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How to pick the right assistive technology tools to support special education students

This guide will help to evaluate and select the best assistive technology for your special education students.

Assistive technology in education

Assistive technology (AT) is available to help students with many types of disabilities — from cognitive problems to physical impairment. With the right tools, our special education students can thrive and achieve alongside their peers.

In this section:

Picking AT for students in special education

Universal Design for Learning for special education students

How do you pick the appropriate assistive technology for students with disabilities?

View technology from a learner-first perspective

It’s important to put the learner at the centre of the evaluation.

Before we begin, think about who the students are, what they’re learning, and how they learn best. Every student learns differently and no one tool will support each student in the same way. Putting the learner first means we’ll be better placed to deliver a more personalised learning experience as well as placing the right tools into the hands of the right learners.

Evaluate the tools you currently have

The next step on the journey to selecting the right technology for our students in special education is to take a look at what's already available.

Remember to keep the learner and their goals in mind while doing this. Don’t just think about out of the box assistive technology here, learning tools are anything that can assist our learners in their education journey. Think about the format of lessons here too, is video an option? What about on screen information, instead of paper copies? Alternative formats for information and classroom activities are just as important as personalised assistive technology. To evaluate the tools currently available to learners, firstly make a list of any tool we currently have access to. Once we have a list of these tools, we can start to brainstorm ways that they could be used to help your special education students. And, don’t do this alone, get a group of colleagues together. Everyone can benefit here.

While we're assessing the tools, it's important to remember to keep our students front of mind. Refer back to the descriptions of our students we completed at the beginning, by answering the three questions. Do these tools allow us to deliver our lessons in a way that our students can easily understand?

Are there any gaps?

Once we’ve examined all of our current tools and technology, and checked them off against our special education students’ needs, we’ll have a clear picture of what’s missing.

For example, if we’ve been looking at ways to improve learners’ understanding of topic areas but we have no way to deliver instructions in alternative formats, we might look to tools that would either record our voice and attach it to a document, or look at text-to-speech technology.

Find tools that work together and compliment what we already have

Now, we need to collect all of our tools together into a toolkit.

A collection of tools and resources to help our special education students. Check the toolkit off against the needs of our students, which we identified at the beginning of this process to make sure they’re the best fit for their needs. It might be helpful to map these tools out against each student’s specific needs so that we can equip them with their own personalised toolkit for learning. Having the entire toolkit available to every student in the class however, means that even the highest performing students can dip in and out of the tools, if they need to.

Design learning with assistive technology in mind

The final step on our list is to start designing our lessons and curriculum with our toolkit and special education students’ requirements in mind.

Start by thinking about the format of our classroom activities and the instructions that go alongside them. Could we provide instructions in multiple formats? Written, and oral for example? And what about scaffolding? Can we provide a list of terms and their meanings ahead of presenting new topics, for students to understand before time what new words and language mean?

What are the benefits of Universal Design for Learning for special education students?

While choosing specific tools for specific learning needs is great, another way to adapt our classrooms to our special education students is to consider the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.

According to CAST, the Universal Design for learning framework is designed to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.

The UDL guidelines and framework provide the opportunity for all students to access, participate in, and progress in the general-education curriculum by reducing the barriers to learning.

To learn more about how to incorporate the UDL framework into your classroom, visit our dedicated UDL page.

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