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Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology and Human Functions, Employing Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is a relatively new term used to describe devices and services that lessen or remove barriers faced by persons with disabilities. Although the term is contemporary, the use of assistive technology is not new. For centuries, individuals with disabilities have used a variety of assistive devices to help them overcome demands in the environment. For example, years ago individuals with a hearing loss realized that placing a horn to their ear amplified sounds and consequently created a primitive version of today's hearing aid. Unfortunately, until the 1970s it was up to individuals to find appropriate devices to help them ameliorate their disabilities. In 2002, with support from federal legislation, schools and businesses are required to help individuals with disabilities identify and use appropriate assistive technologies and services. The first piece of such legislation was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Pub. L. 99-506). This law prohibits discrimination of persons with disabilities in places of federal employment. Section 504 mandates that federal employees with disabilities must have the necessary accommodations to enable them to access databases, telecommunications systems, and other software programs, to contribute to work-related tasks, and to communicate with others in their system.

Subsequent to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Pub. L. 100-407), better known as the Tech Act, was passed into law. This piece of legislation provided financial assistance for states to plan and implement a consumer-responsive system of assistive-technology services for individuals of all ages with disabilities. The provisions of the Tech Act required states to identify existing assistive-technology services and ensure that persons with disabilities acquired access to assistive-technology services, including assessment, funding for devices, training, and technical assistance.

Following on the heels of the Tech Act was the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-336). This legislation is designed to prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities in four major areas: employment, public facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Many of these accommodations are made through the use of assistive technologies, such as modified workstations, ramps at the entrances to buildings, and telecommunications devices for persons who are deaf.

The Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA) Amendments of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-476) officially changed EHA to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). At this time, assistive technology was added to the list of special education services that must be included in a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA defines assistive-technology services as "any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device."

Under IDEA, assistive-technology services include:

  • the evaluation of the needs of a child identified with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child's customary environment;
  • purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive-technology devices;
  • 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 child or, where appropriate, the family of the child; and
  • training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education and rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of a child with an identified disability.

IDEA defined an assistive-technology device 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 the functional capabilities of children with disabilities."

The use of assistive-technology devices and services by students with disabilities is further supported in the amendments to IDEA (Pub. L. 105-17). The law mandates that, beginning in July 1998, assistive technology must be considered for all students eligible for special education services. Although the regulations do not elaborate on how assistive technology must be considered, the law states that the IEP team must be involved in the decision-making process. It further states that outside evaluators must be used when the IEP team lacks the expertise to conduct an evaluation and make an informed decision regarding assistive technology. In addition, it is the responsibility of the school system to secure funding for the device and to provide training to school personnel, family members, and the student as educationally appropriate.

Assistive Technology and Human Functions

As of 2001, thousands of different assistive technologies have been developed to provide a broad array of support to individuals with disabilities. These assistive technologies have been categorized into seven functional areas: (1) existence; (2) communication;(3) body support, protection, and positioning; (4) travel and mobility; (5) environmental interaction;(6) education and transition; and (7) sports, fitness, and recreation. Following is a short description of each of the seven functional areas, with examples of assistive-technology devices and services available to support individuals with disabilities.

Problems in the existence area are associated with the functions needed to sustain life, including eating, grooming, dressing, elimination, and hygiene. Some assistive technologies in this area are adapted utensils, dressing aids, adapted toilet seats, toilet training, and occupational therapy services.

Students with communication needs have difficulties associated with the functions needed to receive, internalize, and express information, and to interact socially, including oral and written expression and visual and auditory reception. Solutions may include hearing amplifiers, magnifiers, pointers, alternate computer input, augmentative communication devices and services, social skills training, and speech/language therapy services.

Body support, protection and positioning issues are associated with the functions needed to stabilize support or protect a portion of the body while sitting, standing, or reclining. Assistive technologies may include prone standers, furniture adaptations, support harnesses, stabilizers, head gear, and physical therapy services.

Travel and mobility needs are associated with the necessity to move horizontally or vertically, including crawling, walking, navigating, stair climbing, and transferring either laterally or vertically. Technologies to assist with travel and mobility include wheelchairs, scooters, hoists, cycles, walkers, crutches, and orientation-and mobility-training services.

Difficulties in environmental interaction are associated with the functions needed to perform activities across environments, including operating computer equipment and accessing facilities. Assistive-technology solutions may include the use of switches to control computers, remote-control devices, adapted appliances, ramps, automatic door openers, modified furniture, driving aids, and rehabilitation services.

Problems in education and transition are associated with the functions needed to participate in learning activities and to prepare for new school settings or postschool environments. Assistive technologies may include educational software, computer adaptations, community-based instruction, and services from an assistive technologist.

Persons needing assistive technology for sports, fitness, and recreation require assistance with individual or group sports, play, and hobbies and craft activities. Those individuals may benefit from modified rules and equipment, adapted aquatics, switch-activated cameras, and braille playing cards, and may participate in adapted physical education services.

Employing Assistive Technology

Federal law mandates that assistive technology must be considered for all individuals served under IDEA. When assistive technologies are being considered, it is important to remember that the consideration must be based on the needs of the individual rather than on the type of disability. Factors of human function must guide any decision as to the appropriateness of assistive technology. Every individual with a disability faces a unique set of challenges and demands, and the successful use of assistive technology means that these challenges and demands can be lessened or removed. The power and promise of assistive technology can be realized only when the needs of a person with a disability are identified and the assistive technology is designed to meet those needs. If this is not done, the potential power of assistive technology will not be realized.


ALLIANCE FOR TECHNOLOGY ACCESS. 2000. Computers and Web Resources for Persons with Disabilities: A Guide to Exploring Today's Assistive Technology, 3rd edition. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.

BLACKHURST, A. EDWARD, and LAHM, ELIZABETH A. 2000. "Technology and Exceptional Foundations." In Technology and Exceptional Individuals, ed. Jimmy D. Lindsey. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

CHAMBERS, ANTOINETTE C. 1997. Has Technology Been Considered? A Guide for IEP Teams. Reston, VA: Council of Administrators of Special Education and the Technology and Media Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.

COOK, ALBERT M., and HUSSEY, SUSAN M. 1995. Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

FLIPPO, KAREN F.; INGE, KATHERINE J.; and BARCUS, J. MICHAEL, eds. 1995. Assistive Technology: A Resource for School, Work, and Community. Baltimore: Brookes.

GALVIN, JAN C., and SCHERER, MARCIA J. 1996. Evaluating, Selecting and Using Appropriate Assistive Technology. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.

GOLDEN, DIANE. 1998. Assistive Technology in Special Education: Policy and Practice. Reston, VA: Council of Administrators of Special Education and the Technology and Media Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. U.S. Public Law 105-17. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1400 et seq.


NATIONAL ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH INSTITUTE. 2001. "Assistive Technology Fundamentals." <http://natri.uky.edu>.



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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)