Assistive Technology & Augmentative and Alternative Communication

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Last Updated: 2 February 2022

Table of Contents

Introduction

Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team consider whether the student requires assistive technology (AT) and services (20 U.S.C. Section 1414[d] [3] [B] [v]). The team must consider whether assistive technology is required for the student to benefit from a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). If AT is deemed necessary, the team also needs to determine the type of device(s) and/or service(s) required to derive educational benefit from the instruction provided.

Overview

The term, “assistive technology” encompasses a vast array of devices and services that may assist persons with disabilities to participate more fully and successfully in their education and in life. Included under the category of assistive technology are equipment and instructional strategies needed by students to successfully perform a variety of educationally-related tasks (i.e., spoken and written communication, computer access, reading, mobility, learning, listening, seeing, working). Assistive technology can be used to address a student’s sensory, motor, cognitive, language, or social needs.

Assistive technology equipment may range from simple accommodations (i.e., seat position, visuals, auditory reminders) to highly sophisticated aids (i.e., computer programs, tech writing tools). These applications are often referred to as ranging from “no tech”, to “low tech”, to “high tech” (specifics can be found under the resources guide). Materials like pencil grips, slant boards, or picture schedules can be considered “no tech” solutions. “Low tech” solutions might include talking calculators, an alternate keyboard, or a screen magnifier. “High tech” solutions would include items like augmentative communication devices, a Braille keyboard, or voice recognition software.

Assistive technology services may range from short-term instruction (i.e., teaching a student to use a tape recorder for dictation) to the long-term and intensive instruction necessary for many augmentative communication interventions that can be used throughout the students lifetime if required.

Definitions & Legal Requirements

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides the following mandates and definitions for implementing assistive technology for students identified as having a disability and requiring special education supports and services.

Definition of Assistive Technology

Each public agency shall ensure that assistive technology devices or assistive technology services, or both, as those terms are defined in IDEA §300.5-330.6, are made available to a student with a disability if required as part of the student’s:

  • special education under IDEA §300.17
  • related services, or
  • supplementary aid and services

[IDEA §300.308]

Definition of Assistive Technology Device

The term “assistive technology device” is defined as any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of students with disabilities.
[IDEA §300.5]

While “Assistive Technology” is the umbrella term for technology used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities, the term “Augmentative and Alternative Communication” (AAC) is used within El Dorado SELPAs to distinguish technology specifically designed to support communication.

Definition of Assistive Technology Service

The term “assistive technology service” means any service that directly assists a student with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device. An Assistive Technology Service may include:  

  • The evaluation of the needs of a student with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the student in the student’s customary environment;
  • Purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices for students with disabilities;
  • Selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing of assistive technology devices;
  • Coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;
  • Training or technical assistance for a student with a disability or, if appropriate, that student’s family; and,
  • Training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education or rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of a student with disabilities.

[IDEA §300.6]

Augmentative and Alternative Communication Assessment, and/or Service?

When does the student require AAC educationally?

A student may require AAC to:
  • Access the curriculum and gain academic skills: Students with communication deficits are at high risk of falling behind academically. AAC may be needed to assist a student with disabilities who is nonverbal or has limited communication skills to access the curriculum, or learn academic content and skills such as vocabulary, grammar, conversation or public speaking.
  • Learn with non-disabled peers: AAC may be needed to allow a student with disabilities who is nonverbal or has limited communication skills to participate fully in a regular education classroom, in extracurricular activities with non-disabled peers, and in community-based learning opportunities for transition-age students.
  • Address behavior challenges: It is not unusual for students with disabilities who have communication deficits to express themselves (including their frustration at being unable to communicate effectively) in a physical manner that may be perceived as challenging behavior. AAC may be needed to offer students an alternative – and socially acceptable- means of expression, to reduce or replace inappropriate behaviors and allow the student to be more available for learning.
  • Participate in all aspects of the education program: AAC may be needed so that a student with disabilities who is nonverbal or has limited communication skills has the opportunity to communicate and interact with other persons (including teachers, aides, administrative staff, students and others involved in a student’s learning) in all aspects of the student’s education (including all learning environments) to the fullest extent possible.

Who can conduct an assistive technology assessment, and/or service?

A multi-disciplinary team, including:

  • A person knowledgeable about the student. Input on the assessment can come from the student, parents, family members, and academic team etc.  
  • A person knowledgeable in the area of curriculum, usually a Special Education Teacher. 
  • A person knowledgeable in the area of language, usually a Speech/Language Pathologist. 
  • A person knowledgeable in the area of motor development, often an Occupational or Physical Therapist. 
  • A person who can commit the LEA’s resources, not only for purchase of devices, but to authorize staff training and guarantee implementation in various educational settings, usually an administrator.
Assessment Areas Responsible Personnel Examples

Academic Performance

Special Education Teacher

Reading Specialist

General Education Teacher

Teacher on Special Assignment

Language Function

Speech and Language Pathologist

AT/AAC Specialist

Motor Abilities

Occupational Therapist

Physical Therapist

Tiered Levels of Assistive Technology for Supporting in the LRE

Tier 1: Universal Supports of AT

  1. At this level of service students have not been identified as requiring assistive technology. Consultation is focused on:
    1. Increasing the general knowledge base of teachers on how to use the materials within the classroom and school site to enhance access to learning for all students.
    2. In-servicing teachers on universal design for learning principles and how they can be applied to their instructional program by using multiple means of presenting information to students, allowing for multiple means of expression by the students, and providing multiple means of engagement for the students.
    3. Providing ideas for setting up the physical arrangement of the classroom for student success.

Tier 2: Strategic/Supplemental Supports

  1. Collaboration between the AT professional and school staff will occur to determine appropriate strategies and/or assistive technology devices within the school environment to address the specific needs/learning modes of all students and to screen students for possible assistive technology needs.
  2. In addition, the AT professional can provide information on how and where to acquire additional strategies and/or materials to make curriculum accessible and to provide professional development for school site teams in the area of assistive technology for specific curriculum areas.
  3. AT Screenings can occur at this level of support (refer to your school’s policy regarding whether obtaining permission and consent from parents before conducting a screening is required).  

Tier 3: Intensive/Individual Supports

*It is recommended that any intensive and individuals support considerations are discussed and agreed upon by the SST or IEP team members. 

  1. AT professional can provide professional development activities to enable appropriate assistive technology devices and customize their features to assist students in accessing the curriculum.
  2. Strategies and/or equipment will be put in place for a trial period and linked to a specific curriculum goal (i.e. Student will use text-to-speech word processing to produce a 3-5 paragraph essay with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, 4 out of 5 trials).
  3. If the trial with available strategies and/or equipment is successful, student should continue to utilize them for as long as necessary to accomplish curriculum goals.
  4. When the use of this technology is not successful, school sites should consider referring the student for special education assessment. It is recommended that interventions and their outcomes be documented for a reasonable period of time.

Roles of the AT Professional

The AT professional can provide some or all of the following supports related to AT:

  • Provide assistive technology strategies, tools and supports that can assist all students in accessing their curriculum;
  • Collaboration with school staff and parents;
  • AT Screening;
  • AT Assessment (with a signed assessment plan);
  • Training on the use of specific AT devices;
  • AT Services.

Implementation of AT in the Individual Education Program

The need for assistive technology must be considered at every student’s IEP meeting. Assistive technology must be individualized to each student based on their abilities, needs, and current performance. The IEP team must consider whether assistive technology is necessary for the student to:

  • Achieve his/her goals and objectives;
  • Gain meaningful benefit from their education; or
  • Make reasonable progress in the least restrictive environment.

The following three components are considered essential in effectively planning and implementing a program that includes assistive technology applications:

  • Team. Applications of assistive technology take the time and effort of a knowledgeable team. This team should include the family, student (as appropriate), site administrators, general and special education teacher(s), related service providers and any other support staff involved in the decision-making process. Assistive technology may require the execution of many tasks and It is important to designate tasks and share the responsibility for monitoring success.
  • Process. It is necessary to use a process approach to planning, problem-solving, and implementation. The application of assistive technology is not an event, but a process that can take months to execute.
  • Time. The team also needs time to work together to implement the process and to evaluate the outcome.

Documentation of Assistive Technology in the IEP

AT/AAC Integration into the IEP

IEP Components and sections of the IEP where AT/AAC might/can be documented:

  • Present Levels;
  • Special Factors;
  • Behavior Intervention Plans;
  • Goals;
  • Supplemental Supports and Services;
  • Activities to support transition.


In the development of the IEP document, the IEP team is required to consider special factors (IEP Form: Special Factors). As part of this documentation, the IEP team must answer the question, “Does the student require assistive technology devices and/or services?” If yes, the team should specify the type of devices, services, equipment, and/or materials needed. Further description or more information may be documented into any of the other required components of the IEP (i.e. Present Levels of Performance; Annual Goals; Special Education Services; Related Services; Supplementary Aids and Services; Program Modifications or Support for School Personnel; Transition Services).

In addition to documenting that assistive technology devices and services are necessary for the student to progress in the general education curriculum, additional information regarding the specialized and unique needs of the student may be incorporated as follows:

  • For students who are currently using specific equipment required for participation in all learning environments, separate to those required of the general education population (such as an augmentative alternative communication device or an assistive listening device), the Special Factors page (of the IEP) could include information that this technology is necessary for the student to access a free, appropriate education.
  • If it is determined by the IEP team specific AT or AAC accommodations are required within the student’s IEP or in order to obtain the students FAPE,  a goal should be developed to document and measure outcomes.
  • If specific AT strategies or AAC devices are required within the IEP to implement any of the IEP goals or objectives or to allow the student to participate in the regular classroom setting(s), specifying the strategy/materials/equipment as a supplementary aid, service or as a program modification is logical. For example, “note taking assistance” may be listed as either a supplementary aid, service or program modification.


In addition, IEP teams need to determine whether to describe in general the equipment or material needed or to specify a particular product or brand name (i.e. an alternative keyboard, versus an Intellikeys keyboard).  These decisions are based on whether a particular device or piece of equipment is being recommended because it represents the “best fit” for what the student needs. 
Specific equipment can be documented in the "supplementary aids and services" section of the Services Page. Additionally, if the equipment needs to be compatible with other equipment in the school environment, it might be important to be specific and noted within in the IEP or at the least in the notes section of the IEP. Otherwise, describing in general what is needed allows the IEP team more flexibility in upgrading or trying other equipment as needed without reconvening the IEP team. Furthermore, professional training for higher tech devices may be necessary. Training length and time needs to be determined by the team then, indicated specifically on the services page under "staff support" in the Supplementary Aids section.   

Components of Performance Goals/Objectives

  • Given what: conditions, describe the “given’s” that will need to be in place for the goal or objective to be completed;
  • How much: a specific observable behavior is described detailing what the student will do to meet the goal:
    • Mastery: describes the performance accuracy of the behavior needed for the goal and objective/benchmark to be considered attainable (the student should be reasonably able to attain the goal within the time-bound period of the goal (e.g. annually));
    • Criteria: describes how many times the behavior must be observed for the goal/objective/benchmark to be considered completed;
  • How it will be measured: Describes performance data.

Service Delivery Options (within an IEP)

  • Consultation: This service is provided indirectly to the student and consists of regular review of student progress, student observation, accommodations and modifications for core material, developing and modeling of instructional practices through communication between the general education teacher, the special education teacher, parent and/or related service provider. This may be documented on the "supplementary aids and services" section of the Services page of the IEP. 
  • Collaboration: This service is provided indirectly to the student by which general education teachers, special education teachers and/or related service providers work together to teach students with and without disabilities in the classroom. Specific frequencies and durations of this service are agreed upon by the IEP team and can be documented in the "supplementary aids and services" section of the Services page of the IEP. 
  • Direct Service: 
    • As student abilities and curriculum demands change, students and the school site staff who work with them may require occasional one-on-one instruction and support. This may be specified in the IEP with the amount of time required in the services section. 
    • Students who have been assigned their own devices, require monitoring to make sure their equipment is in working order and continues to meet their needs throughout their school career.
    • School site staff may also need training in how to use and integrate the equipment into the instructional program.

Considerations for the Discontinuation of Services

*It is ultimately the IEP teams decision regarding the exiting of services given the entire student’s profile, however the team can make the following recommendations moving forward to help assist in their decision:
  • The student’s disability no longer negatively affects his or her educational performance in the special education or general education program.
  • The student is able to access the curriculum successfully without the use of assistive technology.
  • The student consistently demonstrates behaviors that are not conducive to service provision, such as a lack of cooperation, motivation, or chronic absenteeism. In these circumstances the IEP team should consider alternate services or strategies to remedy interfering behavior or conditions.
  • The student’s needs will be better served by an alternative program and/or service, as determined by the IEP team.
  • The student graduates from high school.
  • The student reaches the age of 22 years. 

*If the decision is made to exit services, an assessment plan must be signed and reports must indicate the need for AT/AAC or no longer required, educationally. The IEP team ultimately decides on the exiting of services.

References

  1. Assistive Technology: A Guide for Macomb County Schools, Macomb Intermediate School District (1997).
  2. Assistive Technology and Low Incidence Handbook, Placer County Special Education Local Plan Area (2010).
  3. Assistive Technology in Education: A Guide for the Delivery of Assistive Technology Services for Students with Disabilities. Assistive Technology Partnership (2008).
  4. Special Education Procedural and Resource Handbook, San Joaquin Special Education Local Plan Area (2008). Special Education Alternative Curriculum Guide, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (2005).
  5. Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative. (2009). Assessing Students’ Needs for Assistive Technology: A Resource Manual for School District Teams (5th ed.). Milton, WI: Gierach, Jill (Ed.).
  6. Rose, David H. and Meyer, Ann; (2002), Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age. Association for Supervision and Curriculum REF-4984.1
  7. Implementing a Multi-Tiered Framework for Instruction, Intervention and Support dated March 19, 2010, issued by Los Angeles Unified School District Office of Curriculum, Instruction and School Support
  8. Los Angeles Unified School District, Division of Special Education, 2007, Special Education Policies and Procedures Manual. Los Angeles CA: Los Angeles Unified School District, Appendix A; pp. 143-155.
  9. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, https://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/2018-3ta.html (2018). 
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