Using assistive technology in schools
Find out about how assistive technologies are shaping and supporting learning experiences for students of all abilities in the classroom.
29 October 2021
School can be a tough time for some children, especially those with learning differences. Reading can be a struggle for children with dyslexia, and even sitting still and listening can be a challenge for some students.
Fortunately, there’s help for those children who might need it, in the form of assistive technology (AT) in schools. And with developments in tech growing daily, it’s easier to use than ever before. In fact, you’re likely to be using elements of AT already as it’s built into many smart phones and tablets.
What is assistive technology?
Assistive technology (AT) is used to describe software, devices or equipment that helps people work around whatever learning challenges they face. AT is carefully designed to help with many types of disability or learning differences, such as dyslexia, autism and physical disabilities.
Benefits of assistive technology in schools
Assistive technology in the classroom is often very hands-on, and has an element of play involved, making it really engaging for the child, and helping them to build their confidence and strengthen their skills.
Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can affect a child or young person’s ability to learn. They can affect their ability to socialise, listen or concentrate; or they could struggle with more academic things like reading, writing or maths. Some children with physical disabilities can also find it tricky to keep up with their classmates.
When assistive technology is introduced into the classroom it can help children with additional needs feel included in lessons, and help them get the most of out what they’re studying. As AT can also be used by mainstream students, it can help create a more inclusive learning environment when used by all students in the classroom.
Examples of assistive technology in the classroom
There are different levels of AT, from low tech such as highlighter pens, and pencils grips, to mid tech which includes calculators and audio books, up to high tech examples that include text to speech software, and adaptive computers.
Assistive technology can help students take control of their learning, and gain independence in their education. All students differ, so finding the assistive technology that’s right for them is essential.
Here are a few examples of assistive technology you might find in the classroom:
Standard computer keyboards are designed to be used with two hands and have a number pad on the right-hand side, which naturally favours right-handed people. Alternatives to standard keyboards include:
- Ergonomic keyboards: specially designed to help users with a better position for their hands and wrists, they vary in style and design depending on the user’s needs.
- Compact keyboards: these smaller keyboards can be really helpful for people who can’t use both hands to type or for people who need to keep equipment on their desk in close proximity to avoid over reaching. Compact keyboards often come with separate number pads, or ones that pull out from the keyboard when needed.
- Keyboards with larger keys: these make it easier for the user to see the characters on the keys, and have a larger surface space for those with dexterity issues.
- High visibility keyboards: high-contrast colours make the keys easier to locate. There are many different colour combinations with either the keys or the letters as the stand-out colour. You can convert a standard keyboard to a high visibility keyboard by placing special high contrast stickers over the existing keys.
- Specialist keyboards: there are a variety of specialist keyboards available for students too, including those for people with visual or motor challenges. These include braille keyboards, keyboards that have head or stick controls for those who have no use of their hands, and keyboards with key-guards to help prevent accidental key-pressing.
To find out more about different types of keyboards take a look at the list compiled by AbilityNet.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools, help people who have difficulty speaking or understanding what’s being said to communicate more effectively. Using AAC tools to open up a conversation can help prevent the frustration that can occur when trying to make your voice heard.
Watch this BBC Ideas video from the Rethinking disability playlist, to learn how AAC tools can be used.
Types of AAC include:
- Speech Generating Devices: these turn typed message into the spoken voice and vice versa. Students who find writing or typing a struggle can use them to get their words written down.
- Speech synthesisers and screen readers: helpful for students who are visually impaired. These software programs display text and read aloud to the student, highlighting each sentence as it progresses. This can improve visual tracking as well.
- Voice output communication aids (VOCAs): these come in a variety of styles and complexities to help people of varying ages and ability with verbal communication by giving them a way of getting their message across easily. They usually use symbols and/or graphics on a screen which, depending on the complexity, can be combined with other images on the device to create sentences and responses to questions. You can find out more about the different types of VOCAs at Communication Matters.
- Screen readers: these are mostly used by those who are blind or have very limited vision. The technology reads out loud what’s on the screen. Users can adapt their screen reader to their needs, for example you can decrease the speed of speech, or change the language. Screen readers allow people to navigate through websites and applications via the speech output. Most modern computers, tablets and smartphones come with a screen reader function built in, and some screen readers can also be used with a Braille display. AbilityNet have more information about screen readers here.
- Text-to-speech tools: these turn the written word into the spoken word. It can be really helpful for students with dyslexia, for example, with reading assignments that may have been set. Audio books are a basic example of text-to-speech technology. There’s lots of text-to-speech software you can download for use at home too. Find out more from AbilityNet.
- Assistive listening devices: help students with hearing impairments. For children with hearing aids, or cochlear implants, there is AT to help them to hear more clearly in the classroom. Schools may have inductions loops, or wireless radio aid systems with the user wearing a small, discreet receiver while a transmitter with a microphone is worn by the person speaking.
Students might also be allowed to use personal listening devices too, they’re usually small pieces of tech about the size of a smart phone, which can amplify sounds directly into the users’ ears, usually via hearing aids, neckloops or headphones. AbilityNet have covered tools that can help people with hearing loss here.
Other types of AT in the classroom
Some other examples of assistive technology that might be found in the classroom can be useful for all students, creating an inclusive learning environment, they can include the use of:
- Visual Timers: many children, and adults, have problems with pacing, using a timer clearly displayed in the classroom, can help all students. By knowing how long a certain task has left remaining can help prepare all students to finish up, or get ready to start the next lesson.
- Interactive whiteboards: many schools now use interactive whiteboards in classrooms, making it easier for all children in the classroom able to see. They’re like a giant interactive tablet device that the teacher can display each lesson on. Images and text are digitised which makes it clearer and easier to use. Interactive whiteboards use screen sharing technology which links to the teacher’s computer, but if any student in the class requires it, the lesson can also be shared directly to their device such as a tablet which can be adapted to their needs.
- Virtual Reality (VR) headsets: often found in the world of gaming, VR headsets can be used in the classroom to help children who might not be able to focus, or get distracted easily. By using VR for lessons such as geography, students can focus on the images on the screen and immerse themselves in the learning. It can also be lots of fun too.
Gaining funding for assistive technologies in schools
Assistive technology is already built into some digital devices, but depending on your child, they might have more complex needs to help support their learning. Some assistive technology can be quite pricy, and you and the teachers in your child’s school might need to learn how to use it to make sure they get the most out of their AT.
The first thing to do if you think your child may have special educational needs (SEN), is to contact the SEN co-ordinator (SENCO) in your child’s school or nursery. If your child isn’t in school or nursery, you can contact your local council. If you’re not sure where to look, try this council finder tool.
The SEN team will work with you to establish what support you might benefit from.
You can also find out more about SEN from your Information, Advice and Support (IAS) Service.
To find out what support might be available for your family, and whether your child could be eligible for funding take a look at Disability Grants for helpful advice.
Assistive technology can make a huge difference in the classroom to both children with additional needs, and those without, helping all children realise their potential and create an inclusive learning experience.
If you’d like to find out more about accessibility, and how to make your devices mores user friendly, check out this article in Digital Wings.
Want to learn more? Register for Digital Wings