From digital pens to speech-recognition apps and talking calculators, the world of assistive technology for students with special needs is ever-growing, and can be overwhelming for parents just starting their search.
Assistive technology, or AT, covers any technology or device that helps a student overcome obstacles at school involving mobility, communication, interacting with classmates and more.
“The first thing parents should know is that they are not alone,” stresses Keith Butler, Staff Attorney at Indiana Protection & Advocacy Services, or IPAS, which oversees AT in Indiana. “The Internet is a wonderful, but sometimes overwhelming, resource so we encourage people to start by talking to a real person who will listen, ask questions and help families determine their child’s developmental goals.”
Two good local resources are the PATINS Project, which works directly with schools to provide an array of AT devices, and the INDATA Project, a partnership between Easter Seals Crossroads, the state and the federal government, which offers a device lending library of more than 2,000 items, free training and low-interest loans.
M. Wade Wingler, Director of Assistive Technology for Easter Seals Crossroads, recommends parents start their AT search by talking with their child’s doctors and therapists about technology options, along with parents of children who have similar special needs. “The most important thing when you’re just learning about assistive technology is to learn where to get access to information,” he says. “Ask a lot of questions. Gathering information can never start too soon.”
Parents can request an AT evaluation at any time through their child’s school, either during an IEP (Individualized Education Program) case conference or under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The evaluation typically takes 50 days.
Darla Ashton, Assistive Technology Coordinator at Carmel Clay Schools, recommends creating an AT implementation plan to clarify how the technology will be used and who should be assisting the student when needed, especially for those with multiple teachers and therapists. “It’s easy to hand over a tech tool to a student and say, ‘This will solve the problem!’” she says. “It’s harder to coordinate who will train the student on how to use the technology, who will explain to teachers when and why the tech should be used, how the parents will know how to support their student’s use with the tool and how and when to know that it’s actually helping.”
Ashton also encourages parents to learn the technology that their child will be using so they can help troubleshoot issues at home and better advocate for their child in case conference meetings when it comes to what tools still need to be added.
Nanci Sears Perry, the founder of grassroots education group Decoding Dyslexia-IN and mom of twin high school sophomores who are dyslexic, has a lot of experience navigating the world of AT. She says the process is getting easier. “Parents need to be proactive, follow up quickly and ask a lot of questions,” she stresses. “We have so many great resources in Indiana, and it’s my dream that when a parent in my shoes, like I was two years ago, asks about an assistive technology evaluation, it happens quickly.”
Sears Perry advises parent to regularly review their child’s AT plan, updating it from year to year just as they would their IEP.
While assistive technology may be a daunting field for parents, it can truly make a difference for students, Ashton says. “I’ve seen some amazing things happen when the right piece of technology is put into the mix for a student,” she says. “AT can make a student more independent, maybe faster, maybe clearer, maybe more thorough in their task at hand. Depending on what your goal is for the student, AT can definitely open doors.”
More information about the AT evaluation process in Indiana can be found on the IPAS website at http://www.in.gov/ipas/2376.htm