The Impact of Assistive Technology on Individuals with Disabilities
Erin Maida, Fitchburg State University
Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to explore the role of assistive technology in supporting individuals with disabilities in education and employment settings. Research findings indicate that assistive technology can be beneficial for individuals with disabilities in terms of developing their academic, communication, social, and employment skills. However, using assistive technology in educational environments can create various challenges, including possible overreliance on the technology and the anxiety teachers experience while using it. In this paper, a discussion of the definition of assistive technology, as well as a historical overview of the topic, are addressed. Additional topics explored in this paper include how assistive technology supports the Universal Design for Learning framework, along with the benefits and challenges of using assistive technology. Lastly, this paper considers the diverse uses of assistive technology, including leisure, classroom, and vocational activities as well as provides a brief overview of augmentative and alternative communication devices. Although there is a collection of valuable research in this area, technology is advancing at a rapid rate and it is important for educators, administrators, and families to keep informed of the most recent developments of assistive technology. Assistive technology plays a significant role in helping individuals with disabilities access both educational and employment opportunities in a constructive manner.
Over the past several decades, technology in the field of education has advanced greatly. From mobile devices to larger technologies, the world has evolved and continues to change. One can see these advancements in schools and other educational environments. Some classrooms went from prohibiting the use of technology to praising the capabilities it has and even incorporating it into the curriculum. This influence of technology can be seen in both general education classrooms and special education classrooms. Special education environments utilize a tool called assistive technology, or technologies that have the ability to support various disabilities. From hearing aids, to communication devices, to motorized wheelchairs, individuals with disabilities have witnessed immense advances in the area of assistive technology that impact their lives almost daily.
This paper will review the various effects assistive technology has on individuals with disabilities. The research questions that will be discussed in this paper include the following:
RQ1. How has assistive technology evolved since its initial use in classroom settings?
RQ2. What are some benefits of using assistive technology with individuals with disabilities?
RQ3. What are some challenges associated with using assistive technology with individuals with disabilities?
Background and Evolution of Assistive Technology (AT)
To better understand the significance of assistive technology (AT), one should understand the definitions and history behind disability and different supports. In special education, disability is defined as a loss or deficit in a certain ability (Brackenreed, 2008). However, it is important to note that more attention should be given to what supports the individual needs rather than to the actual disability (Brackenreed, 2008). Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there are disability types that can be split into a few categories, including intellectual disability and multiple disabilities. Given that AT is often used to support students with intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities, this paper will primarily focus on AT that supports individuals with these types of disabilities. Intellectual disability is defined as “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance” (IDEA, § 300.8, 2004). Some intellectual disabilities include, but are not limited to, autism spectrum disorder, down syndrome, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Multiple disabilities is defined as a combination of impairments that cause “severe educational needs that [students] cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments” (IDEA, § 300.8, 2004). Through these definitions, one is able to gain a greater understanding of what intellectual and multiple disabilities can look like which in turn gives knowledge on how to support these individuals.
AT is a means of maintaining or improving the ability to function for individuals with disabilities. AT refers to “assistive, adaptive, rehabilitative technologies and related services which are specifically made or adapted to serve as technical assistance for students and professionals with disabilities” (Chukwuemeka & Samaila, 2019). This support can aid in various ways including someone’s communication, leisure, academic, and independent skills. Utilizing AT provides individualization, as the technology is custom to fit the individuals’ needs. Additionally, AT comes in various forms including low tech and high tech. Low tech AT consists of non-electronic or a simple electronic whereas high tech AT refers to more elaborate electronic devices. Depending on the student, the level of support can be adjusted or updated based on their success history with certain technical accommodations. It is important to consistently assess the student to ensure they are receiving proper support that best fits their needs at all times.
AT increases involvement in educational settings, job placements, and everyday activities but it is through the Assistive Technology Act that AT is widely available and, at times, mandated under the law to offer. The AT Act was originally passed in 1998 to “increase access to, availability of, and funding for assistive technology for all individuals with disabilities” (Federal Laws and Regulations on Assistive Technology, n.d.). AT then became accessible and affordable to all families and schools with children and adults with disabilities. The AT Act also uses positive wording like ‘‘support individuals with disabilities to access’’ proper supports to make assistive technology more inclusive and accessible to all (Nepo, 2017). Additionally, the IDEA is a law that was passed in 1975 guaranteeing that all individuals with disabilities are provided with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (Nepo, 2017). However, it would take over fifteen years for AT to be discussed relative to the field of special education. It wasn’t until the amendments passed in 1991 where the “terms ‘assistive technology device’ and ‘assistive technology service’ were first used in education” (Federal Laws and Regulations on Assistive Technology, n.d.). This led the advancement of technological language in academic settings. After the 1997 IDEA amendments, it began to be required that a discussion takes place about possible AT supports at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings no matter what the child’s needs are. Under these laws, it is mandatory that students are provided with the proper materials, including AT, to be a successful learner.
1.1 The Role of the Universal Design for Learning Framework in Advancing Assistive Technology
One way AT supports students with disabilities in the classroom is through the implementation of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. The UDL framework ensures that curricula are “specifically designed, developed, and validated to meet the needs of the full range of students,” including “students with a wide range of sensory, motor, cognitive, linguistic, and affective abilities and disabilities” (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003). Rather than focusing on one type of student or learning need, UDL extends to diverse disabilities to ensure inclusivity among its ideals. UDL provides a means of individualized instruction in a way that caters to a student's specific needs without singling out the student. The UDL framework is for all students, not just students with disabilities because it “the idea is that all students differ in one way or another. And we know this from the neuroscience” (Perez, 2015). Professionals have learned that every student, no matter what abilities they have, will benefit from UDL’s principles. Over time, UDL is grounded in the following three principles: representation, action and expression, and engagement. Implementing all of these principles into special education classrooms assists students by offering “appropriate goals for learning and performance, flexible and supportive digital materials usable with new electronic tools for access and learning, flexible and diverse methods while applying appropriate challenges and support, and accessible and flexible assessments that measure what needs to be measured” (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003). UDL emphasizes the importance of modern technology and the impact it has on scaffolding instruction as well as assessment validity. It is crucial for schools to be mindful of the UDL principles because they are the foundation of why AT is so effective in the classroom. Staff working with individuals with disabilities must always be “strong advocates for students with disabilities in removing existing access barriers to AT device and service” which is achieved through consistently implementing UDL (Lee & Templeton, 2008). All students have the right to access what they may need in order to be the most successful student they can be. With the use of AT through UDL, students with disabilities are given the opportunity to strive in an environment where they feel supported.
The Center for Applied Special Technology developed the UDL framework in order to increase opportunities for all students to be successful in classroom settings. They furthered this concept by “focusing research, development, and educational practice on understanding diversity and applying technology to facilitate learning” (Edyburn, 2005). UDL encourages multiple methods of expressing knowledge representation, approaches to learning, designing activities and even the rate at which students are learning. Through UDL’s three guidelines, students are able to partake in significant learning opportunities in their zone of proximal development. Furthermore, content acquisition podcasts, or short video models of behavior, are helpful to UDL because they emphasize “UDL’s principles of multiple means of representation and engagement” and the value of a multimedia learning framework (Kennedy, Thomas, Meyer, Alves & Lloyd, 2013). Students who were engaging in these podcasts were said to be more motivated and learned vocabulary at a quicker rate than when using other methods for learning. Teachers can also provide diverse and adaptable technological options for students, including closed captioning, auditory enhancing devices, text-to-speech programs, adjustable keyboards, and updated Braille displays (Lee & Templeton, 2008). Additionally, word prediction has been a tool that has greatly helped students with dyslexia. Proloquo2go and the Apple iPad are two samples of AT that have provided ample support for UDL. Lastly, it is crucial that educators be flexible and creative in the classroom to guarantee that students are encouraged to use their diverse expression of knowledge (Perez, 2015). One common way teachers do this is by differentiating their class in the content, process, and product. Students often learn by modeling so if a teacher is accommodating to support their students’ needs, the students will feel more comfortable to express their learning with divergent approaches.
A great way of comprehending how to use AT and UDL simultaneously is to understand SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition). SAMR is a framework that categorizes the use of assistive technology integration in the classroom. This framework breaks UDL down into four different categories and explains how AT supports each category (Perez, 2015). Substitution is where technology is the direct tool substitute without any change to its function. Augmentation is similar to substitution, but it does have functional enhancements. With modification, technology provides a way for a major remodeling of the task. Last, redefinition is where the technology is allowing for new functions to be created. Through SAMR, one is able to see how exactly AT supports UDL and how it can be implemented in the classroom. Educators are able to utilize the different categories of SAMR so that their students are gaining the full experience of AT and are exposed to varying levels of it.
1.2 Developments of Low Tech versus High Tech Communication
AT can be presented in different ways, including low tech and high-tech communication. A form of low-tech communication would be an aid similar to a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) whereas a form of high-tech communication can be an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device, usually a digital tablet. PECS is a method of communication through gesturing towards or physically grasping a picture of the desired object or action. It was developed in 1993 and is still used to this day to promote “functional communication skills, initiate requesting, and provide choice-making opportunities [for] persons with autism and other severe developmental disabilities” (Conklin & Mayer, 2010). It provided individuals with disabilities options in their verbal or nonverbal messages which once might not have been accessible. PECS has been shown to improve students’ initiation of play and communication, but not as much as AT might. In one study with AAC devices, communication “either increased with the use of the iPad or remained at the same frequency as when using the picture-based system” (Flores, Musgrove, Renner, Hinton, Strozier, Franklin & Hil, 2012). Although high tech technology doesn’t always improve communication, the fact that it doesn’t decrease communication when being compared to PECS is important to note. Additionally, when speech is generated and modeled through an iPad, an individual’s speech production is likely to be enhanced which PECS cannot always provide (Wendt, Hsu, Simon, Dienhart, & Cain, 2019). Ganz et al. (2014) displays that students autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ASD with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) had a larger effect size when using SGDs than when using PECS (Ganz, Mason, Goodwyn, Boles, Heath & Davis, 2014). Furthermore, often times students are able to learn and master the iPad and some even prefer it over other methods of communication (Stephenson & Limbrick, 2015). Cihak et al. (2012) includes figures that exhibit how students made more independent communication exchanges with the addition of video modeling (VM) (Cihak, Smith, Cornett & Coleman, 2012). When AT was used as a modeling approach for communication, students found that they were able to make more independent decisions when communicating with VM and PECS versus only PECS.
When choosing between PECS and AAC devices, teachers seem to gravitate more towards technological devices because they are more portable. An iPad can have multiple materials per lesson or subject with applications (i.e., apps) in a folder, whereas a student using PECS might have a Morning Meeting binder, a math group binder, a mealtime binder, and so on. Once the program is set up on the iPad, there is no additional preparation or work the teacher has to do in order to use the iPad. Additionally, educators prefer it because they, too, see their students’ increased speed in communication (Flores, Musgrove, Renner, Hinton, Strozier, Franklin & Hil, 2012). Finally, the process of adding a new symbol is a less difficult with an AAC device because “graphic symbols can be made more easily through software or through the built-in camera and will be stored automatically” compared to the process of printing, cutting, laminating, and adding velcro for a PECS board (Wendt, Hsu, Simon, Dienhart, & Cain, 2019). Although both PECS and AT devices are still used today for AAC, AT devices are more commonly due to their convenience.
That being said, AAC devices like iPads cannot be relied on for everything due to the diversity between situations and students. Some portable devices discriminate against individuals with motor disabilities, as they require actions like pinching, swiping, and firm touching to operate. Furthermore, “many AAC applications for these devices may ignore the particular motor, cognitive, and sensory perceptual needs and abilities of AAC users” which increases difficulty of access for students with more severe disabilities (Wendt, Hsu, Simon, Dienhart, & Cain, 2019). Consequently, this discriminates against individuals who might not have the physical ability to use a device yet. Due to the weight of an iPad being slightly more than, say, a laminated sheet of paper for PECS, “participants still needed more physical prompts to pick up the iPad” than when using PECS (Wendt, Hsu, Simon, Dienhart, & Cain, 2019). When this occurs, it may cause more prompting from the staff when the individual might be completely independent with PECS. Although AAC devices have many benefits, it is important to look at how caregivers and educators can make communication through high tech AT more accessible to all individuals with disabilities.
Benefits of Using Assistive Technology
2.1 Academic Benefits
Study findings have shown that there are many benefits of using AT across various settings, one of these being in academics. Using AT in the classroom results in a more inclusive and impartial educational environment. In a study conducted to explore the impact of technology, 67% of participants (special education staff) reported that AT improved the students’ academic outcomes (Okolo & Diedrich 2014). Research has supported that “AT helps overcome significant learning barriers posed by learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia” (Brussino, 2020). Dyslexia, difficulty reading, can be assisted by altering the font or listening to an audiobook whereas dysgraphia, difficulty writing, can be assisted by word processing software. In a study including a child, Alex, who has mild disabilities, new text readers were used to determine if they would help the student with reading and writing assignments. The Alphasmart Dana was predominantly used “which provided an effective accommodation for Alex’s dysgraphia because she could use the keyboard and, thus, no longer had to struggle with handwriting” (Brackenreed, 2008). Having this assistive technology device now meant that Alex could participate more easily in-class activities where writing was involved. This study “resulted in increased student achievement levels, perceptions of capability, and student self-advocacy” (Brackenreed, 2008). Students have been seen to be more confident in the classroom when they have AT supporting them. An app called Inspiration allows students to create concept-maps or diagrams on the computer to organize and improve their writing process (Forgrave, 2002). Another support that improves writing ability is speech-to-text software. Students who might have motor disabilities can benefit greatly from dictating rather than writing their assignment (Forgrave, 2002). Furthermore, speech synthesis programs are designed to assist students with learning difficulties by providing immediate speech feedback and reading aloud highlighted words. This is especially helpful in school subjects where “unfamiliar vocabulary can impede the reading process for students with learning disabilities” (Forgrave, 2002). Students are able to highlight unknown words and have them read aloud to them which can increase their reading speed and overall comprehension skills. Different apps and programs on AT devices make learning in a classroom more accessible and engaging for students with disabilities.
2.2 Communication Benefits
Additionally, AT can greatly impact communication from a student with a disability through Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AAC is a form of AT that provides a means of communication for nonverbal individuals or individuals with limited speech. Augmentative refers to adding to existing speech whereas the word alternative refers to using a device instead of their own speech. Various studies were carried out to test the effectiveness of AAC devices when supporting individuals with communication challenges. In one, respondents shared that AT offered “new or improved opportunities to communicate, such as ‘communication with peers,’ or ‘a chance to express wants and needs’” (Okolo & Diedrich 2014). Some of the supports used in other studies include Proloquo2Go, Go Talk Now, and Choiceboard Creator. All three of these apps provide individuals with a mode of communication through picture options and text-to-speech. Students with limited speech “improved their communication skills (e.g., request, communicative turns, response) and maintained them as well” when using AAC as opposed to traditional learning methods (Ok, 2017). When it comes to making a request, answering a question, or responding to an event, programs like these make communication for individuals with disabilities greatly achievable.
2.3 Vocational Benefits
Various studies have also been conducted with individuals with disabilities to examine how effective AT is in vocational settings. As individuals with disabilities grow older, some might be interested in obtaining a job. Jones & Bucholz (2014) articulate a scenario in which a to-do list app and a timer app were put onto an iPad and the employee with a disability “was able to access the functions independently, which provided him with a sense of ownership and independence in using the iPad.” He was able to check off the tasks he had completed, see which tasks were to be completed, and time his lunch breaks, ensuring that he was prompt when returning back to work. Some behavioral domains that improved included “setting up his workstation, time management and name and face recognition of coworkers” (Jones & Bucholz, 2014). The employee’s level of prompting decreased, minutes late from his lunch break decreased, and face recognition increased (Jones & Bucholz, 2014). This demonstrates that teaching vocational skills to students with disabilities can “enable them to become self-determined and independent adults after completion of high school” (Jones & Bucholz, 2014). Not every student with a disability will transition into a job after graduation, but the ones that do sometimes utilize technology. AT in vocational settings significantly improves their ability to complete important tasks at their occupation.
2.4 Social Skills Benefits
Assistive technology can also be helpful in the development of social skills of individuals with disabilities. Students with disabilities were able to indicate how useful AT can be in academic settings. For students in special education settings, technology offers opportunities for intellectual access and decreases disability stereotypes. Consequently, students with disabilities are able to adjust their social standings within their peer communities (Naraian & Surabian, 2014). In addition, after consistently using AT for writing assignments, participants “expressed more interest in writing and considered it easier with the use of AT” (Brackenreed, 2008). They were able to communicate the impact AT had beyond the educational benefits. Students have also been more willing to help staff or other involved professionals learn how to use the programs and teach why it is so important for them to learn. Results have shown that using AT expands the teacher’s knowledge and awareness of a student’s cognitive needs. Better empathy is fostered when the teachers have a good understanding of their students which increases the quality of the education they are receiving. Not only can the individual’s self-esteem improve, but also AT provides a way of building a stronger teacher-student relationship. Lastly, AT increases peer interaction. Video-self monitoring was used in a study by Brussiono (2020) to teach desired behaviors and skills to use in the classroom. Watching these videos on social interaction ended up increasing the likelihood that “students with Emotional Behaviour Disorders [would] develop and sustain social relationships with peers” (Brussino, 2020). Both staff and peer connections are incredibly important to build upon throughout one’s life and AT has been known to develop that interaction to a higher level.
Challenges Associated with Using Assistive Technology
3.1 Teacher Anxiety
Along with a multitude of benefits of using AT come some challenges. Research findings reveal that teachers feel a great deal of anxiety when it comes to using technology in the classroom (Chukwuemeka & Samaila, 2019; WHO, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, some teachers had to learn critical technological skills on their own so that they would feel more prepared. Results from a study involving AT systems tell that “eighty percent of respondents reported that they would like to receive more training specific to troubleshooting” the devices (Nelson et al., 2013). Not only are teachers expected to know how this technology works, they are also expected to know how to quickly solve technical problems on the spot. In a study relating to the use of high-tech AT in special education classrooms in Nigeria, the “teachers sometimes displayed high rate of anxiety in the use of assistive technology in the classroom, especially where these devices are newly introduced” (Chukwuemeka & Samaila, 2019). In addition to educators sometimes feeling stressed with not knowing enough about technology, other people in the student’s life are impacted as well. Many parents and families “have limited knowledge of assistive technologies,” which makes it incredibly difficult for teachers to provide consistency for their students (WHO, 2018). What a teacher is implementing in school might not be getting reinforced at home, and vice versa. Districts should provide the proper technology training prior to having a student that uses AT so that every school staff and caregiver feels confident in using it.
3.2 Addictive Nature of Technology
Another challenge of using AT is finding the balance between using it for benefit and using it too much to the point that it could become addictive. One special education teacher in a study about using AT in the classroom reported that “trying to limit time spent and moving on to another activity is sometimes difficult” and that “students get addicted to iPads.” (Johnson, 2013). Some classrooms use iPads as a leisure activity or choice time during a transition period but sometimes that time can get prolonged if the teacher is occupied with another task. If technology time occurs in the classroom, it is recommended that students are only in front of a screen for 10-15 minutes to avoid dependence (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). Teachers aren’t the only ones to notice this trend. Parents and medical personnel agree that unlimited access to technology can lead to screen addiction and that “children with ASD are more prone to screen addiction than typically developing children” (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). This is especially relevant for individuals that use devices to communicate their needs simply because they are in front of a screen much longer than their typically developing peers might be. Many parents of individuals with disabilities “believe that technology can be addictive for their children, as they had observed their children develop an addiction towards watching YouTube” (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). One parent claimed that their son got addicted to BabyTV and YouTube and now “‘somehow manages to go to YouTube and watch videos even when [they] put some other educational program on the tablet’” (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). Individuals who are constantly given an iPad for functioning assistance are more likely to know how to maneuver it and escape what they are supposed to be doing. It is worrisome to many educators and caregivers how much reliance there is on technology. Furthermore, practitioners are concerned “about the potentially addictive and ‘over-stimulating’ nature of many digital games, particularly for children with behavioural difficulties who could become ‘a bit obsessive’” (Flewitt, Messer & Kucirkova, 2014). Although AT is used for educational purposes most of the time, some parents use the technology to “distract” their child when passing time to avoid any dysregulation (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). Unfortunately, as life begins to get busier for parents, the less valuable time they spend with their children, causing the children to resort to independent activities on a device.
Ultimately, regardless of how beneficial AT can be, it limits individuals with disabilities to two-dimensional learning on a device rather than three-dimensional, tactile learning. This restricts individuals with disabilities to virtual settings instead of kinesthetic living. Practitioners also announce that “for healthy brain development, it is important that children engage with physical objects rather than only dealing with 2D virtual environments” (Soysa & Mahmud, 2018). It is vital to the health and wellbeing of an individual with a disability to balance and be cognizant of the amount of screen time they are having. The use of AT is exceptional in moderation, but when that limit is not set, the outcome can be alarming.
Assistive Technology (AT) has developed greatly both through the general advancements in technology and the new amendments put in place to ensure students are provided with proper support. AT can be used for education, leisure, or vocational work and therefore considerably improves an individual’s educational, social, and communication skills. Although the use of AT has various advantages, the individual as well as their caregivers need to be adequately trained on how to use it and how much is too much. It is also crucial that AT is accessible to all.
There is still a lot to be researched about AT’s negative effects including a student’s dependence on their device or how the screen time could affect their behavior. Over the next few decades, it is possible that significant research will be released about how AT might cause screen addiction for individuals with disabilities. This is principally because of how much students had to rely on technology to learn virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the lack of training calls for alterations in college curricula and other areas where special education personnel learn teaching strategies so that they are well-versed in incorporating technology into the classroom. This will help decrease teacher anxiety and increase their confidence implementing it into everyday life in their classrooms. Lastly, more research should be conducted on ways to make iPads more accessible for students with motor disabilities. Accommodations should be made for students who have difficulty grasping the iPad for longer periods of time or pressing the screen hard enough to click an option. Overall, AT is an ever-changing aspect of everyday life, and it will be interesting to see what effects it has on future generations of individuals with disabilities.
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