As a special education teacher, I have done the individualized education plans (IEP) for about 23 students, while also contributing present levels of academic and functional performance and academic goals for about 20 more. Every IEP has sections for “special factors” and “services.” A special education teacher and/or related service provider must indicate whether things such as behavior, communication, language, vision, or assistive technology plans are needed in order for a student to receive free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Assistive technology is great for so many students. However, this does not mean it is appropriate for all students.
The IEP calls for the team to consider assistive technology devices and services at each IEP meeting. The term “consider” is so loosely defined by law, than many educators, related service providers, and parents gloss over this part of the IEP and check the “no” box. While this is no an appropriate practice, it does highlight the idea that assistive technology may not be needed for many students with an IEP. Out of all of the students I have worked with over the last year, less than a handful of them have an actual need, while a few more are borderline cases.
How do you determine if a student NEEDS assistive technology or not? The law requires that IEP team members consider assistive technology to “maximize accessibility” for students with IEPs. With funding being a key component in procuring assistive technology devices and services, IEP team members are left to wonder what exactly “maximize accessibility” really means and what is truly appropriate for students. The answer comes in two parts. Part one: is assistive technology needed in order for the student to reach goals set in the zone of proximal development? Part two: does assistive technology meet standards of least restrictive environment (LRE) for academic and functional growth?
Part 1: Is Assistive Technology Needed to Reach Zone of Proximal Development
We do not need to turn students into the next Einstein in order to meet the definition of “maximize accessibility.” Rather, we need them to reach goals we have set that is within their zone of proximal development. High tech computer equipment or software may be great–let’s be honest, everyone wishes they had the technology of Star Trek or other science fiction shows to help them at their jobs–but that’s not always necessary to reach academic and functional life goals. In other words, IEP team members need to separate what would be nice to have versus what is essential for success in the classroom and community. If the assistive technology device or service is only needed to make life easier in the community, then that will probably be best left for consideration when the student is closer to transitioning out of public school. Remember, special education services exist so that students with disabilities get a free and appropriate public education; not a free and cool education.
Part 2: Does Assistive Technology Meet Standards of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for Academic and Functional Growth?
Many people feel that assistive technology can only help students. Yes, technology is designed to help; however, there is harm in over reliance on technology. Our goal is to help students and adults become as independent as possible; independent learners; independent workers; independent fathers, mothers, community members, etc. When we include assistive technology devices/services that “would be nice” versus “essential”, we create a mental or physical crutch that stunts growth.
Power wheelchairs are great and would be nice for everyone with limitations in lower limb mobility. However, it could become a dangerous crutch to someone who could get by just fine with the use of cane. Personal computers with advanced Speech-to-Text could be great for a student; but if it restricts the student’s brain development for written expression fluid reasoning, it could be damaging in the long run.
How do you know if assistive technology meets LRE standards? Data. Doing deep data dives into a student’s special education folder, as well as data collected from the current school year will give you a good indication of whether you need to do an AT assessment. The AT assessment will then give you more information on if certain AT devices and services will benefit a student and meet the LRE standards.
Conclusion and Questions
Assistive technology needs to be considered for all students above the passing mention educators tend to give it in a meeting. Careful examination of the following questions should considered: 1. Is AT needed to reach goals set in zone of proximal development? 2. Does AT meet standards of LRE? 3. Are the targeted tasks for AT needed to accomplish IEP goals? 4. Has UDL been implemented to help the problem? 5. Is AT needed for UDL to become successful?
A screener will be provided for use in the Tool Kit. More discussion on the use of AT in the classroom, as well as student buy-in, will given in future posts.