Assistive Tech: Not Just a Special Ed Thing Anymore…

I’ve been thinking a lot about assistive tech the last few weeks.  I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that I really don’t know as much about it as I probably should both professionally and personally.  But, I’m committing to change that.

I’m a member of SEAP (Special Ed Advisory Panel) for the Iowa Department of Education.  I was invited to join this group not as a professional educator, but because I’m the parent of child with some pretty significant disabilities.  My youngest child, Koan, is a 2nd grader at Ridge.  Koan is nonverbal, he cannot walk, and needs significant assistance with feeding.  He has no specific medical or genetic diagnosis other than “gross developmental delay” and therefore he’s been labeled as “intellectually disabled” or ID.  His name fitting: a reference to Zen religion.  A koan is an unanswerable riddle that Zen monks meditate upon to reach enlightenment.  We had no idea when we named Koan that he would have these types of challenges.  While Koan does present my family with some nontrivial challenges, he brings an incredible amount of joy.  If you’ve ever met him, you understand.  


Assistive tech has been a recurring topic at the SEAP meetings this year.  We’ve been talking about AT a lot locally, too.  Cheryl Kiburz and the Prairie student services team has been surfacing updated information about several AT initiatives like AIM (Accessible Instructional Materials).  So, along with Koan’s reliance upon AT, our local administrative conversations, and the more global perspective from the DE, I’ve seen a lot of interesting intersections about assistive tech this year.  

From a SEAP or state-wide perspective, it sounds like there are some pretty significant philosophical changes in how the DE is thinking about AT.  In the past, and perhaps even current practice, is to involve an “AT expert” in IEP meetings only as necessary.  The new thinking is that there needs to be a broader awareness of AT across the board.  Instructional leaders (principals, coaches, facilitators, and teachers) should be aware of a set of common, readily available AT tools.  This is not to say that there still won’t be specialized expertise needed for highly exceptional students.  Not everyone would need to be familiar with how pod books, switches work, etc.  However, as I understand it, there’s some research stating that we could collectively make a huge impact for all students with widely-available AT tools such as speech to text, text to speech, magnification and contrast tools, etc…  The big idea is that if research has established that these widely-available tools are good for some students (with IEPs), they would almost certainly be valuable scaffolds for a much wider (non-IEP) student population.  Thus, this new way of looking at AT should strengthen our core instruction.

Out local student services team has been embracing the idea of broader deployment of AT.  In April, we’ll be sending significant team to the Building Bridges conference at Grant Wood.  The hope is that we can broaden our organizational understanding of the power of AT and gain insights into some of the commonly available tools.  We have some significant advantages here at Prairie to bring this type of understanding and change in practice to scale.  Unlike a number of other districts, we have a large number of student devices to support the wider use of AT.  There are a number of tools already embedded in Google Chrome that all or any of our 5th through 12th grade students can be using.  Here’s a post that goes over a few.  Not all of these are AT applications, but it’s a good starting point.  There are also several Chrome extensions available (most for free) at the Google Play Store for Education that have great capacity as AT tools.
As I said earlier, I’m committing myself to learning more about AT.  I’ll be sharing my new insights here and on Twitter of the next few weeks.  I would welcome and appreciate AT ideas or tools that you find useful, too.  Don’t hesitate to leave a comment here or drop me a note directly.

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