by Amy G. Dell

The possibilities of assistive technology are spectacular. With each successive improvement in the technology, TECH-NJ readers are among those who immediately see the implications, who envision a world in which people with disabilities have the tools to do whatever it is they wish to do, and who dream of a day when all people with disabilities will have access to these tools.

But access to assistive technology is tricky. One of the most humbling lessons of the computer revolution has been the realization that getting assistive technology to the people who need it is often a formidable task. To surmount this very real obstacle, people with disabilities, their advocates, and professionals in a variety of fields need to become aware of the laws which relate to assistive technology and the procedures to follow if ones goal is to gain access to appropriate technology tools.

IDEA for School-Aged Children

For children and youth who are school-age and receive special education services (ages three to 21), the place to start is the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the section that delineates the requirements for determining an "appropriate education" for a student (Section 614(D)), IDEA notes that assistive technology must be considered. The law does not say that assistive technology must be provided for every student, but it unambiguously states that a team must consider for all students whether assistive technology devices and services are appropriate. If it is included in a student's IEP, then it is the school district's responsibility to provide both assistive technology devices (e.g., hardware, software, augmentative communication devices) and assistive technology services (see definition in box on page 10).

The inclusion of assistive technology services is extremely important because it reminds everyone involved that simply purchasing the latest gadget is not enough. For assistive technology to be effective, students must receive training in how to use the technology itself and how to integrate it into their schoolwork; teachers, other school personnel and parents may need to be similarly trained; technical support and repairs must be provided in a timely manner; and the technology may need to be customized and changed over time. IDEA provides the legal basis for acquiring these services.

The inclusion of assistive technology services is extremely important because it reminds everyone involved that simply purchasing the latest gadget is not enough.

Parents and advocates need to approach assistive technology needs in the same way they handle their child's other educational needs - namely, they need to get it identified and included in their child's IEP. If specific assistive technology tools need to be determined, then the IEP should specify that the school district will arrange for an evaluation to be conducted by a qualified person. The IEP should list all the assistive technology devices and services that the district will provide. Parents who believe their child's assistive technology needs are not being met may request mediation.

For College Students with Disabilities

College students with disabilities no longer fall under the purview of IDEA. The legal rights which protect them relate to "nondiscrimination" and "equal access." Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, colleges and universities may not discriminate on the basis of disability. They must have procedures in place which provide people with disabilities with "reasonable accommodations" which provide equal access to the college's facilities and programs. Assistive technology may represent a reasonable accommodation, but since there is no clear definition of the term "reasonable accommodation," different colleges may interpret the term differently.

It is essential that college students with disabilities follow the procedures that are in place at their respective institution. The first step is to contact the designated office on campus; often this is called something like "Disability Support Services," but some colleges assign this responsibility to the dean of student life or to an academic dean. After contact is made, students will usually be asked to provide appropriate documentation of their disability. The specific nature of the documentation is specified by each college, but the required documentation will probably follow guidelines published by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD; available on Any costs incurred in acquiring this documentation are the responsibility of the student.

Once a student's disability is established, the student is considered eligible for support services and can submit a request for accommodations. Typical low-tech accommodations include extended time for taking tests, assistance with note-taking, and scheduling of class meeting rooms. Examples of assistive technology serving as reasonable accommodations include installing screen magnification software on a campus computer for a student who has visual impairments, installing screen reading software for a student who is blind, installing a scan/read system such as the Kurzweil 3000 for a student who has learning disabilities, and providing an assistive listening system in classrooms for a student who is hard of hearing. These applications of assistive technology may also be needed in test-taking settings.

Becoming well-informed is a critical first step for anyone interested in gaining access to assistive technology. The website is a good place to start.

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