Assistive Technology (AT) for Students with Mild Disabilities
Provided in partnership with: The Council for
Exceptional Children and The ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education, ERIC EC Digest #529, by
Michael M. Behrmann, 1995
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit
Technology is bursting into the classroom at all levels, as a
tool for teachers to develop, monitor, and provide
instructions, and for students to access and engage in
learning. P.L. 100-407, The Technology-Related Assistance for
Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) was
designed to enhance the availability and quality of assistive
technology (AT) devices and services to all individuals and
their families throughout the United States.
What Are Assistive Technology (AT) Devices?
The Tech Act defines AT devices as any item, piece of
equipment, or product system (whether acquired off the shelf,
modified, or customized) that is used to increase, maintain,
or improve functional capabilities of individuals with
disabilities. AT devices may be categorized as high technology
and low technology. Many low-tech devices can be purchased at
a hardware store, selected from a catalog, or fabricated using
tools and materials found in home workshops (Franklin, 1991).
Examples might be note-taking cassette recorders, pencil
grips, NCR paper/copy machine, simple switches, head pointers,
picture boards, taped instructions, or workbooks. High-tech
devices frequently incorporate some type of computer chip,
such as a hand-held calculator or a "talking clock." Examples
might be optical character recognition (OCR) calculators, word
processors with spelling and grammar checking, word
prediction, voice recognition, speech synthesizers,
augmentative communication devices, alternative keyboards, or
How Can AT Be Applied in Instruction?
Lahm and Morrissette (1994) outlined seven areas of
instruction where AT could assist students with mild
disabilities. These areas include organization, note taking,
writing assistance, productivity, access to reference
materials, cognitive assistance, and materials modification. A
number of approaches are available to assist students with
mild disabilities in these areas of instruction.
1.. Organization: Low-tech solutions include teaching students
to organize their thoughts or work using flow charting, task
analysis, webbing or networking ideas, and outlining. These
strategies can be accomplished using graphic organizers to
visually assist students in developing and structuring ideas.
A high-tech solution might be the outline function of word
processing software, which lets students set out major ideas
or topics and then add subcategories of information.
2.. Note Taking: A simple approach is for the teacher to
provide copies of structured outlines for students to use in
filling in information. A high-tech approach might include
optical character recognition, which is software that can
transform typewritten material into computer-readable text
using a scanner.
A teacher's typewritten notes can be duplicated using either
NCR paper (carbonless copies) or a copy machine. A slightly
more high-tech method is to use microcassette recorders. Or,
notes can be read by a voice synthesizer, allowing students
with reading difficulty to review the notes much the same as
reviewing a tape recording. Recorders are beneficial for
students with auditory receptive strength, but they may be
less useful for those needing visual input. Videotaping class
sessions may be helpful for visual learners who pick up on
images or body language, or for students who are unable to
attend class for extended periods of time.
Laptop or notebook computers can provide high-tech note taking
for many students with disabilities. An inexpensive
alternative to a full-function portable computer is the
portable keyboard. The limitations of these keyboards are in
formatting information and a screen display limited to four
lines of text.
3.. Writing Assistance: Word processing may be the most
important application of assistive technology for students
with mild disabilities. Many of these students have been
identified as needing assistance in the language arts,
specifically in writing. Computers and word processing
software enable students to put ideas on paper without the
barriers imposed by paper and pencil. Writing barriers for
students with mild disabilities include mechanics: spelling,
grammar and punctuation errors; process: generating ideas,
organizing, drafting, editing, and revising; and motivation:
clarity and neatness of final copy, reading ability, and
interest in writing.
Grammar/spellcheckers, dictionaries, and thesaurus programs
assist in the mechanics of writing. Macros, a feature that
allows keystrokes to be recorded in a file that can be used
over and over, also assist in mechanics. Macros can be used
for spelling difficult text, for repetitive strings of words,
or for formatting paragraphs and pages. Macros also save time
for students who have difficulty with either the cognitive or
motor (keyboarding) requirements of writing. Word prediction
is assistive software that functions similarly to macros. If a
student has difficulty with word recall or spelling and cannot
easily use the dictionary or thesaurus feature, then word
prediction software offers several choices of words that can
Teachers can use the editing capabilities of the word
processor during the writing process, making electronic
suggestions on the student's disk. If the computer is on a
network, students can read each other's work and make comments
for revision. Painter (1994) indicated that peer feedback was
an effective way to assist students in generating and revising
text. Computer editing also reduces or eliminates problems
such as multiple erasures, torn papers, poor handwriting, and
the need to constantly rewrite text that needs only minor
modifications. The final copy is neat and legible.
Motivation is often increased through the desktop-publishing
and multimedia capabilities of newer computers. A variety of
fonts and styles are available, allowing students to customize
their writing and highlight important features. Graphic
images, drawings, and even video and audio can be added to the
project to provide interest or highlight ideas. Multimedia
often gives the student the means and the motivation to
generate new and more complex ideas.
4.. Productivity: Assistive productivity tools can be
hardware-based, software-based, or both. Calculators, for
example, can be the credit-card type or software based, which
can be popped up and used during word processing.
Spreadsheets, databases, and graphics software also offer
productivity tools, enabling students to work on math or other
subjects that may require calculating, categorizing, grouping,
and predicting events. Productivity tools also can be found in
small, portable devices called personal digital assistants (PDAs).
Newer PDAs can be used as notetaking devices via a small
keyboard or graphics-based pen input. Some PDAs can translate
words printed with the pen input device to computer-readable
text, which can then be edited with the word processor and
transmitted to a full function computer.
5.. Access to Reference Materials: Many students with mild
disabilities have difficulty gathering and synthesizing
information for their academic work. In this arena,
telecommunications and multimedia are providing new learning
tools for the students.
A computer and a modem can transport students beyond their
physical environment to access electronic information. This is
particularly appropriate for individuals who are easily
distracted when going to new and busy environments such as the
library. Telecommunications networks offer access to the
information superhighway. Students can establish "CompuPals"
with other students, which often motivates them to generate
more text and thus gain more experience in writing. Students
can also access electronic encyclopedias, library references,
and online publications. However, these experiences should be
structured, because the information highway is complex and it
is easy to get distracted or lost as opportunities are
Multimedia-based tools are another way in which information
can be made accessible to students. Multimedia's use of text,
speech, graphics, pictures, audio, and video in
reference-based software is especially effective in meeting
the heterogeneous learning needs of students with mild
6.. Cognitive Assistance: A vast array of application program
software is available for instructing students through
tutorials, drill and practice, problem-solving, and
simulations. Many of the assistive technologies described
previously can be combined with instructional programs to
develop and improve cognitive and problem-solving skills.
Multimedia CD-ROM-based application programs offer another
tool for assisted reading. Similar to talking word processors,
CD-based books include high-interest stories that use the
power of multimedia to motivate students to read. These books
read each page of the story, highlighting the words as they
are read. Additional clicks of the mouse result in
pronunciation of syllables and a definition of the word. When
the student clicks on a picture, a label appears. A verbal
pronunciation of the label is offered when the student clicks
the mouse again. These books are available in both English and
Spanish, so students can read in their native language while
being exposed to a second language.
7.. Materials Modification: Special educators are familiar
with the need to create instructional materials or customize
materials to meet the varied needs of students with
disabilities. Today there are powerful multimedia authoring
and presentation tools that educators can use to develop and
modify computer-based instructional materials for students
with mild disabilities, providing a learning tool that these
students can access and use to balance their weak areas of
learning with their strong areas.
Authoring software allows teachers and students to develop
instructional software that can incorporate video, pictures,
animation, and text into hypermedia-based instruction.
Multimedia authoring software is very easy to learn and use.
In fact, authoring software packages are even available for
young children. For example, if the objective is to teach map
reading, an image of a local map can be scanned in and
specific locations can be made into buttons that the students
can click on, causing a short video clip playing of the
familiar location. A set of questions might be asked using
both text and synthesized speech to have students give
directions on how to get the location shown on the video.
Students could then write directions (or draw their own map).
Digitized pictures of landmarks could also be incorporated
into the directions. These directions, along with the images,
could then be printed for use in completing the assignment.
Without the ability to author and incorporate multimedia
easily into instructional software, such computer-based
training would be impossible because of the need to
incorporate the shared learning concepts inherent in local
environments into the assisted-learning process. Such
instruction can make learning more efficient and certainly
more real for students for whom abstract learning and
generalization may be difficult.
Franklin, K. S. (1991). Supported employment and assistive
technology: A powerful partnership. In S. L. Griffin & W. G.
Revell (Eds.), Rehabilitation counselor desktop guide to
supported employment. Richmond, VA : Virginia Commonwealth
University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on
Lahm, E., & Morrissette, S. (1994, April). Zap 'em with
assistive technology. Paper presented at the annual meeting of
The Council for Exceptional Children, Denver, CO.
Painter, D.D. (1994). A study to determine the effectiveness
of computer-based process writing with learning disabled
students under two conditions of instruction: Peer
collaborative process model and nonpeer collaborative process
model. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Mason
University, Fairfax, VA.
Asen, S. (1994). Teaching and learning with technology.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Johnson, L.J., Pugach, M.C., & Devlin S. (1990). Professional
collaboration. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 22, 9-11.
U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. (1988). Power
on! New tools for teaching and learning (OTA-SET-379).
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
The following Internet sites provide additional information on
assistive technology for students with disabilities:
Gopher sites: gopher sjuvm.stjohns.edu
St. John's University
Electronic Rehabilitation Resource Center
University of Washington
From Behrmann, M. (1994). Assistive technology for students
with mild disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic,
30(2), 70-83. Adapted by permission.
Michael M. Behrmann, Ed.D., is an associate professor of
education at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.