It is never too early to consider assistive technology for your child with special needs. It not only allows them to increase their independence but also closes the gap between students who have a disability and those who don't.
"If you believe a child can participate, chances are they can," says Kari Becker, an educational consultant and the director of Classroom Connections in Bannockburn.
Although assistive technology was once thought to be reserved only for the severely disabled, dramatic changes over the last 20 years have yielded more than 35,000 different accommodations that can help with all types of special needs.
Sometimes an accommodation can be as simple as using an existing program, such as spell check, and giving it to a child who can write at grade level but struggles with spelling difficulties. Or assistive technology can involve software that allows a student with physical disabilities to participate in a science experiment through a computer simulation program, such as mixing chemicals through the click of a mouse.
"It is best when doing an evaluation to start with the task students are struggling with and then to figure out what accommodations are available," says Karolyn Berkiel, director of assistive technology for the North Suburban Special Education District in Northbrook.
Although parents may be eager to try a particular kind of technology, the evaluation should be comprehensive and take a problem-solving approach that focuses on students' needs, strengths and weaknesses.
Lower tech accommodations are usually considered first since they are often easier to implement and more user friendly, Berkiel says. For example, if a student has trouble with the motor aspect of writing, different pencil grips would be tried before voice recognition software.
Whether the accommodation is highly sophisticated or homemade, schools are required to consider all types of assistive technology at every student's IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) meeting.
Once the accommodation is in place, data is collected to document how the technology improves a student's function. Then if a particular accommodation works, use of that technology is put into the child's IEP. The plan should specify whether a particular item is available for home use. Usually if it is necessary to use the accommodation to complete homework, the item is also made available to be brought home. Schools and parents can also rent the equipment, if needed.
The student's plan should also outline the parameters within which a specific accommodation is used and include who is responsible for overseeing its usage.
"Both the regular education teachers and the special education teachers are responsible for not only learning how to use the technology but also for making sure it gets used," Becker says.
This is because when the student, parents and educational team collaborate to determine how the technology is accessed in the regular education environment, students are more likely to succeed with inclusion. It is especially important that assistive technology succeed outside of the special education classroom because of mandates requiring students with special needs be placed in the least restrictive environment.
"Having students participate in the selection process is also very important since students will only use the technology if they like it," Berkiel says. This also helps the student take ownership of the accommodation and understand what works and why.
Marla Davishoff is a licensed clinical social worker, freelance writer and mom living in Deerfield.