How Assistive Technology Supports Special Education Students

How Assistive Technology Supports Special Education Students

More than 7 million children with disabilities received special education services across the United States in 2014, and this number continues to grow. As technology advances so does the ability to create better assistive technology to increase engagement and inclusion for our students with learning disabilities in the general education setting.

Positive Outcomes Academically and Socially

Before iPads, Smartboards and Chromebooks, students with disabilities were trapped to their assistive devices that kept them isolated from their peers and not included in the academic instruction. A special educator would gather his or her students with assistive technology (AT) needs and march them out of the classroom to an alternative setting. There, they could work independently on the same task as their peers without the collaboration and engagement option. Often, the task would be altered to fit the technology and not the students’ academic abilities.

The students become more reliant to the device and grow to be independent learners rather than collaborative and active members of the classroom. Yes, supports are great and so are programs, but we can’t forget the most important role of AT for our struggling learners. It is to create independence while allowing a student to access the learning at the same level as their peers We no longer need to exclude our students with AT needs; we can incorporate the technology in our learning communities.

AT refers to the devices and services that are used to increase, maintain or improve the capabilities of a student with a disability. Tracy Gray, director of PowerUp What Works, the National Center for Technology Innovation and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education explained in EdTech, “Students now have access to assistive capabilities on technologies that are smaller, more mobile, more integrated and inexpensive. They’re mainstream, too, so that makes them cool. All students want to use them.” With the access to AT, students can demonstrate their skills while feeling included in the classroom activities and discussions.

As educators, we know how important it is to keep a student’s integrity while supporting the challenges they face every day with the academic rigor and pace of the general education setting. Programs that read audio books to our struggling readers, for example, allow them to listen to the story while others are reading, so they have the same access to the information without a student’s decoding and fluency skills to hinder them from comprehending the story or novel.

Lizzy, a student who needs AT for both her writing and fine motor skills, can actively participate in her social studies class because her teacher provided the technology as part of the classroom routine. Every day, the teacher projects her civic question on the Smartboard while one member from each table writes the question down. Lizzy takes a snapshot of the question and becomes the secretary of her group using both her word prediction and speech-to-text applications. Her group, just like the other students, then send their responses to be displayed on the Smartboard. This is a great way for Lizzie to be engaged and a valuable member of her social studies group. She can build confidence and grow as a learner.

Universal Design a key component when planning activities and lesson that incorporate AT needs. That is why it is valuable to have all the stakeholders in the planning process, working closely with both the district AT and Learning Behavior Specialist to plan and evaluate the best AT resources for the lesson or activity.

Benefits of technologies include the following:

  • Increased independence
  • Personalized learning
  • Engagement with peers
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Confidence building
  • Improved academic skills

Assistive Technology Resources and Ideas

Reading, Writing and Dyslexia

The following tools can help you with students struggling with reading comprehension or with students falling behind in writing.

  • OneNote software aims to help students with dyslexia.
  • Immersive reader is afree tool by Microsoft that supports students in reading and writing deficits.
  • Spell Better app is a free iPad app (upgrade for $9.99) that provides word prediction capabilities with read-back and text-to-speech capabilities. The upgrade provides export options and additional notes.
  • Text-to-speech lets kids see text and hear it read aloud at the same time.
  • Audiobooks and digital text-to-speech books allow kids to hear books read aloud.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) reads aloud text from images and pictures.
  • Graphic organizers are visual representations, like diagrams and mind maps, of ideas and concepts. Kids can use graphic organizers to take notes while reading, which can help with comprehension. Graphic organizers can be digital or pen and paper.
  • Annotation tools let kids take notes and write comments while reading. This can make it easier to retain information. Annotation tools can be found on certain software or apps, or they can be traditional pens, markers and sticky notes.
  • Dictionaries and thesauri allow kids to look up words they don’t understand when reading. A picture dictionary is a popular tool that uses images to define words, and a talking dictionary reads definitions aloud.


The following tools can help you with students struggling with math skills.

  • Calculators that are downloadable or large key calculator for students with fine motor difficulties.
  • Math notation tools for writing out equations by hand, which can be challenging for kids who have trouble writing numbers and symbols.
  • Graph paper has a grid to make it easier for kids to line up numbers and symbols in math problems.
  • Graphing and drawing tools are typically digital tools that help kids graph the path of an equation and draw shapes. 
  • Equation-solving tools are digital tools that help kids work with equations. Unlike calculators, equation-solving tools don’t solve a problem.
  • Manipulatives are objects that help kids solve math problems in alternative ways. Manipulatives can be physical objects or virtual objects on computers.
  • Graphic organizers help kids break down and lay out the steps for solving math problems. Graphic organizers can be digital or pen and paper.

Learn About Assistive Technology in the Classroom

Interested in learning more? Advancement Courses offers K-12 educators over 200 online, self-paced professional development courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends. Here are a few that can help you move from surviving to thriving:

  • Using Technology to Support Students with Special Needs: Develop strategies for incorporating assistive technologies to help all students access curriculum, how to use technology to differentiate instruction and motivate students with disabilities. In addition, you’ll explore methods for choosing the right technology-based tools for your classroom and for finding funding to help ensure that your students with special needs get the resources they require.
  • The Role of Technology in the Inclusive Classroom: Using Universal Design for Learning principles, you’ll learn how to plan instruction that will motivate a wide variety of learners, and how to stay organized and efficient while managing a scaffolded, individualized curriculum. In addition, you’ll explore digital tools (including assistive technology) that you can use to present core content so that all students can access the curriculum according to their specific needs.
  • Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities in the Inclusive Classroom: Cultivate resources designed to maximize learning for students who have learning disabilities. You’ll develop concrete strategies for creating flexible assignments that allow for choice and meet a variety of needs, and for creating a positive classroom culture that encourages students’ academic success and desire to learn.

About the Author 

Stephanie Dorsey is an educator service consultant for Advancement Courses specializing in supporting teachers in the recertification and lane advancement process and advises teachers on courses that best match their professional growth needs. As a former special education teacher from Illinois, she worked in both elementary and middle school public and charter school settings for over 18 years. She received her M.Ed from the University of Colorado Denver in special education. Over the course of her career, she has been particularly interested in training other educators on effective curriculum, RTI and universal design.

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