AT - Possibilities and Limitations

There is sometimes a large gap between what is theoretically possible and what is practically achievable in everyday circumstances.

The "fit" of technology solutions with the individual's circumstances must be carefully judged - low technology solutions are often more effective and easily integrated into a person's lifestyle.

What is AT?

The most often quoted definition of assistive technology (AT) comes from American legislation which defines it as:

any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified or customized, that increases, maintains or improves functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities (U.S. Technology-Related Assistance of Individuals with Disabilities Act, 1998, 100.407)

Assistive technology has, therefore, always been with us, from the first time that an early human improvised a branch of a tree as a makeshift crutch. The development of such 'low technology' aids occurred in parallel with the growth of civilisation. The last century saw the beginning of what would then have been considered high-technology applications, such as spectacles and Braille printers. The more recent computing revolution has opened up further high-technology possibilities that were previously in the realm of science fiction. There now seems to be no limit to the possibilities and devices that can control computers by thought processes are on the market.

Yet, low-technology solutions are often more effective and easily integrated into a person's lifestyle. While the more exotic, computer-based, high-technology solutions have enormous potential, their application, or 'fit', with the individual, and his or her circumstances and environment, must be carefully judged. There is, sometimes, a large gap between what is theoretically possible and what is practically achievable in everyday circumstances. It takes expertise and persistence to find the most appropriate and optimum solutions.

What can AT do?

Computers and assistive technologies are playing an increasingly important role in the education of pupils with unique needs. Computer-based AT applications have the ability to help overcome some of the functional barriers created by disability and can allow pupils to read, write and communicate more effectively. Used in conjunction with special software, pupils with associated learning difficulties have new educational opportunities.

The availability of assistive technologies can help to 'level the playing field', in terms of academic achievement. Along with the increasing use of computers in the workplace, these technologies have opened up new independent-living and employment opportunities and can enhance the pupils' perception of their potential development and role in life.

Assistive technology can:

  • allow pupils who cannot manipulate a pen to write
  • enable pupils that have difficulty in speaking to communicate
  • assist pupils with visual impairments to read through Braille, or with the assistance of text-magnifying devices or through voice output
  • make a computer respond to voice commands through voice recognition software
  • help pupils with learning disabilities to read and write through specialized software
  • allow a blind person to read a novel through a scanner with voice output
  • control computers with simple head pointers or mouth-wands
  • provide the tools to enable a person to experience success, where their usual experience may be regression
  • reduce dependence and aid independent living

What can AT not do?

AT is not a magic solution and its use may end in disappointment if too much emphasis is put on technology and not enough on how the pupil is likely to react to it, or whether it will work in the busy school environment.

It is important to avoid failure as this results in a setback for the pupil and parents. .

The use of AT sometimes ends with unrealised expectations and disappointment. It is important to try to avoid this, as it usually results in an added setback for the pupil and parents, as well as the waste of time and resources.

This situation usually arises when too much emphasis is put on technology as a solution, and where not enough consideration is given to how the technology will work in the busy school environment, or how the pupil is likely to react to it. These issues are further examined in the 'Factors to Consider' section.

Assistive technology may be limited in use because:

  • it is only one of a range of options needed to help pupils expand their potential
  • some high-tech AT requires a lot of learning that may be outside the cognitive or physical endurance abilities of the pupil
  • some solutions are achievable by more simple, inexpensive low-tech devices, or other strategies
  • pupils may not 'buy-in' to assistive technology if it emphasises their disability
  • electronic communication devices will not allow pupils to engage in the normal flow of communication
  • specialists don't always know best. Parents' and teachers' intuitive knowledge is sometimes equally valid, but given less weight than the 'experts' judgements
  • there is no 'final solution'. Pupils' circumstances and needs are always changing. New products come on the market and technical advances may necessitate constant re-appraisal
  • some AT is very expensive

When is AT appropriate?

If assistive technology helps to achieve any of the following, it may be considered an appropriate provision:

  • enables the pupil to overcome some of the limitations set by his or her disability
  • enables the pupil to reach a higher standard, fluency or achievement than could be achieved through non-technical means
  • provides a means of social interaction and access to information
  • allows access to learning that could not otherwise be achieved
  • increases and allows concentration on the task rather than on the mechanics of doing it.
  • supports participation by helping to create a least restrictive educational environment.