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How do we decide what assistive technology is appropriate for an individual student?

In all areas of education, coordinated teamwork is critical. When considering assistive technology for a student, the importance of a team approach cannot be overemphasized. Teams should consist of the people who are best able to determine and meet a student’s needs.

There are no hard and fast rules about who is best suited to serve on an assistive technology team. Most often this would include the student, and the student's parent(s), and key people who provide services to the student. Each team member provides unique insight about what assistive technology will really work at home and in the classroom.

The assistive technology team should include some members of the IEP team, but might add other professionals with specialized expertise in different areas of assistive technology. Generally, the Occupational Therapist (OT) evaluates hand (fine motor) and total body (gross motor) skills, touch and movement abilities, visual perception and positioning, and helps to find the person's best method to use assistive technology. The Physical Therapist (PT) evaluates seating, positioning, and mobility. The PT works closely with the OT and Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) to find the best position for using the technology. The Speech-Language Pathologist evaluates the person's communication abilities and is important for determining what type of augmentative communication might work.

Caption for still picture: In Sumter District Two, the assistive technology Team consists of Dr. Sulyn Elliott, SLP, Director of Special Services, Cindy Charles, OT, Cindy Roberson, PTA, and Stella Smith, SLP.

Caption for still picture: Kershaw County assistive technology Team members (left to right) Monica Lloyd, SLP, Holly Myers, Special Ed teacher and Behavioral Specialist, Elizabeth Steele, PT, and Celeste Ranson, OTR.

Caption for still picture: Members of the assistive technology assessment team at the School for the Multihandicapped at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind work with D’Toni to determine possibilities for switch access and scanning. (left to right) Kate Beals, OT, Rhonda Hodge, PT, Linda Harris, SLP and Carolyn Irons, classroom teacher.

Caption for still picture: One of the team’s goals is to determine D’Toni‘s ability to select independently from two switches while scanning an augmentative communication device.

Assistive technology specialists have emerged as a professional title and certification. RESNA (the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) issues the three credentials for service providers in the assistive technology field. More information about this credentialing can be found at Certification programs in assistive technology are offered at universities such as California State University at Northridge (CSUN), George Mason University, Simmons College, the University of Kentucky and the University of Southern Maine. A list of programs available can be found at

Technology Resources for Education (T.R.E.) Center in New York has developed a list of “Desirable Qualities of the assistive technology Resource Person,” found at the following web site:

Special and general education teachers are invaluable on an assistive technology team. They are in a unique position to know if assistive technology will be of practical use in the classroom, and their support and understanding of the value of the recommended assistive technology is critical to its success.

A variety of other professionals may participate on an assistive technology team. Rehabilitation engineers design and make customized technology. Architects or contractors plan structural changes needed in buildings. Physicians may be needed to write prescriptions for an assistive technology assessment or for recommended devices, which is often needed for funding. Audiologists assess and recommend hearing and listening aids. Rehabilitation counselors and social workers help find funding sources and help move the student into the community.

Ideally, a school district should have an assistive technology “team leader” to facilitate information gathering, report writing, scheduling of meetings, and follow-up.

Sarah Patton is the assistive technology Team Leader in School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties. Their team was considering using a higher tech augmentative communication device for a student and evaluating which switch method might be best for her to access the device. They gathered together in the classroom for the assessment.

Caption for still picture: OT Carrie Hutto adjusts a toggle switch mounted for Mandy to access using her head.

Caption for still picture: Team members help determine the best position for the head switch. (left to right): Sarah Patton, assistive technology Team Leader, Janet Barnes, PT, Carrie Hutto, OT, Mandy, Robin Vance, SLP, and Jo Leigh Wells, MUSC student.

Caption for still picture: Team members determine the best position for the augmentative communication device.

Caption for still picture: Success! When Mandy is able to use the head switch, everyone responds.

A logical time to consider assistive technology would be when a student is referred for special education, since one responsibility of the IEP team is to look for interventions to keep the student in the least restrictive environment. When considering assistive technology the team needs to be clear on “what do we want the student to do?” Assistive technology itself is not the goal. The goal is what the student wants or needs to do using the technology.

If possible, parents should be asked: What does your child do well? What does your child have difficulty doing? What does your child enjoy doing? What are the difficulties your family wants assistive technology to address?

Horry County District assistive technology team members assess students in their school settings. 

Caption for still picture: They take rolling carts with their assistive technology assessment tools into the schools.

Caption for still picture: Bonnie Weeks describes the tools in their assessment kit. “Some of the items (not an exhaustive list) that might be used with students, depending on areas of concern, are pictured. Computer accessibility might be assessed by student's ability to use a computer. We take a notebook for our assessments for its portability and because we may have certain software we may want the student to try. We take different trackballs and a half keyboard. In the communication area, particularly for delayed students, we may want to see if the student can identify concrete objects, pictures, and picture symbols. We may assess using a simple four-button talking device. For children who cannot communicate and are severely delayed, we may want to assess the ability to use a jellybean switch to make a fan operate or make the woolly sheep say “Baaa.”

Any assistive technology intervention is only as helpful as the student’s willingness and ability to use the assistive technology. Above all, technology abandonment is to be avoided. When assistive technology is purchased by a school district and ends up unused in a closet, the result can be major setbacks in attitudes towards assistive technology: by the student, parents, teachers and the school district administration. Technology abandonment and negative attitudes toward assistive technology are less likely if the following considerations are included early in the assessment process:

  • Realistic evaluation of the student’s current or potential strengths, weaknesses, motivation, interests, goals, and cognitive or functional capacity
  • Evaluation of the student’s linguistic, communicative, sensory, social, academic, and physical needs
  • Degree of support from the student’s family and friends
  • Ability of the assistive technology team and classroom teachers to support the assistive technology
  • Opportunities for technical support and training related to the particular type of assistive technology (including other students who use similar assistive technology)
  • Provision for maintenance/troubleshooting for the specific assistive technology
  • Degree to which the assistive technology “fits” into school settings, curriculum and/or home life
  • Opportunities for trial use of the assistive technology before it is purchased
  • Provision for ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the assistive technology intervention
  • Flexibility in adjusting the assistive technology to changing student needs, changing settings, learning challenges and opportunities facing the student
  • Direct reference to stated goals and objectives of the assistive technology in the student’s IEP
  • Planning for funding of the assistive technology device or intervention

In Kershaw County, the assistive technology team worked together to determine what elementary school student Jesse might need to help him in class and in the whole school setting. Celeste Ranson describes the process:

“For a student like Jesse, one of the first things we do is to interview the teacher and the parent, and also try to get as much input as we can from the student. We find out what the concerns are and from there, prioritize what the challenges are going to be. We then meet as a team to see how we can best meet those challenges.

“A special ed teacher can really add a lot to the group because a lot of times we don’t know the challenges that teachers face in the classroom. She is able to guide us to realistic expectations as to what is going on in the classroom.

“The assistive technology has really helped him tremendously. Without it, it was really hard to identify what he could and could not do and what he was able to learn. Presenting him with the different devices and props that he’s able to use have enabled him to identify his words, letters, numbers, and communicate his needs.”

Caption for picture: Jesse works with Celeste Ranson on eye gaze techniques.

Jesse also accesses devices by use of a foot switch.

Celeste continues, “It has helped Jesse develop not only in fine motor and gross motor, but also with communication and socially. He is able to be amongst his same age peers for many of the activities and I think that has really helped him develop.”

Physical therapist Elizabeth Steele explains the impact that assistive technology has made for Jesse and people around him: “Instead of being left in a corner to watch, he’s able to do learning activities with the rest of the students. In the library he can request books on his own. He was a very bright student whose potential was not being recognized. His ability to eye gaze showed everyone what was ‘inside his head.’ The more we work with him, the more potential we find.”

What are good resources for assistive technology assessments?
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A classic resource for assistive technology teams can be found in “Education Tech Points: A Framework for Assistive Technology Planning and Systems Change in Schools.” An overview can be found at Each Tech Point represents a point in the process of referral, evaluation, development of the IEP or Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) when technology might be considered. The structure provides a way to effectively organize and monitor the use of assistive technology and developing programs that tailor activities to match each student's needs.

The SETT Framework: Critical Areas to Consider When Making Informed Assistive Technology Decisions by Joy Zabala is widely used by educators. Methods of gathering data include observations of the student involved in the ordinary tasks presented by the natural settings in which the student operates; discussions with the significant people who share those settings with the student; and, possibly, a review of other strategies and tools that have been tried with the student. The SETT questions are designed to stimulate discussion. They are intentionally broad to catch all ideas and possible solutions.

More resources for assistive technology assessment are provided in the Resources section.

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