When I first started working with assistive technology (AT) in 1988, we thought of AT as a pretty small and specific set of devices that students with significant motor, vision, or hearing impairments needed. Those included braille devices, technology that could help kids talk when they had no voice, and alternative keyboards for kids who were unable to type. But in 1990, Congress opened up the definition of assistive technology. In the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 602[1], AT is defined 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 children with disabilities (idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/,root,statute,I,A,602,1,).

There are two important concepts in this definition. First, assistive technology is any item or piece of equipment. Second, AT in-creases the ability of a person with a disability to do something functional, such as read, write, or organize thoughts. 

Recently, AT has enjoyed increased attention because of its emphasis in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Council of Chief State School Officers have given three recommendations for students who need support beyond what they get in the classroom:

• Instructional supports for learning based on Universal Design for Learning principles
• Instructional accommodations (changes in materials or procedures)
• Assistive technology

A huge amount of technology is commonly available to help kids with disabilities as well as others who are struggling in their academic programs. Here’s one story about a group of students using commonly available technology in assistive ways to help them overcome barriers to writing. 

Shannon Henry, assistive technology specialist for Northwest Regional Education Service District and the Hillsboro School District near Portland, Oregon, USA, has helped many of her students use their mobile phones and free voice dictation (Dragon Dictation or other voice recognition technology) to overcome their writing difficulties. Once they have entered the basic text in their phones, students can email the assignments to themselves for editing with a computer or send completed assignments directly to their teachers. One teacher reports that about 20 of her students from four classes use this kind of writing support. For these students, mobile phones and voice dictation allow them to do writing tasks that are otherwise difficult or impossible. 

Other students who struggle with composition could be using the same technology features for classroom accommodations. But because many educators have an outdated or limited view of AT, students are not being exposed to alternative ways of learning. 

This is a good time to think about AT because so many students might meet those standards if we can implement AT options to help them demonstrate what they know. Access options in commonly available technology, such as computers, smartphones, and tablets, can help students with disabilities that affect their academic achievement meet the CCSS in reading, writing, math, and other content areas.

It’s possible that you know students who could make progress toward meeting the CCSS with free voice dictation. There are other free computer, web, and mobile tablet solutions that might also help, such as the text-to-speech options available in Mac and Windows operating systems, bubbl.us for online composition planning, and apps such as VocaList (Android), AudioNote, and Forgetful (iOS) to help organize and take notes. As I see AT, many students could learn more, be more successful, and achieve CCSS, and even ISTE’s standards, if they used accessibility options already built into commonly available technology.

—Gayl Bowser’s work as an independent consultant focuses on the integration of technology into the educational programs of students with disabilities. Bowser provides assistive technology consultation, training, and technical assistance in the United States and abroad.