Functional and Helpful Tools

When and how to use assistive technology

By Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

Have you heard about assistive technology? Perhaps you feel it would be helpful for one or more of your students. How do you decide what students can benefit from this type of aid? What technology is right for what student? Where can you go to learn more so that the student derives the greatest benefit from the assistance? How does it work when some students in a class are using assistive technology, while others utilize more traditional education methods?
Stephanie E. Sweeton, M.S. CCC-SLP/EdS, a speech-language pathologist and assistive technology specialist who currently provides services to middle-school and high-school students, offers some answers to these questions.

Q. How do I know if a student in my classroom could benefit from assistive technology?

A. Good teachers are intuitive. You know if a child is struggling. Perhaps there have been conversations with a parent or guardian about challenges in the classroom. The first line of defense is never the technology — it is the student.
Joy Zabala, EdD, has been working for more than 25 years in the field of assistive technology. She created the SETT framework — which stands for Students, Environments, Tasks, and Tools — in order to help all educators learn about the hierarchy involved in assessing and addressing a student’s needs. Her website,, contains SETT framework documents and scaffold forms designed to assist in determining whether assistive technology is appropriate for a student.

The first part of figuring out what your student may need beyond the current type and level of instruction is to determine what they are struggling with. What are the specific educational or functional tasks that you want the student to accomplish that they are having more than “average” difficulty learning or mastering? What is expected of them that they cannot do, and how is the student trying to accomplish the goal? Does the teacher already provide supportive help, such as allowing a child who has difficulty writing to type or dictate their answers? As Dr. Zabala says, these questions are meant to spark discussion, not provide a comprehensive checklist of answers and skill areas to be addressed. That will come later.

If the child has more than one teacher and the school has a supportive collaborative environment, the teachers can talk about a student’s performance across domains and try to pinpoint one or two specific areas/subjects/domains the student is struggling with and specify how they are struggling. For example, it is more helpful to note that the student struggles to perform mental math computations beyond the 10’s place rather than to say that a student has difficulties with math. Instead of saying that writing is hard, identify that the student struggles when she has to look at the board and copy down more than two or three words to her paper and that her slow rate of speed impacts her ability to keep up with the class.

Next you want to look at the environment. What tools, supports, materials, and expertise are currently available to the student? What level of technology is available? Are there notebooks or tablets? Are there desktops with the latest version of Windows? Is internet access readily available? These are important factors in determining what assistive tools can be implemented.

At the task stage, you want to take a closer look at what tasks the student is being asked to accomplish. Determine what their current level of ability allows them to achieve. Can they complete 50 percent of a writing assignment without help but get stuck on the second half of the process? Can they complete a math task independently if they use a calculator? This is valuable information to have when determining what help is needed.

The last part is figuring out what tools are most appropriate for the situation. This can mean technology and devices, but tools might also mean support strategies, picture supports, accommodated learning processes, and modifications or changes to the environment that help the student meet the stated goals. This part is where many people can get stuck. Due to societal pressure, parents may think that a tool has to be an iPad, but a child might benefit as much from a one-dollar pencil grip and additional time to write. Why introduce something that is unnecessary and possibly cumbersome to the learning process?

So how do you know if your student needs assistive technology? Go through the steps of determining the particular struggles that a student is having, the school environment, and the specific tasks the student is having difficulty with, and then look at what might help them. You don’t need to think expensive; instead think functional and helpful. I often suggest to teachers that they envision the “magical” solution if there were no limits in terms of expense, sophistication, or availability and we go from there. These magical solutions might not be feasible, but often kernels of knowledge or functionality can provide a starting point.

Q. How do I begin to learn about assistive technology tools? There are a million out there! There seems to be a new “hot” one every day.

A. Yes, this is true. There are so many tools to choose from; some are very good, some not good at all. As mentioned above, when you have a really solid grasp on the student’s learning profile, the accessibility and supports present in the environment, and the tasks that they are asked to do and can’t, selecting the “perfect tool” is less daunting.

If your school can’t afford an assistive technology consultant and no parents or professionals are willing to help out as volunteer consultants, you can check with free college campus clinics where speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, or assistive tech specialists train. If none of this works out, online searches may be what is called for.

Keep your search parameters specific. If you’ve worked with the SETT framework, then you have a decent idea of where you want to start. Are you searching for math tools, writing and reading tools, help with remembering information, processing, speaking in front of a class, and so on? An amazing pair of websites I recommend to almost everyone are Understood and Edutopia. Both websites contain evidence-based research as well as disability-specific advice. If you are not able to find enough information on those sites, other places to look include the Center on Technology and Disability, The Georgia Project for Assistive Technology, The Center for Applied Special Technology, and MassMatch Assistive Technology.

Free strategies and supports should be tried first. Low-tech options are often just as effective as high-tech tools. This is not a quick process, but the better a teacher knows a student and the more open they are to trying different approaches to help them succeed, the more likely the right fit can be found for little or no money.

Q. Are there some situations in which assistive technology is more suited than others?

A. Yes. For example, in the areas of reading and writing, there has been rapid improvement in tools such as audio books, screen readers, and speech-to-text systems that are increasingly available and offered for free. Students can use built-in voice recognition systems as a way to dictate written work. There are many low-tech math tools, such as graph paper, paper with built-up lines to increase tactile feedback, calculators, and apps and websites such as Khan Academy that support math concepts.

Other areas — such as music, physical education, and art — are more challenging when it comes to incorporating assistive technology. Students having difficulties in those areas may need services in the areas of physical or sensory disabilities not usually available within a Catholic school and may require a referral to outside specialists.

Q. How does it work with having some students in a classroom using assistive technology while others do not?

A. It depends on the class culture. If the class is usually quiet with only the teacher speaking, students will need to find other spaces to take advantage of listening to audio or utilizing a speech-to-text system. If the class culture is more collaborative, students are more easily able to incorporate assistive technology. Regularly, an assistive technology tool is presented as a learning tool without much fanfare or special notice. Other students usually accept it and move on. If issues arise, teachers can answer questions individually or briefly address the class to help them understand that everyone needs support and some tools help students to learn the very best that they can.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur, MAAT, is editor of and is a homeschooling mother of three children.