What are Assistive Technologies?

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What it is

What it is and Why it is Important to Understand

Assistive technology can be defined as any technology, type of equipment or software that helps people to work around the challenges they have related to learning, communication, or mobility. Assistive technology is used to increase, maintain, and improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities or special needs and can be defined as no-tech, low tech, mid tech, and high tech. This technology can be as low-tech as pencil grips or as high-tech as special purpose computers. It could be software, such as screen readers and communication programs, or hardware like special switches, keyboards, or pointing devices. Assistive technology helps people who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things. 

Many assistive technologies we see every day.  Some people use glasses to see, read, and drive while others use wheelchairs or walking sticks to get around. These are common examples of no-tech and low-tech assistive technology. An example of a hi-tech assistive technology is hearing loop systems which use electromagnetic energy to transmit amplified sounds in many hearing aids and cochlear implants. Other examples of assistive devices are picture boards or touch screens that allow users to communicate by touching pictures or symbols of typical items and activities that make up a person’s daily life. These often will translate the words or pictures into speech and may even allow for different voices such as male or female, child or adult, and even some accents. Assistive technology like grammar and spell checks, ramps, automatic doors etc. are helpful for individuals with disabilities as well as other individuals who may inadvertently benefit from that technology. 

Modern assistive technologies have simplified life for people with disabilities, improving their access to the education system and the world. Students with disabilities, from deafness and blindness to ADHD, have a legal right to a free and appropriate K-12 education, as well as reasonable accommodations in their post-secondary education. Schools often meet these requirements with assistive technology which supports individual students to function in these environments without any obstacles. According to Watson et al, assistive technology may have a significant effect in helping students with disabilities progress towards the goals outlined on their Individual Education Plans (2010). Therefore, Assistive technology helps in two ways: 

  • It can help the student learn how to complete the task and
  • It can help to bypass an area of difficulty. 

However, although assistive technology can support struggling learners, the technology itself has little impact on learning. In order for students to benefit from the technology, educators must understand what the assistive technology is and how to create instruction that is most conducive to its use. For instance, a screen reader can read a Word document.  But if the document is especially long and not formatted with a proper heading structure, the student will not be able to scan the document with the reader and jump to specific parts of the document the way someone without a screen reader might.  For this reason, we recommend always keeping assistive technologies in mind when creating your course content.  Our page, Creating Accessible Content, will provide resources to help you begin to make your course content ready for assistive technologies. 

Examples of Assistive Technologies in Education

Laptop computers and Computerized Devices

Laptop computers and tablet devices are beneficial for students with learning disabilities because they are portable and lightweight and can improve the quality and quantity of work special needs students can accomplish. However, obtaining personal access to laptops and computerized devices does not ensure engagement and increased academic success (Donovan, Green, & Hartley, 2010). For many students, laptop computers and computerized devices can be too distracting. In order to prevent the technology from being a distraction, students need to be taught how to use technology to support their learning and teachers and students need to be trained in how to meaningfully integrate technology into academic contexts.  

Software-based assistive technology

Software can help students to bypass the certain learning disabilities like writing, reading and comprehension. Using spell check and grammar features can help students focus on communicating their ideas and students can write with confidence knowing that they can easily make changes. In addition, being able to submit a final assignment that is neater and better organized supports positive self-esteem. Text-to-speech, speech-to-text, word prediction, and graphic organizers are useful software functions for students who struggle with language-based learning disabilities.

  • Text-to-speech software helps students to bypass the task of decoding words. Seeing individual words highlighted as the text is read aloud may help to improve students’ sight word vocabulary. Text-to-speech software, such as Kurzweil 3000, can read aloud digital or printed text and can benefit students who are more likely to understand text when it is read to them (MacArthur, Ferreti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001). Research by Raskind and Higgins (1999), Izzo et al (2009) and other researchers shows that text-to-speech technology can have a positive effect on decoding and word recognition and increase reading fluency and comprehension. This software helps students with revising their work and proof-reading for errors which may otherwise go unnoticed. Researchers Chiang and Jacobs (2009), Elkind (1998), and Young (2012) have found that Kurzweil software improves students’ perception of their work and their ability to write expressively, may decrease the negative emotions students associate with reading, and provide students with a more complete comprehension of the text. 

  • Speech-to-text software transcribes spoken word into computer text, allowing the student to bypass the demands of typing or handwriting, or even handwriting and spelling, allowing the student to concentrate on developing their ideas and planning their work. Freed from these tasks, students may compose stories that are longer, more complex, and contain fewer errors (Graham 1999).  Speech-to-text technology relies on speech recognition accuracy and will convert the spoken word into text on the computer. Students who benefit the most may have dysgraphia or dyslexia, or may simply think faster than they can write. Students with motor skills issues, or who have trouble with writing or spelling and grammar, can use speech-to-text technology to overcome their obstacles. 

  • Word prediction is an assistive technology tool for writing that suggests words as you type. If you’ve sent text messages with a smartphone, you’ve probably used it already. Advanced word prediction tools can be very helpful for individuals who struggle with writing. Some word prediction tools can make suggestions tailored to specific topics. For instance, the terminology used in a history paper may differ from that in a science report. To make suggestions more accurate, individuals can pick special dictionaries for what they’re writing about and can decide between words that are confusing. Word prediction is available on nearly every platform, from iOS and Android devices, to Chromebooks, Windows, and macOS computers. 

  • Graphic organizers are visual thinking tools that make pictures of thoughts and demonstrate relationships between facts, concepts, or ideas, guiding thinking as the student designs the map or diagram. Graphic organizers can help them visualize and construct ideas, organize and/or sequence information, plan what to write, increase reading comprehension, brainstorm, organize problems and solutions, compare and contrast ideas, show cause and effect, and more. Also, the ability to color-code thoughts in a picture can help significantly in understanding and remembering the information. Some  common types of graphic organizers are:

    Venn Diagrams: show how different things or ideas can overlap to show a compare/contrast relationship. 

    Concept Maps: are good for organizing information, brainstorming, visualizing ideas, and planning what you want to write. 

    Mind Maps: are used to visually represent hierarchical information that includes a central idea surrounded by connected branches of associated topics. They work well for brainstorming ideas, solving problems, and showing relationships and/or components in a process. 

    Flow Charts: are graphic organizers that show how steps in a process fit together. This makes them useful tools for communicating how processes work and for clearly documenting how a particular job is done. Mapping a process in a flow chart format can help clarify the process and show where the process can be improved. 

Special Keyboards

Repetitive motions, like typing, or any wrist movements that you do over and over can cause Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. People with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome often find it painful to type. Ergonomic keyboards, can help people type more effectively while keeping their wrists in a more comfortable position. People with poor motor control or weak eyesight may benefit from keyboards that display larger keys. People with disabilities that make it difficult for them to use any keyboard can use the On-Screen Keyboard that comes with Windows. This virtual keyboard overlays your screen, and lets you type by using your mouse to click the keyboard's characters.

Screen readers

Screen readers are software used by blind or other visually-impaired people to read the content of the computer screen. Examples include JAWS for Windows, NVDA, or Voiceover for Mac.

Screen magnification software

Screen Magnification software allows users to control the size of text and or graphics on the screen. Unlike using a zoom feature, these applications allow the user to have the ability to see the enlarged text in relation to the rest of the screen. This is done by emulating a handheld magnifier over the screen.

Text readers

People with various forms of learning disabilities that affect their ability to read text can use text readers.  This is a software that will read text in a synthesized voice and may include a highlighter to emphasize the word being spoken. These applications do not read things such as menus or types of elements - they only read the text.

Speech input software

Speech input software provides people with difficulty in typing an alternate way to type text and also control the computer. Users can give the system some limited commands to perform mouse actions. Users can tell the system to click a link or a button or use a menu item. Examples would be Dragon software for Windows or Mac. 

Alternative input devices

Some users may not be able to use a mouse or keyboard to work on a computer. They can use various forms of devices, such as:

  • A stick or object mounted directly on the user’s head that can be used to push keys on the keyboard. This device is used by individuals who have no use of their hands.

  • These devices watch a target the user holds or even the user's eyes to interpret where the user wants to place the mouse pointer. For example, scientists at the Imperial College of London have developed the GT3D, a device that looks and wears like a normal pair of sunglasses but registers the movement of the eyes to control the mouse cursor on a computer screen. The objective is to enable users with physically debilitating conditions such as muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries to use a computer, send emails, and search the Internet efficiently and comfortably. Another example is Tobii PCEye, which also provides the ability to position a mouse cursor anywhere on the screen by fixing your eyes on a specific screen location.

  • These kinds of devices can be used with other alternative input devices or by themselves. These are typically used with on-screen keyboards. The on-screen keyboard has a cursor move across the keys, and when the key the user wants is in focus, the user will click the switch. This can also work on a webpage: the cursor can move through the webpage, and if the user wants a to click on a link or button when that link or button is in focus, the user can activate the switch.

  • Another assistive device called the Sip-and-Puff, or Sip 'n' Puff enables people who are quadriplegics or have lost their mobility due to amputation, to control onscreen action simply by breathing. The technology includes a special wand that can be worn on the head or chin, which allows you to send signals to your keyboard using air pressure by "sipping" (inhaling) or "puffing" (exhaling) on the wand.

  • While most individuals associate joysticks with video games, it can also help physically-challenged people control their computers more effectively. The joystick can be attached to the desk of a person with movement disabilities to replace a mouse.

  • Trackballs are similar to computer mice, and help people move the cursor around the screen and click the screen when needed. Basic trackballs simply move your cursor as you move the ball. Advanced trackballs have programmable buttons which minimize hand movement by helping individuals with limited motor skills to scroll through web pages, double-click automatically, and perform other tasks.

  • Devices such as audio recorders, portable note takers, mp3 players, calculators, and Pentop computers can be used for reading (text-to-speech), writing (digitizing written words), and math (strategy feedback). Calculators can help students with learning disabilities to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical computations. Graphing calculators can provide additional support as they verify graph shapes and help solve algebraic equations. 


Research that is available in the area of assistive technology has discovered that “assistive technology can reduce students’ dependence on others to read, write, and organize their work” (MacArthur, Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001; Mull & Sitlington, 2003). When students with disabilities are provided with strategic, effective instruction, graphic organizers and concept mapping software for planning and expressing their thoughts, word processing, spell check, word prediction, text-to-speech, and speech recognition software, it can provide the support that students need and help remove obstacles in their learning. However, it is important to reiterate that, although assistive technology can support struggling learners, the technology itself has little impact on learning. In order for students to benefit from the technology, educators must understand what the assistive technology is and how to create instruction that is most conducive to its use. For this reason, we recommend always keeping assistive technologies in mind when creating your course content.  Our page, Creating Accessible Content, will provide resources to help you begin to make your course content ready for assistive technologies.