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Assistive Technology In Education

A review of policies, standards, and curriculum integration from 1997 through 2000 involving assistive technology and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

By Elizabeth M. Dalton, M.Ed.

Assistive technology was practically unknown in 1975, the year of landmark legislation establishing equal educational rights for students with disabilities. Personal technology tools for education were in their infancy. In 1997, federal IDEA amendments required assistive technology consideration in every student’s individualized educational program. How did this happen? What impact does assistive technology policy and standards have on students, teachers, and the field of education? What areas for further development remain? This article presents a recent historical view of assistive technology through the lenses of special education law and technology standards. Assistive technology is discussed in relation to equity of access to curriculum for all students.


In 1975, Public Law 94-142, the Education for Handicapped Children Act (now revised as the Individual with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]), established the framework for free and appropriate public education for all children, specifically including those with disabilities. At that time, computer technology was just beginning its appearance in mainstream American life. The use of technology to support persons with disabilities was barely evident in society, and assistive technology was an unfamiliar term to most educators. Fifteen years later, the federal government includes the definition of assistive technology (AT) devices and services in the 1990 IDEA, our major special education law, and in other federal laws. Even more recently, a government decision now requires the consideration of assistive technology in the development of all individualized educational programs (IEP) for children with disabilities (IDEA, 1997).

As a result of these decisions in the field of assistive technology, professional and research activity since 1997 has significantly increased in order to clarify and define the impact of such decisions upon children, families, schools, and communities. This review examines assistive technology literature from 1997 to 2000, focusing upon policies and laws, standards, and curriculum integration. Directions for further exploration of assistive technology literature, research, and practice in education are identified.

Defining assistive technology

To begin an exploration of assistive technology and its relationship to education, an understanding of the legal definitions of assistive technology devices and services are certainly necessary. These definitions are:

Assistive technology device means any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of students (or individuals) with disabilities.

Assistive technology services means any service that directly assists a student (or individual) with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.” The term includes: a) evaluation of needs, b) purchasing, leasing or otherwise providing for acquisition, c) selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing, d) coordinating and using other therapies, e) training or technical assistance for the student (or individual) and family, and f) training or technical assistance for professionals, employers or other individuals who provide services. (IDEA, 1997)

With the definitions and required consideration of assistive technology devices and services now included in federal law, U.S. educational systems are struggling to meet their obligations for assistive technology to be appropriately included in planning and implementing the individualized education programs (IEP) of students with disabilities. Knowledge of policy, research and best practice in the field of assistive technology is critical to meeting these obligations, and the need for such knowledge is growing.

Assistive technology policy: past and present

In 1982, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published a landmark report, Technology and Handicapped People, which recognized the potential of assistive technology in compensating for functional limitations and extending the capabilities of people with disabilities (Galvin, 1997). While problems in the development of accessible and assistive technologies were identified, the more serious questions relating to assistive technology were socially related, such as financing, ill-defined goals, and isolated and uncoordinated programs (Galvin, 1997).

In 1986, the previously cited, and now widely accepted, definition of assistive technology was included in the Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and program requirements for its consideration were expanded. In the same year, the early intervention entitlement program was established, which referenced assistive technology under its program benefits. In 1987, assistive technology was included in the Amendments to the Developmental Disabilities Act, and in 1988, it appeared in the clarification of Medicaid amendments, the Technology-related Assistance Act for states, and in the Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended assistive technology requirements to the private sector and further defined assistive technology within the context of civil rights. That same year, amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act added definitions of assistive technology devices and services (Galvin, 1997; Golden, 1998). Since 1990, federal policies have continued to clarify and expand guidelines for assistive technology inclusion, and policies and programs are being adapted to include the technology that can support and provide equal access to education for all children.

IDEA ‘97 amendments and assistive technology

The amended IDEA of 1997 includes changes that effect special education (and general education) practice (Knoblauch & McLane, 1999):

a) students with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessment programs, with accommodations where necessary (alternate assessments are used only as a final alternative)

b) children and youth with disabilities have increased participation in the general curriculum;

c) parental participation shall be enhanced;

d) transition planning and services shall occur;

e) mediation and alternate disciplinary procedures & educational settings shall be available; and

f) developmental delay limits shall be extended to 9 yrs. of age.

With these changes, the increased consideration and use of assistive technology is clearly necessary for full implementation (Knoblauch & McLane, 1999; Warger, 1999).

The 1997 IDEA amendments require assistive technology devices and services to be considered in the IEP process on order to meet educational goals and access to the general curriculum. The IEP team must determine if a student needs technology to perform fundamental functions, what technology devices and/or services may help the student achieve his or her annual goals, and how to appropriately include the technology supports in the goals, objectives, and benchmarks in order to support the child’s educational performance (Golden, 1998; Warger, 1999). Recent requirements for inclusion of students with disabilities in the general curriculum and in statewide and district testing contribute to the pressures for assistive technology, as evidenced in the following statement:

... the arrival of children with assistive technology needs into the classroom has raised questions as to the legal obligations of the schools - both programmatically and financially - to provide the funding. (Julnes & Brown, 1993; as cited in Barkin, Marek & Huffman, 1997, p.2)

Addressing these programmatic and financial issues, the 1997 Amendments to IDEA require public education agencies to insure that assistive technology is necessarily considered as a regular component in the IEP development process, and therefore provided, if assistive technology devices or services are needed and included as special education, related services, or supplementary aids or services within the student’s IEP (Barkin, et. al., 1997). Supplementary aids and services are specifically defined as “aids, services, and other supports that are provided in regular education classes or other education settings to enable children with disabilities to be educated with non-disabled children to the maximum extent appropriate.” (Etscheidt & Bartlett, 1999).

A team approach using a four-step model is recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children as recommended practice for IEP development. This decision-making model includes:

Step 1 - Review the child’s IEP, considering all information related to enabling the child to be involved in and progress in the regular curriculum;

Step 2 - Discuss supplementary aids and services, considering the physical, instructional, social-behavioral, and collaborative dimensions;

Step 3 - Document the decision-making process and product, identifying the process used and the factors discussed for the placement decision to assure the child’s advancement toward annual goals, involvement and progress in the regular curriculum, and education and participation with other children with and without disabilities;

Step 4 - Determine the data collection procedures, so that recommended aids and services can be monitored for progress relating to IEP goals and objectives (Etscheidt & Bartlett, 1999).

The complexity and diversity of decision-making for identifying appropriate assistive technology devices and services necessitates such a team review process to insure that legal educational mandates are addressed appropriately, and that the team either has, develops, or acquires the knowledge and skills it needs to make responsible decisions relating to assistive technology.

Issues of fiscal responsibility are critical to achieving the full inclusion of assistive technology as a supplementary aid or service. If a device or service meets the legal definition of an assistive technology device or service, and the IEP specifies its provision as necessary for the student to receive a free appropriate public education, then school districts are responsible for providing the device and the service. In addition, if the device is required for home use as part of the student’s IEP, fiscal responsibility also rests with the school district (Barkin, et. al, 1997). Clearly, the 1997 IDEA Amendments are driving much interest and activity in assistive technology planning and use in educational settings.

Educator & Professional Standards Relating to Assistive Technology

A review of relevant standards is necessary in a thorough exploration of assistive technology policies and applications in education. Technology standards for general education and special education, as well, offer benchmarks and guidelines for the development of improved practice in the field.

Nationally, standards for the use of technology in education have been established for both students and teachers through the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and its National Educational Technology Standards (NETS). The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for All Students identify six broad competency categories (Thomas & Knezek, 1999):

1) basic operations and concepts;

2) social, ethical, and human issues;

3) technology productivity tools;

4) technology communication tools;

5) technology research tools;

6) technology problem-solving and decision-making tools

Within these broad areas, ISTE further defines the specific knowledge and skills in each area that all students should acquire. In addition, ISTE has developed standards and performance indicators in educational technology for teachers and for administrators based upon the NETS for all students. Teacher performance standards include competencies for technology operations and concepts; planning and designing learning environments and experiences; assessment and evaluation; productivity and professional practice; teaching, learning, and the curriculum; social, ethical, legal, and human issues (Thomas, 2000). These national technology standards identify the need for teachers to learn and apply strategies using technology to support learners with diverse needs and backgrounds, however, they do not specifically define assistive technology competencies for teachers, nor are the special needs of students with disabilities ever referenced in the student standards.

National standards for the preparation and licensure of special educators from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the learned community for special education, identify knowledge and skills that all beginning special education teachers should possess as part of their Common Core of Knowledge (Council for Exceptional Children, 2000). Numerous references to technology competencies are found in the CEC Common Core, and most relate closely to the IDEA requirements. Lahm and Nichols (1999) identify a comprehensive list of essential assistive technology knowledge and skill competencies for all special educators, including: a) philosophical, historical and legal foundations; b) characteristics of learners; c) assessment, diagnosis and evaluation; d) instructional content and practice; e) planning and managing the environment; f) managing student behavior; g) communication and collaborative partnerships; and h) professional and ethical practices. Teacher preparation programs in special education, with the implementation of IDEA 1997 Amendments, are beginning to review professional development sequences for the inclusion of assistive technology knowledge and skill competencies in programs and professional trainings. It is notable that the education-related professions of occupational therapy and rehabilitation have established competency guidelines for assistive technology knowledge and skills expected within their fields (Hammel and Angelo, 1996; Spencer, 1997; Weber, 1998).

While the field of special education recognizes the need for assistive technology competence, the status of such competence in existing special education practice is of significant concern. In a study of the level of competency self-reported by 49 special educators on 35 core skills from the 1997 CEC Common Core, low levels of competence (ranging from barely adequate to inadequate) were identified in the following areas (Wigle & Wilcox, 1998):

a) technology implementation with students with disabilities,

b) use of technology in professional development plans,

c) use of technology to enhance management of resources,

d) appropriate application of technology to classroom learning

Such findings point to the existing gap between policy and practice in special education technology. While the field of special education has identified clear needs and standards for special educators, it lags behind in its ability to effectively implement programs that can develop such knowledge and skills.

The lack of focus upon assistive technology competence for general educators who serve students with disabilities in inclusive environments, as evidenced by a lack of any specific reference to students with disabilities’ technology needs within the NETS Technology Standards (Thomas, 2000) as well as other “in-class” measures of general educator skills (Daniels & Vaughn, 1999), should be of true concern to the field. While expectations for inclusion require mutually developed goals and procedures, the separately operating systems of general and special education is maintained through the reality of separately developed standards.

In 1999, in Rhode Island, beginning teacher standards were established to ensure that all new teachers will exit teacher preparation programs well prepared to meet the needs of the youth of the state. Within these standards, educational technology and diversity of learning styles are broadly addressed, including the incorporation of appropriate technological resources, the use of technological advances in communication, and the seeking of information and design of instruction that accommodates individual differences in approaches to learning (RI Dept. of Education, 1999a). Reference to any expected competence in specialized or assistive technology applications is not found within these beginning teacher standards.

The 1999 report from the Outcomes and Indicators Design Group (OIDG) of the RI Department of Education, Office of Special Education, on goals for special education finds the standards of the RI general curriculum frameworks to be appropriate for students with disabilities, and states that what students with disabilities have learned, as well as program effectiveness, should be assessed through the State Assessment Program (RI Dept. of Education, 1999b). Rhode Island’s goals for special education during 2000-2005 identify educational technology use for program improvement in response to critical needs and improving results for children with disabilities, and recommend pilot testing of emerging technology within districts. Assistive technology is viewed by the special education system as a tool to support inclusion and participation. Clearly, the challenge to education is for the well-intentioned policies of general and special education, which state the importance of equity for all students, to effectively move into practice. In the area of assistive technology, education continues to struggle in this effort, and the arena in which this struggle is particularly relevant is that of curriculum integration.

Curriculum Integration: Successes & Challenges

How has the effective integration of assistive technology into the educational curriculum been explored or attempted? In Montgomery County, Maryland, teachers and other school-based professionals have expanded their thinking about assistive technology from the traditional ”fix-it” approach to focus on achieving access to the curriculum and to increased productivity. Educational teams in this district begin with the standard curriculum and then ask how technology tools can assist students in achieving standard curriculum outcomes (Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), 1998a). In Lansing, Michigan, students, teachers, and researchers developed and evaluated a web-based curriculum for elementary students with mild disabilities called TELE-Web. The site is designed to enhance literacy learning, particularly writing, through accessible web environments known as the writing room, reading room, library, and publishing room. Cognitive and social supports are provided for students through opportunities for discourse amongst students and teachers (Warger, 1998; CEC, 1998a). In Cambridge, Massachusetts, technology tools are used on a regular basis in Project ASSIST (All Students in Supported Inquiry-Based Science with Technology). Education teams plan, act, and reflect upon technology and how to support diverse student learning in inclusive classrooms. Starting with the science curriculum and standards, teams identify students’ needs and the modifications required, and use technology to support student involvement and inclusion (Warger, 1998; CEC, 1998a). In Seattle, Washington, traditional math lessons are linked with real-life problems through spreadsheet software to provide access to problem solving activities for students with cognitive disabilities. Visual representation of problems and the technical capacity of the program to perform calculations keep students engaged, asking questions, analyzing data, and formulating conclusions (Warger, 1998; CEC, 1998a). These examples represent a wide range of options for integrating assistive technology into educational practice. To move the field of education beyond such pilot studies, however, the task is neither quick nor simple.

The Consortium on Inclusive Schooling Practices, a project supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education, illustrates the complexity of issues surrounding assistive technology and inclusion through Joey’s story, one of a child with cerebral palsy, dual sensory deficits, and cognitive disabilities. Joey was educationally, socially, and personally isolated from peers and service providers, with no consistent means of communication other than screaming and crying. At the age of eight, assistive technology was introduced into the inclusion program. As his teachers and support team had little knowledge or experience with assistive technology, they actively sought for information, training, and resources to assist Joey. Fortunately, they were able to effectively raise their level of assistive technology skill and awareness in order to be successful in their support (Sax, Pumpian, and Fisher, 1997).

Although often educators use a range of supplementary aids and services to teach students with disabilities along with their non-disabled peers, many educators are not sufficiently familiar with assistive technology to use it effectively (Sax, Pumpian, and Fisher, 1997; CEC, 1998a; Margolis and Goodman, 1999). Resources for accessing assistive technology are often underutilized or not used at all because too few teachers and school professionals have learned the basics of assistive technology (Sax, Pumpian, and Fisher, 1997). A 1999 survey of the Assistive Technology Funding and System’s Change Project (ATFSCP) reveals that while 87% of survey respondents (parents of students with disabilities) said that students had access to some form of technology in schools, less than 12% said that students had access to assistive technology devices or services (Margolis and Goodman, 1999).

With Internet use increasing as an instructional tool, many students with disabilities can benefit from its use only if assistive computer technology is available, and the materials being accessed or exchanged are accessible. Without these, students with disabilities will not receive the same scope or quality of educational services provided to their peers (Scadden, 1998). In fact, technology development is identified as one of the five broad social movements now underway that will influence the shape of special education in the 21st century, with the other four identified as demographic changes, social structure shifts, educational reforms, and moral and ethical renewal (Lombardi and Ludlow, 1997). Such examples of assistive technology integration (or lack of it) point to the pressing need for a comprehensive response from the education community. Individuals with disabilities, parents, districts, and states desperately need, and are aggressively seeking, guidelines for effective integration of assistive technology.

Broad guidelines have emerged from educational research. A unifying framework of components vital for effective technology utilization and integration, and emphasizing the needs of students with disabilities, is the result of a national study involving five field-based research projects. While diverse in design, all of the projects studied strategies to improve access and success in the general curriculum for all students, with emphasis on the needs of students with disabilities. Each project implemented technology-based strategies that assisted students to achieve meaningful participation and independence across various educational environments, promoted effective policy, planned and practiced ensuring the accessibility, availability, and effective application of the full range of technology, and fostered the use and integration of technology through professional development. Through a case study format, data was consistently collected, analyzed and reported across projects. Components of the unifying framework for effective technology integration include: technology planning; professional development; planning for individual students; integrating technology and curriculum; technical assistance to staff, students, and families; student outcomes; evaluating technology initiatives; sustaining and institutionalizing change; and integrating instruction about technology into special education teacher preparation programs. Results of each project passed tests for significance appropriate for quantitative or qualitative research prior to inclusion in group results (Hart, 2000).

Five critical elements for effective integration of assistive technology services, which reflect the legal definition of assistive technology services, have been identified through the federal assistive technology systems change projects (Tech Act Projects). These elements include:

1) the student should be evaluated in his or her customary environment(s), which involves an assessment of the assistive technology needs of the child. This includes a functional assessment;

2) training and technical assistance should be provided to a child and his or her family, and to teachers, service providers and others significantly involved with the care and education of the child;

3) the issues surrounding the acquisition and use of assistive technology device(s) to benefit the child shall be addressed;

4) the plan for selection, design, fitting, customization, adaptation, maintenance, repair, and replacement of the device(s) shall be developed;

5) the use of assistive technology device(s) shall be integrated and coordinated with the use of other therapies, interventions, or services (Margolis and Goodman, 1999).

The work of the Utah assistive technology resource center further clarifies the legal responsibilities of school districts for the provision of assistive technology devices and services in special education evaluation processes and programming. Guidelines were developed for evaluation, multidisciplinary team meeting, individualized education program development, implementation and review, training, and funding serve to inform parents and educators of the rights and responsibilities for assistive technology as intended by law (Copenhaver, 1998). These broad guidelines offer some assistance to the field by leading the way through a maze of decisions necessary for effective assistive technology use in schools, however, greater detail and depth in both policy and process are needed to ensure that a system for assistive technology integration contains neither holes nor barriers to effective implementation.

Some policy guidelines do exist for the states to follow, as identified by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the US Office of Special Education Programs. These guidelines suggest that a clear state-wide policy on assistive technology should include: a statement of desired AT outcomes; policies for delivering AT services; staff development and technical assistance policies; verification that the technology plan includes research-based practices; mechanisms for interdisciplinary involvement; policies for purchasing, using, and managing equipment; strategies for obtaining adequate funding; and strategies for communicating these policies (CEC, 1998a). The State of Maine has successfully included assistive technology as one of the supports to achieve state mandates requiring that all students achieve specific learning outcomes. Maine law recognizes the unlimited array of options that assistive technology can provide to support outcome achievement (CEC, 1998a). In Rhode Island, the Schools Project sponsored by the RI Department of Education, Office of Special Needs, offers consultation, training, and technical assistance to all school districts on issues of assistive technology (TechACCESS of RI, 1999). States must continue their efforts to design clear and responsive policies and services for assistive technology, so that full systems integration can occur, and the potential of technology can be realized for all students.

Strategies to identify and guide steps in the assistive technology planning process are critically important for system integration. The Education TECH Point system offers a tool for use by school districts to develop effective assistive technology delivery systems. The TECH Points identify when assistive technology should be considered for educational planning, and include: initial referral questions, evaluation questions, extended assessment questions, plan development questions, implementation questions, and periodic review questions. This decision-making structure offers a way to organize and monitor the use of assistive technology and to individualize activities to match students’ needs (CEC, 1998a; Reed, 1998; Warger, 1998).

A graphic model for assistive technology decision-making and integration was developed at the PEAK Parent Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Instructional and assistive technologies are identified as one point of the triangle of support for students with varied learning strengths and needs; personal supports and accommodations/curriculum modifications are the remaining two points of the model. Each point is mutually interdependent and important, and each feeds information to an individual student profile. Student profiles are used in conjunction with academic unit lesson plans to achieve curricular access. Components of profiles include: skills; strengths and interests; successful learning strategies, modifications, and adaptations; communication strategies; positive behavior supports; grading accommodations; and important family and health information (Castagnera, Fisher, Rodifer, and Sax, 1998).

In summary, the literature reviewed here reveals that guidelines and indicators for assistive technology curriculum integration, some broad and some more specific, have advanced significantly since 1997. Educator competence, however, in the specific strategies and applied skills needed to effectively use assistive technology in achieving equity of access to the general curriculum for all students with disabilities, is shown to be significantly lacking. Even if teachers know what assistive technology is, what relevant laws and policies are in place, and what some effective models for assistive technology integration are, current literature shows that this does not ensure teachers will be able to identify or use assistive technology effectively to support students with disabilities in their classrooms. Definitions, guidelines, laws, and models offer a skeleton for the further development of a true service system. Problems of separate standards, gaps between policy and practice, and lack of detail in the guidelines for curriculum integration are presented here. An exploration of best practices in the application of assistive technology in schools and other environments to create an accessible service system for all students will be the focus of future articles. Assistive technology can be a powerful tool for educational equity, but only if technology-relevant content and skills are well-learned, well-practiced, and appropriately applied to meet the needs of both the individual and the educational environment.


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Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth M. Dalton, M.Ed.

Assistive technology in education: A review of policies, standards, and curriculum integration from 1997 through 2000 involving assistive technology and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.

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