by: Dr. Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles
Over the past couple of weeks, the team here at ETL have been covering the concept of confidence. Kathleen covered it in her post on the 5 Factors that Impact Learning and How Learners Learn Best. Last week, Coach Julie covered the concept of confidence in her post: Hula Hoops and Thought Loops. This week, we will cover the importance about being confident in Assistive Technology not just from the learner perspective, but from the parent and educator perspective as well.
What is Assistive Technology?
Assistive Technology (AT) is “any device, piece of equipment or product that makes it easier for someone with a disability to live more independently and safely, work at a job, learn in school, get about their community or pursue play and leisure.” (MaineCITE, 2022). Assistive Technology can range from “low tech” tools such as pencil grips, highlighters, glasses, to “high tech” tools such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC), eye gaze, switch access, braille notetakers and refreshable braille displays, text-to-speech, and speech-to-text (dictation). When it comes to school, AT removes barriers for leaners with disabilities who require additional support to access, engage, and express in learning. While Assistive Technology tools are primarily used for learners with disabilities and is an important part of a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Assistive Technology tools (i.e. text to speech and speech to text) can be used by a wider variety of learners.
Why Assistive Technology for All?
AT can be used by a wider variety of learners. Think about today’s cellphones. Do you use Siri? That is AT! Do you use a larger font size on your computer or phone? That is AT! Do you use a larger mouse pointer on your computer? That is AT! Do you wear glasses? That is AT! Do you listen to audiobooks? That is AT! Do you use a calendar or sticky notes to keep track of tasks to do? That is AT! We all use AT in our everyday lives at some point- why not offer it to a wider variety of learners from the start?
When AT tools are offered to all and used by some, that is an aspect of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in practice. When this occurs, options, choices, and flexibility become the norm as opposed to “one way” of thinking and doing. Think about a worksheet. That is one way of thinking and doing. Think about a paper. That is one way of thinking of doing. When we open the options to access, engage, and express in a child’s learning through AT, we are better able to personalize and customize the learning experiences for a wider variety of learners, supporting challenges and enhancing strengths. Why is it that adults can use AT in everyday life, but we disallow children the same consideration when it comes to their learning? Perhaps it’s judgements, attitudes, and beliefs. Perhaps it’s our judgements, attitudes, and beliefs that serve as barriers. But, perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in selecting, acquiring, and using AT tools to meet the needs of a wide variety of learners. It’s that lack of confidence that serves as another barrier for meaningful educational experiences for all. Therefore, building confidence in selecting, acquiring, and using AT Tools for not only the learner, but for educators, is a must.
As Easy as A.B.C!
Building confidence in AT does require a mindset shift (refer to Coach Julie’s earlier post on ways to shift one’s mindset). It also requires time, collaboration, inclusion of AT tools in all learning spaces, and a commitment to try, fail forward, try again, persist, and see the value. There have been times in exploring tools with a learner that once the barrier to, say, reading, is removed by using text to speech and a reading service such as Bookshare or Learning Ally, what was once tears is transformed into cheers! There have also been times when introducing these tools worked well in one setting, but not in another. The confidence meter goes way down when a child perceives themselves to be “the only one” that has to use this tool and is made to feel different or deficient as a result.
Conversely, when AT tools are introduced to EVERYONE in a class, and children have the opportunity to co-explore and identify the purpose and for what tasks AT can be used for, that creates a culture of understanding and of empowerment. It helps to have everyone understand the purpose and function without judgement or assumption. It’s a part of the ABC’s of building learner confidence in AT: Allow, Be Consistent, Care.
Allow children to explore various AT tools. Today’s computers, tablets, and smartphones already have built in text to speech and speech to text supports! Why not allow children the opportunity to explore their purpose and function, as well as how these tools may help them have a better learning experience? Dispel the myth that AT tools such as speech to text and text to speech is cheating by allowing children to use their AT tools in Tier 1 (i.e. “Regular” education) settings. Don’t wait for unnecessary struggles and frustration.
Be consistent with AT. Use AT tools when there are challenges in reading, writing, accessing, engaging, and expressing. Don’t judge when those supports should and should not be used (it’s not up to us- it’s up to the team which includes the learner). In terms of an individual with a disability, develop clear plans that show who is responsible for supporting AT, what tasks, are required for AT, which AT tools will be used. We are not the AT Police. If it removes a barrier to learning- it should be used.
Educator and Parents/Caregivers have something in common. They deeply care about their child/learner and are committed to ensuring that children have what they need in order to access, engage, and express in their learning. That common commitment to caring about learning should be a unifier- not a divider. While educators and parent/caregivers may have different approaches to ensuring a child has meaningful access to learning, we can agree that the common thread of care is integral to the healthy relationship development between educator, parent, and child.
When it comes to AT, care is about caring about co-removing barriers to learning through its use. When a teacher, parent/caregiver says that using text to speech and speech to text for a child with a disability is cheating, that is creating a culture of NOT caring. That is sending a message that different is NOT okay, and dishonors the needs and preferences of that child, while also denying that child their LEGAL RIGHT to have access to those AT tools. When AT supports are ONLY offered to individuals with disabilities, that shows lack of care by stigmatizing the use of AT. When we collaboratively and collectively open the doors of universal access of AT tools (many of which are built into today’s computers and tablets) we are honoring our learners. We are recognizing that NO ONE learns in the same way and by providing those supports first and not later, we are also saying that every child belongs, that they matter, and that there is more than one way to access, engage and express in learning. That is care. This is love in action.
AT is powerful. It can remove barriers to learning for children with and without disabilities. By following the ABC’s of AT, we can boost learner confidence and agency, support challenges, and enhance strengths. Furthermore, we, as adults, can send the message that it’s okay to learn differently, to have tools and supports that help remove barriers, and to have agency in one’s learning with AT. It’s time to move past the uncertainty and fear/misconceptions around AT and move into the A.B.C’s of AT!
Bugaj (2018). The New Assistive Tech: Make Learning Awesome for All! (ISTE).
Lewis, V. (2020). Tips for Improving Confidence About Using Assistive Technology. Retrieved from: https://veroniiiica.com/2020/05/21/tips-for-improving-confidence-about-using-assistive-technology
Redford, K. (2019) Assistive Technology: Promises Fulfilled. Retrieved from https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/assistive-technology-promises-fulfilled