Assistive technology (AT) is available to help individuals with many types of disabilities — from cognitive problems to physical impairment. This article will focus specifically on AT for individuals with learning disabilities (LD).
The use of technology to enhance learning is an effective approach for many children. Additionally, students with LD often experience greater success when they are allowed to use their abilities (strengths) to work around their disabilities (challenges). AT tools combine the best of both of these practices.
This article will introduce parents to the role of AT in helping their children with LD. The better informed you are about AT, the greater the chances your child will experience success in school, in recreation and, eventually, at work. You will also want to learn how to choose AT tools that are reliable and to select technology that is tailored to your child’s individual needs, abilities, and experience .
What is assistive technology for LD?
AT for kids with LD is defined as any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual’s specific learning deficits. Over the past decade, a number of studies have demonstrated the efficacy of AT for individuals with LD. 1 AT doesn’t cure or eliminate learning difficulties, but it can help your child reach her potential because it allows her to capitalize on her strengths and bypass areas of difficulty. For example, a student who struggles with reading but who has good listening skills might benefit from listening to audiobooks.
In general, AT compensates for a student’s skills deficits or area(s) of disability. However, utilizing AT does not mean that a child can’t also receive remedial instruction aimed at alleviating deficits (such as software designed to improve poor phonic skills). A student could use remedial reading software as well as listen to audiobooks. In fact, research has shown that AT can improve certain skill deficits (e.g., reading and spelling).2,3
AT can increase a child’s self-reliance and sense of independence. Kids who struggle in school are often overly dependent on parents, siblings, friends and teachers for help with assignments. By using AT, kids can experience success with working independently.
What types of learning problems does assistive technology address?
AT can address many types of learning difficulties. A student who has difficulty writing can compose a school report by dictating it and having it converted to text by special software. A child who struggles with math can use a hand-held calculator to keep score while playing a game with a friend. And a teenager with dyslexia may benefit from AT that will read aloud his employer’s online training manual. There are AT tools to help students who struggle with:
Certain assistive technology (AT) tools can help people who have difficulty processing and remembering spoken language. Such devices can be used in various settings (e.g., a class lecture, or a meeting with multiple speakers). See AT tools for listening
Assistive technology (AT) tools for math are designed to help people who struggle with computing, organizing, aligning, and copying math problems down on paper. With the help of visual and/or audio support, users can better set up and calculate basic math problems. See AT tools for Math
Organization and memory
Assistive technology (AT) tools can help a person plan, organize, and keep track of his calendar, schedule, task list, contact information, and miscellaneous notes. These tools allow him to manage, store, and retrieve such information with the help of special software and hand-held devices. See AT tools for organization and memory
There is a wide range of assistive technology (AT) tools available to help individuals who struggle with reading. While each type of tool works a little differently, all of these tools help by presenting text as speech. These tools help facilitate decoding, reading fluency, and comprehension. See AT tools for reading
What kinds of assistive technology tools are available?
The term “assistive technology” has usually been applied to computer hardware and software and electronic devices. However, many AT tools are now available on the Internet. AT tools that support kids with LD include:
Audiobooks and publications
Recorded books allow users to listen to text and are available in a variety of formats, such as audiocassettes, CDs, and MP3 downloads. Special playback units allow users to and search and bookmark pages and chapters. Subscription services offer extensive electronic library collections. Learn more about audiobooks and publications
Electronic math worksheets
Electronic math worksheets are software programs that can help students organize, align, and work through math problems on a computer screen. Numbers that appear onscreen can also be read aloud via a speech synthesizer. This may be helpful to students who have trouble aligning math problems with pencil and paper. Learn more about electronic math worksheets
Information and data managers
This type of tool helps a person plan, organize, store, and retrieve his calendar, task list, contact data, and other information in electronic form. Personal data managers may be portable, hand-held devices, computer software, or a combination of those tools working together by “sharing” data. Learn more about information and data managers
Optical character recognition
This technology allows a user to scan printed material into a computer or handheld unit. The scanned text is then read aloud via a speech synthesis/screen reading system. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is available as stand-alone units, computer software, and as portable, pocket-sized devices. Learn more about optical character recognition
Students who struggle with writing (e.g., spelling, grammar, punctuation, word usage, and sentence structure) may benefit from software programs (included in many word processing systems) that scan word processing documents and alert the user to possible errors.
A speech recognition program works in conjunction with a word processor. The user “dictates” into a microphone, and his spoken words appear on the computer screen as text. This can help a user whose oral language ability is better than his writing skills. Learn more about speech-recognition programs
A talking calculator has a built-in speech synthesizer that reads aloud each number, symbol, or operation key a user presses; it also vocalizes the answer to the problem. This auditory feedback may help him check the accuracy of the keys he presses and verify the answer before he transfers it to paper. Learn more about talking calculators
Your child’s profile
Here are several factors to consider when evaluating AT products for your child:
- What are her specific needs and challenges? In what academic skill areas does she struggle?
- What are her strengths? AT should utilize your child’s abilities to help compensate for her disability.
- What is her interest, skill and experience in using technology? In what settings and situations will she use the AT tool? AT can help a child with LD function better at school as well as in other settings such as home, work, social gatherings and recreational events.
Other technology tools for learning
There are other forms of technology designed to help all students, including those with LD, improve their academic performance. These technologies differ somewhat from AT but are worth mentioning.
Instructional software is used to teach specific academic skills (like reading and writing) or subject matter content (such as history and science). It differs from AT in that it provides instruction rather than bypassing areas of difficulty.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a philosophy that encompasses learning models, methods and products to enhance the educational experience of diverse learners (whether or not they have learning disabilities). In this approach, AT is often built into educational materials and can be customized to help students with disabilities be successful with the general curriculum.