Assistive Technology

Fassistive-techrom shoelaces to cybernetics: the world of assistive and alternative technology for children.

Assistive technology (AT) is a term that can be applied to anything, whether it is a high-tech device or an everyday item used in a particular way, that enables someone with a disability to access and participate more fully, help them to do more, in aspects of life (as in home, school, community).

A search for something to assist a child will probably turn up some closely related fields as well:

  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), which includes not only devices such as picture and symbol cards and boards but also, in its widest definition, sign languages that assist or replace expression and speech; Telecare, Telemedicine or Telehealth, involving technology to provide assistance and services remotely (e.g.;
  • Wearable Technology, which monitors (probably best known for its use in sports training) and/or regulates or treats, often based on electronic sensors;
  • and an up-and-coming concept of “Welfare Technology”, which aims to improve quality of life and/or treatment procedures using techniques such as robotics or software. (Two projects that illustrate what Welfare Technology is are at the University of Southern Denmark and at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh)

So how to decide whether to search out or invent an item of AT and alight on what is needed for a child? Communication is one of the first and most important skills an infant needs to start practising, so those needing extra help to communicate may well be introduced to sign languages and other AAC mechanisms by parents and speech therapists, before they reach school age, alongside therapeutic and educational communication techniques.

Many ideas that come naturally in caring for a child and teaching them skills, at home and elsewhere, could come under the heading of “AT” without having the label on them. An occupational therapist might also be involved in making recommendations for an assistive device.

Once at school, anything that is used especially to minimise extra challenges so that a child is able to do what others are doing in the classroom (e.g. an AAC device, a computer / software / special keyboard, or even a special pen or a chart serving as a memory aid) could be categorised as AT.

Potentially it goes beyond the obvious areas of mobility, self-care, communication, vision and hearing, reading, writing and arithmetic to things like aids to completing tasks, thinking / cognitive processing, organising, interacting or concentrating. The teachers, school SENCO, therapists, local authority schools advisors, and the local Communication Aids Service could potentially lend their expertise to it. Other approaches may have been tried, before exploring more formal ways of introducing extra help. The child may have a plan set up that includes educational goals, like an IEP (Individual Education Plan), Statement of SEN, Education Health and Care Plan or Record of Needs, which would bring in some necessary liaison with parents about what the child needs to be able to do at home and at school, and what approaches are taken to that.

A plan also provides a mechanism for regularly reviewing how the AT is functioning as a help to the child and whether something else needs to be considered as time goes on. Specifics within the plan and the reviewing mechanism could include the solutions to questions like; what do they need to be able to do (or do more easily)? What are the criteria for deciding whether the identified need is being met? How is the device being tried, where (e.g. at home as well) and how long for? What follow-up is there, e.g. how is it determined whether the technology is / is not contributing to meeting the need? (e.g. samples of school work, observations, progress reports). If it doesn’t appear to be effective, why might this be? What would the next step be? (e.g. further advice).

Depending on the circumstances, local authority or health services may fund assessment and equipment. If a family is thinking of buying an item privately or is otherwise able to source it, for example from a grant-making trust, one of the factors to think about is, would this be used in the classroom as well as at home? Sometimes there are reasons why a school might not want to use an item, but it could be expected that a child could make best use of AAC and AT if it is fully integrated into life.

In terms of children’s rights, a local authority assessment should take into account a need for assistive technology (cfCerebra’s Disabled Children Parents’ Guide: Social Care, Housing and Health). Arguably, it would be desirable for AT to be considered in a knowledgeable and creative way for any child with additional needs.

Devices designed for school tend to have a different emphasis and to be supplied by different companies from home devices, but the technology spans both environments. In turn, suppliers of home technology also tend to be concerned with supplying for home adaptations, e.g. under Disabled Facilities Grants or to social services / community equipment departments.

One way of seeing what is available and trying things out is to go to exhibitions. Suppliers in the UK market attend the big exhibitions such as Naidex, (this year at NEC Birmingham, 29 April – 1 May), and Kidz, (Disabled Living, next event coming up in June). Assistive technology also features in more general education exhibitions geared to teachers, but open to all, such as NASEN Live, (next event at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, 21-22 May), and the TES special educational needs show held annually at the Business Design Centre in London.

At many of these, children (and, I suspect, parents) can have a good day trying everything out. If it is not practicable to visit, the exhibitions’ websites can still serve as starting points to look at the websites of the exhibiting suppliers that they list, where there is sometimes a treasure trove of information.


Companies like Inclusive Technology, supply schools with accessories and software to help children with additional needs to access learning.

A communication aid service is available in each area of the UK, listed by Communication Matters. They also have lists ofother AAC resources.

The Family Center on Technology and Disability provides a substantial amount of information on AT (please note, not from the UK so statements on aspects of law and procedure will be different).

Tips for using assistive technology with young children, and (Tots n Tech newsletter, Thomas Jefferson and Arizona State Universities). There is also a “webliography” of downloadable pictures that families and schools can use with children.

Techmatrix and Abledata are US databases of assistive technology products and what they can be used for,  and

Examples of technology / software designed to make learning more accessible,  (U.S. National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials)

Video-based training on the use of assistive technology from Vanderbilt University  and the Universities of North Carolina and Kentucky.

Assistive Technology: Strategies, Tools, Accommodations and Resources (ATSTAR), course designed for teachers (cost), (Knowbility)

A method for teaching a child to use a switch, (Linda Burkhart)

Assist UK (Disabled Living Centres) – a place to look for mobility / daily living aids.