Students with disabilities, from deafness and blindness to ADHD, have the legal right to a free and appropriate K-12 education in the United States, as well as reasonable accommodations in their post-secondary education. Schools often meet these requirements with assistive technology, which, according to Cynthia Curry, refers to technology “intended to support the function of the individual.”
Curry is the director of the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials and the Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems.
Popular assistive technologies for blind students, for instance, include refreshable Braille displays and screen readers, which “read aloud all the content on the screen, as well as buttons, links, menus [and] images, if the images have alternative text on them,” she said.
What Is Assistive Technology?
Assistive technology (AT) is the use of devices and software to improve the experience of learning or going about daily life. AT can range from Braille displays and books to text-to-speech software or wheelchairs. The beauty of assistive technology is that it can be anything that improves life and learning. To qualify as assistive, though, a technology has to meet the individual user’s needs. In other words, it’s inherently personal.
Curry’s interest in assistive technology in the classroom is personal too. It started during her days as a middle- and high-school science teacher. Although she was well-versed in the subject due to her previous work as an engineer, Curry was bowled over by the variety of learners in her classroom.
Assistive Technology Definition
“I really had difficulty with learner variability,” she said. “Particularly [with] students who didn’t think like I thought. I was working about 16 hours a day trying to make up for my lack of education and training, creating my own materials, and trying to work individually with students.”
Curry’s students came from different cultures and spoke different languages. They had different class backgrounds. They also had various levels of physical and cognitive ability.
Supporting kids with disabilities felt essential to Curry, whose sister has disabilities. Legislation like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, had made that support mandatory, but it also felt more “straightforward” than “trying to accommodate student variability in language or race or ethnicity, or even gender.”
In other words, equal access for disabled students has a practical component. It can be engineered into existence, in part, with assistive technology.
All Technology is Assistive
Some critics argue that it’s silly to categorize some technology as “assistive” and other technology as simply “technology.” All technology assists its users, whether we classify them as “disabled” or not. As Sara Hendren wrote in Wired:
“Honestly — what technology are you using that’s not assistive? Your smartphone? Your eyeglasses? Headphones? And those three examples alone are assisting you in multiple registers: They’re enabling or augmenting a sensory experience, say, or providing navigational information. But they’re also allowing you to decide whether to be available for approach in public, or not; to check out or in on a conversation or meeting in a bunch of subtle ways; to identify, by your choice of brand or look, with one culture group and not another… [A]re you sure your phone isn’t a crutch, as it were, for a whole lot of unexamined needs?”
Not only is mainstream technology assistive, technology designed for those with legally protected disabilities often helps those without them. Or, more generally, improving accessibility for one group improves accessibility for all, in ways we can’t always predict. That’s the foundational principle of Universal Design.
One famous example are curb cuts, the ramp-like dips in sidewalks. Originally designed for people in wheelchairs, they turned out to benefit parents with strollers, rollerbladers and a host of other users.
Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, shifts Universal Design’s ideas into the classroom. “It’s based on research on how humans learn,” Curry said. The UDL philosophy goes that lessons designed with accessibility in mind often— “though not always” —work best for everyone, accommodating varied learning styles.
According to a framework first laid out in the 1990s, UDL lessons should represent information in multiple ways. That can be simple enough — think closed caption videos, which make dialogue comprehension easier for the hard of hearing, English language learners and anyone who’s absorbing unfamiliar vocabulary. Evaluation should also let students demonstrate what they know in various ways — in an audio recording, for example, or in writing.
Lessons designed to meet UDL specifications often incorporate, or integrate easily with, assistive technology. Let’s take a look at some examples of assistive technology and the companies behind it.
Here are 10 tools changing the way assistive technology in the classroom is being used.
Examples of Assistive Technology in the Classroom
Speechify is a text-to-speech software that captures text and translates it into audio format. This is particularly useful for textbooks, PDF reading assignments and more. The software is compatible with the Chrome browser as well as iPhones, Macs and Androids. Speechify is commonly used by learners and students with ADHD and dyslexia.
Kurzweil Education’s Kurzweil 3000 is a literacy support system for Macs and various browsers, which comes equipped with a variety of assistive technologies. The speech-to-text and text-to-speech functions, which work in 18 languages, help students with vision impairments and ADHD, among other conditions. Meanwhile, a font designed for dyslexic readers, called OpenDyslexic, alleviates letter confusion with its bottom-heavy characters.
Google Classroom has become popular with the surge of online learning and it also offers a host of tools for executive function and speech-to-text capabilities that improve accessibility and learning. The platform is compatible with Kurzweil 3000 as well as Hāpara Student Dashboard, which helps students organize their tools in one streamlined place. In the upcoming editions of Classroom, Google plans to deploy features like video tutorials, guided lessons and automated hints.
The TactPlus is a Braille printer. Often used by educational institutions, the portable printer precision-heats a specialty foamed paper to create a page of Braille (or other 3D images) in one to two minutes. The printer is also outfitted with audio instructions, to aid visually impaired users.
The Seeing AI app from Microsoft is designed for the low-vision community and offers audio guidance in a vast array of situations. It reads text aloud as soon as it appears in a smartphone’s camera viewfinder. It also identifies products by barcode when shopping and describes surrounding scenery and its colors. Over time, it learns to recognize the user’s friends and describe their facial expressions.
Clicker from Crick Software is a writing and reading platform that’s outfitted with a whole suite of assistive features. Its mapping feature, for instance, lets elementary-age students create webs of words and emoji-like pictograms, or diagram entire projects. That helps visual learners tackle reading and writing projects.
Co:Writer, a tool created by Don Johnston Learning Tools, can transcribe speech and predict intended words and phrases — a boon to students with a wide variety of special needs. Produced in partnership with Google for Education, Co:Writer’s built-in prediction engine grasps the fundamentals of grammar and free association, unearthing writers’ meaning even when they misspell words and conjugate verbs incorrectly.
Dragon is a smart speech recognition software. Though it’s marketed as a business productivity tool, it’s also a widely used accessibility technology for students with disabilities that make mouse use and typing difficult. Equipped with deep learning capabilities, the software can transcribe natural speech at speeds of up to 160 words per minute.
MathTalk is a speech recognition software designed for students with ADHD and physical disabilities that preclude keyboard use. An add-on to Dragon, this software comprehends technical vocabulary and transcribes in mathematical notation appropriate for trigonometry, algebra, calculus and even PhD-level courses.
Tobii offers eye-tracking devices that turn the human gaze into a hands-free mouse. To use the technology, students with limited motor skills and verbal difficulties simply need to look at their screen, and a mix of infrared projectors, cameras and machine-learning algorithms will detect their point of focus.
The Future of Assistive Edtech
Going forward, assistive technology in the classroom has room to grow. Curry sees potential in two particular areas: artificial intelligence and mapping apps.
AI, she said, already has transformed life for people with disabilities. However, “it’s not quite accurate yet under all conditions,” and she worries that accessibility programs over-rely on it, especially when working with those who are hard of hearing.
Right now, AI often generates wonky automated closed captions, or live captions for talks. (It might translate “Pokemon” as “bro give mom,” for example.) AI needs "human monitoring and human vetting" to really work, Curry said.
Once it can work reliably on its own, though, it will transform daily life for people with a wide array of disabilities. Higher-quality AI could not only hear “Pokemon” correctly, but also generate useful tools for people with Autism who have difficulty understanding facial expressions.
Many students with Autism — though not all — struggle with that, Curry notes. Facial recognition technology, a branch of AI, could help them match a peer’s facial expressions with a feeling and guide them in knowing “how to interact with the individual,” Curry said.
Another opportunity for improvement lies in digital mapping. Maps apps already offer users spoken navigation instructions and a highly granular sense of their surroundings nearly everywhere in the world. The maps of the future, however, could support blind people in new ways.
Many blind people memorize the layouts of their neighborhoods and schools and can navigate them without assistance, Curry says. However, unfamiliar environments pose problems. Mapping technology can’t specify which streets have uneven sidewalks and which have no sidewalks. It also can’t guide users through unfamiliar buildings — not yet, anyway.
“Augmented and virtual reality could help [blind students] orient themselves in new environments,” Curry said. “And that can be true in smaller spaces, like a learning environment. So students who come into schools — maybe they’re transferring from one district to another, or transitioning from middle school to high school — can more quickly and independently navigate their environments.”
Of course, that mapping technology would only qualify as assistive for students seeking independent navigation skills in the first place. Assistive technology has to meet the individual’s needs, not the needs that outsiders project onto them.
In that spirit, the ultimate assistive classroom technology in the classroom might be a teacher who asks, “How can I help you?”