know how to talk to their friends versus how they talk to a family member or a specialist.
I don’t see that enough and it frustrates me that it isn’t happening more. I admire the parents who are strong advocates, who are open and who speak out. But teaching students to advocate for themselves is number one and the second thing, I think, is just advocating for assistive technology in your school.
Many parents I talk to don't know what an assistive technology evaluation is, so they’ve never thought about getting one. It’s not well known and unfortunately it’s not provided by a lot of school systems.
What is an AT evaluation, how do you get one, and what should parents know? Should it be part of an IEP?
An AT evaluation carefully considers the strengths and weaknesses of an individual student. Then it identifies assistive technology that represents a good match to those strengths and weaknesses and it also factors in other variables that might affect a student's ability to take advantage of assistive technology. Is funding an issue? Is there an issue with low esteem? Are there health issues? All of those things might be factored in.
As a parent, I would start there, or I would start actually in your school system and find out who’s the AT specialist and if they don’t have an AT specialist I would advocate to get an AT specialist involved. I would go to some of the advocacy groups out there, like the Learning Disability Association of America, like NCLD and other groups.
They all have websites, they all have conferences and their programs a lot of the time are up on their website so it’s not difficult to find information once you start typing in assistive technology evaluations.
An AT evaluation should be part of the IEP. Assistive technology is often recommended in an IEP and hopefully it’s recommended by a specialist of some sort who is certified. But in many assessments, assistive technology is just thrown up on a list and there’s nothing backing it. It's there for a reason but no one follows up.
So as a parent, you should should definitely try to tie assistive technology to the IEP. And in many states, if students are fourteen or older, the state vocational service will offer an AT screening as part of a broader screening for vocational rehabilitation. That service is usually offered through a state's department of labor.
What challenges do students face as they transition into higher education, where the rules are different from K-12?
Higher education is a very different world. So in K-12, a student may be given assistive technology, but in a higher ed setting they probably won't get it unless they push for it themselves. And many students with learning disabilities don’t want to ask for help.
Their disability is somewhat hidden. They want to be like everyone else. So in many cases, students don’t go to the disability services office at the university until they are about to fail out. And sometimes that’s too late. So it’s important for us to teach students to feel comfortable about their disability and to communicate about it appropriately.
The other thing that is huge with higher education, that’s different from K-12, is there’s no national accommodation tracking system or feedback system. In K-12, states report about accommodations, the number of people with disabilities, and all of that. Higher education doesn’t do that on a federal level and that’s very challenging.
As a result, we don’t have good data at the university level about which accommodations work and which ones don’t work. We aren’t able to tie accommodations to retention and graduation rates and that’s something I’ve been working to change.
I will also say that in K-12 you often see teachers in special education who have some at least expertise about using assistive technology. Hopefully in their studies it’s come up, hopefully that tech act program has done a pretty good job.
But in higher education, there’s no formal certification in the sense of what it takes to be a disability service provider for college students. There’s no national certification. Often these disability service providers wear multiple hats. There’s little funding, and a lot of times they don’t have experience with making digital content accessible or providing assistive technology.
So it can be very challenging. There are many areas that need to be worked on in higher education and these are just a few of them.
If I’m a college freshman, a student with learning disabilities, what should I do? How do I find the right person to help and what do I ask for when I get there?
That’s a great question. You have to back up even before that because the student’s first job is to find the right university. Hopefully you have an option of a couple of universities, whether it’s a technical college or a four year university. And one step is to look on their websites to see which colleges offer strong disability services offices.
How many staff do they have? Do they offer tutoring services at the university? That’s something that you want to know. Do they offer assistive technology in the testing environment? Do they offer assistive technology in the libraries or do they give you assistive technology? You want to look at the university first and you want to assess how strong their disability services office is.
How much funding do they get? They’re not going to tell you that directly but you can pretty much tell by how many staff they have, and by the ratio to the number of students who are enrolled. You know if they’ve got 600 students with disabilities but they only have one staff person, there’s a good chance that the student is not going to get a lot of support. So that’s what I’d do. And once you find a university that looks promising, it’s very helpful if the student can make an appointment with the disability services office.
It’s the student’s responsibility to do that because the university setting is very different from K-12, where the parent is in control. In college, the student is in control. And hopefully the student can meet with the disability services office before actually starting at the university.
Once you’re there, you should ask about the services that the university provides. For example, if you have trouble decoding written texts and you need to have your textbooks accessible electronically, you need to make sure that the school offers that.
If you need assistive technology, you need to make sure they offer that. If you need testing services, they need to be able to provide a letter each semester to each of your faculty saying that you get to take your test in a private, quiet room. So hopefully you take what you’ve learned through your IEP process and you transition that into higher education.
So there’s a myriad of services that potentially they can provide. And usually you’ll get assigned to a disability services provider and they’ll work with you in all of these areas.
If you enroll in college, and you had an identified disability in high school, is the college obliged to accept that diagnosis or will they ask you to do more testing in order to qualify for services?
It depends on when you were last evaluated and it depends on the state that you’re in. Different states do it differently. Some states have rules that are based on how recently you’ve been evaluated. So if your most recent evaluation was three years ago or longer, you may need to be reevaluated before you can qualify for services. If you were last evaluated in fifth or sixth grade, you may need to have a new evaluation.
But let me stress, that’s not always the case. If you’ve got some documentation, IEP documentation and so on, some universities will be just fine with that.
So it really depends on the state that you’re in, it depends on the college and the university and how strict they are on their policies and procedures around this.
When should students start exploring the kind of accommodations that they might receive in college?
This is something they should add to their list when they first start looking at colleges. So as students are deciding which colleges to apply to, they need to ask what are the college’s policies around assessment. Because if they can get an updated assessment in the K-12 environment before they even begin college, a lot of students do that and we recommend that.
And especially if your school system will pay for the assessment, then go ahead and get it done before you leave the K-12 environment.
I’ve never met a student with learning disabilities, severe learning disabilities, who doesn’t fall behind if they aren’t being very proactive the year before they transition to a post-secondary environment.
Any final thoughts?
Assistive technology is really about universal design, it’s about creating an environment that's inclusive for everyone no matter what disability they may have. Whether it’s cognitive or sensory, whether it’s about mobility or anything else. We need environments that are accessible for everyone. And when we don’t provide that, we limit the ability of students to have access to the knowledge they need.