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Students with special needs are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Where deemed appropriate, the use of assistive technology in the educational setting, increases the potential for a student to succeed in independent living and to engage in productive employment. Federal legislation defines assistive technology as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system...that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capacities of individuals with disabilities."
The Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, also known as the "Tech Act", provided federal funds to states to develop training and delivery systems for assistive technology. Ten years later the act was amended, affirming that assistive technology is a valuable tool. Funding was extended to all the states and six territories to develop permanent, statewide programs of technology.
Assistive technology has been provided for students identified under any of the handicapping conditions; it's not limited to just one or two disabilities. The Committee on Special Education (CSE) must determine if there is a need for assistive technology, which covers a broad spectrum of devices. In many cases, an occupational therapist is the person identified to implement assistive technology goals as outlined in the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The following identifies the devices that are commonly used in the school setting.
Adaptive computing. There are several options in adapting a computer for a student's use. For a student who can't maneuver a mouse, a joystick might be used. If he has a hard time with a regular keyboard, it might be replaced with an expanded keyboard. For a student with very limited mobility, a voice activated program might be installed on the computer. For the visually impaired, a larger screen or software that enlarges a portion of the screen might be tried.
Augmentative communication. To help a student produce and/or understand speech, an augmentative communication device should be listed on the child's IEP. Examples of such a device include a picture board, speech synthesizer, or a tape recorder. A student who isn't physically able to write, can dictate his answers for worksheets into a tape recorder or a voice activated computerized program.
Computer technology. A wide range of computer technology is readily available for students who struggle with reading, writing or spelling. For students identified as learning disabled (LD) in reading, a program can be installed that will read textbooks aloud to the students. For those identified as LD in writing, spell check is a wonderful device, as well as organizational software.
The cost of assistive technology can sometimes be very costly. In some cases, Medicaid will cover the expense. If a student moves from one school district to another, the previous district might be willing to sell the device at a portion of the cost. Some counties have "loan closets" where you can sign out a device and use it for free.
With the use of appropriate assistive technology, a student with special needs can enjoy an improved quality of life. He will have a better opportunity to succeed in independent living and to prepare for the working world.