The use of technology has increased significantly in the past few decades. We are surrounded by it and dependent on it in so many ways. Some obvious forms of technology include cell phones, computers, and tablets. Less obvious forms may include highlighters to help us identify important information and lined paper to help us keep our writing on track, various alerting devices including carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarm signalers to let us know when we're in danger. Technologies that help us complete tasks for daily living (such as all those listed above) are called Assistive Technology (AT).
Although we can all benefit from AT, it can be particularly helpful for many people with disabilities. You may be familiar with speech-to-text processors (for example, Siri). Just imagine how speech-to-text could help an individual who has difficulty typing on a keyboard. Think also of the word prediction software you use when you're texting. That can be especially helpful for individuals with learning disabilities struggling with spelling or reading.
In this guide, you’ll find an introduction to AT for students with disabilities in pre-K through the end of high school in the New York City education system. That includes students in public, charter, and private schools. See below for information about: AT devices and services; your student’s AT rights; parent advocacy tips for acquiring AT; and resources for more AT information and special education support. Be sure to also check out the NYC Department of Education (DOE)'s Assistive Technology Family Guide, available in ten languages.
Remember, technology is a field where things change constantly. Today’s newest technologies may be tomorrow’s old news. The rights and resources we highlight here are all accurate as of September 2016.
About assistive technology devices and services
When we talk about AT we mean both assistive technology devices and assistive technology services.
AT is defined and laid out in federal, state, and local special education laws and policies. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law on which AT is most often based.
- The IDEA defines AT devices 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 functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” IDEA Regulation §300.5
- The IDEA defines AT services as “…any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.” IDEA Regulation §300.6
- The term assistive technology, as defined by the IDEA, “does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted, or the replacement of such device.” This means, for example, that a cochlear implant would not be considered AT.
More generally, assistive technology devices and services work to support students with disabilities by:
ASSISTIVE technology (AT) is designed to meet the needs of individual students. INSTRUCTIONAL technology (IT) is technology that supports whole classroom instruction and assessment (for example, smartboards).
See the U.S. Department of Education's website for more information on the IDEA and AT. To learn more about the IDEA in general, see INCLUDEnyc's Top 5 Rights in Special Education [PDF] and Understood's How IDEA Protects You and Your Child.
Examples of assistive technology devices
There is a wide spectrum of AT devices. As we noted above, some don’t actually use what we think of as “technology,” while others are more technologically advanced. Some frequently used examples include:
Below are some more pointed examples of AT devices that can be used to support students with a variety of needs. There are many we haven't listed here that may meet the needs of individual students. By including the products and organizations below, we are not endorsing them; we are simply sharing them as resources and as examples of what may be possible.
For additional resources, check out Spectronics' page on physical disabilities.
For more information on AT for vision impairments, check out the American Foundation for the Blind.
For more information on AT for hearing impairments, check out the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
For another video example, watch AT solutions for math.
For more information on AT for academic support, see the Center On Technology and Disability's How Technology Can Help Your Child With a Learning Disability Be More Independent [PDF].
Examples of assistive technology services
AT services can be just as important as the devices themselves. They help support the purchasing and upkeep of an assistive technology device. Assistive technology services may include:
- Evaluating what AT device your child could benefit from;
- Selecting and purchasing the device;
- Training your child, your family, and professionals involved in your child’s life, including his or her teachers and other school staff, on the use of the device;
- Repairing your child’s device; and
- Coordinating the AT device with other interventions, other AT devices, and other services your child is receiving.
Students' rights to assistive technology
Your child’s rights to AT are laid out and defined through two key laws. These laws are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students may have a right to services under one or both laws. Students who receive services under Section 504 will have a 504 Plan laying out the services they’re entitled to. Students that get services under the IDEA will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) laying out the services they should be receiving.
Sometimes IEP teams resist the idea of AT. They may be unfamiliar with the benefits of AT and hesitant to explore it as a result. If you are finding this sort of push back, you can emphasize that AT closes gaps and makes it possible for students to match their peers in their day-to-day learning experiences. With AT support for individual students, the whole classroom may run more seamlessly.
If your child has a 504 Plan…
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal civil rights law that makes it illegal for any program that gets funds from the federal government to discriminate against people with disabilities. Because public schools in NYC get funding from the federal government, the public school system is not allowed to discriminate against students with disabilities.
Under Section 504 a child with a disability can get accommodations and services to help him or her participate in and benefit from all federally funded school programs and activities to the same extent as children without disabilities. Although, it’s not typically used in NYC to arrange for AT, it is possible to arrange for AT as a “related service” under Section 504. Just be sure that it is noted explicitly on his or her 504 Plan.
For more information on 504 Plans in general, see the U.S. Department of Education's Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504, Advocates for Children of New York's Guide to Section 504 [PDF], and New York Lawyers For the Public Interest's Section 504 Accommodation Plans [PDF].
If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP)…
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities, requires that every child with a disability receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The legal roadmap that lays out the special education supports and services a child will get is the Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the team that creates the IEP agrees that your child could benefit from AT, than AT must be clearly included in the IEP.
Below you will find information on how to make that happen in New York City. If you would like to learn more about IEPs in general, beyond how they apply to AT, see Advocates for Children of New York's Preparing for an IEP Meeting [PDF] and INCLUDEnyc's IEP Resources.
The AT process for a student with an IEP in New York City
The IEP team will consider whether or not your child could benefit from AT. If the team decides your child may benefit from AT, your child will be referred for evaluation.
If you believe that AT could help your child progress in school, you should talk to school staff—your child’s classroom teacher, the psychologist at your school, the principal or assistant principal for special education, or the Committee on Special Education (CSE). Your child may also want to self-advocate for AT. If so, he or she can bring the idea of AT up themselves. They can tell the same people you would tell—a teacher, the school psychologist, the principal or assistant principal. To learn more about how you can encourage your child to self-advocate, see Pacer's How You Can Help Your Child Learn to Be a Good Self-Advocate [PDF].
To let your school know about your interest in AT, you should write to the IEP team, your child’s classroom teacher, principal, and CSE Chair. We suggest that you fax your letter and save the confirmation sheet, hand deliver it to the school and have a copy stamped as received, or send it by certified mail, return receipt requested. Make sure you save copies of anything that you’ve sent and anything you receive in return.
Once the request has been made, no matter who makes it, you will need to consent to (agree to) the evaluation by signing the DOE's Request to Consent letter. Your child will then be referred to an AT evaluation, either at one of the centers listed below or at his or her school.
If after 15 calendar days, you are not contacted for consent on your child’s evaluation request, you can escalate your concerns to your District Superintendent or your CSE Chairperson.
Depending on where your child attends school in the New York City school system, the evaluation will be done at:
- His or her public school by a qualified evaluator.
- The Center for Assistive Technology (CAT): for students in community school district programs; preschool students; and students getting special education supports in specialized, private schools.
- Technology Solutions: for students in District 75; students that have hearing or visual impairments; students receiving home or hospital instruction; and students in charter schools.
Your child’s AT evaluation must occur within 60 calendar days of the consent you give for that evaluation. If it does not, you will receive an Assessment Authorization letter that explains how to obtain an independent evaluator.
If you feel the DOE’s AT evaluation is problematic, you can request for an independent evaluation to be paid for by the DOE. Submit this request in writing. The DOE will then either disagree and file an impartial hearing or agree and pay for a new evaluation to be done by an agency they have pre-approved.
You can also arrange to have your own private evaluation [PDF] done by anyone you choose. If you do this, however, you will be responsible for paying for the evaluation yourself.
For more information on AT evaluations, see the DOE's information sheet The Assistive Technology Evaluation Process [PDF]. For more on independent and private evaluations generally, see Advocates for Children of New York's Guide to Special Education [PDF].
Post-evaluation: IEP meeting and IEP development
Once evaluations are done, the IEP team will come together to consider the recommendations made by the AT evaluator. If the team (of which you are an important member) agrees that AT would be helpful, the specific devices and services you agree on must be noted in the IEP.
The IEP should be specific about:
- What device your child will be using;
- Any services that your child, his or her teachers, and anyone in your family will need to help with the technology; and
- Any rules or limits to whether the device can go back and forth from school to home on weeknights, weekends, and over the summer.
If you don’t agree with the AT recommended by the evaluator or the rest of the IEP team, or if you have concerns about implementation, you can request mediation or file a due process hearing. For more on your due process rights, see Advocates for Children of New York's Guide to Special Education Impartial Hearings [PDF], or New York Lawyers for the Public Interest's Special Education Impartial Hearings in New York City [PDF].
Sometimes it takes a while to figure out the best technology to help your child. It may be necessary to try out a few different devices or make tweaks to a single device. The law and NYC policy make that possible. Either the Center for Assistive Technology or Technology Solutions should work with your child and the school staff to try out as many devices as are appropriate. Obviously, they should try different devices one-at-a-time so things don’t get confusing. They may also make some adjustments to any given devices as they search for the best fit. This is an important part of the process that will help make sure your child and the technology they use work well together.
Once that fine-tuning is done, if the recommendation changes, your child’s IEP team will need to come together again to put the changes on the IEP.
Purchase and training
Once the IEP team agrees that AT will help your child, and which AT device will work best, it’s time to put that technology in place. The actual device and any necessary services around that device must be provided at no cost to your family. No one at the school or the CSE should ask you to use your own money or insurance to buy the device. Because of this, however, it’s important to understand that any device your child uses will be the property of the DOE—something that you will have to return at the end of the school year or if your child moves to another school system.
Once your child has received the AT device, your child and others interacting with him/her (parents, teachers, etc.) should receive training on how to use the device correctly. In New York City, the same office that oversaw the evaluation (the Center for Assistive Technology or Technology Solutions) will be responsible for training.
If your child transfers schools within the DOE, AT should follow them to the new school. If you move out of NYC and your child is still school-aged, your child's AT device should be returned to the DOE. You want to prepare for that, and make sure you get AT set up wherever your child goes next.
Technology doesn’t always work as hoped and it will be necessary at times to repair the device your child uses. If something goes wrong, and the assistive technology device breaks, the DOE will be responsible for making sure repairs get done. They may, however, ask you for some help getting the broken device to the right place so that can happen. Your first step, then, should be to check with the Center for Assistive Technology or Technology Solutions (depending on which office provided the device in the first place) to see how they want to repair the device. If the device is under warranty, they may ask you to mail it directly to the manufacturer for repairs. If they do, they should provide you with the means to do that yourself.
If you are not receiving answers during any point of the AT process from either your school or the CSE, or if something doesn't go as you know it should under the rights laid out above, your concerns can be escalated.
For public school students, send your concerns in writing to your District Superintendent and the Family Support Coordinator in the Superintendent's office. For all other students, send your concerns in writing to your district CSE Chairperson. If that doesn't work, you'll want to reach out [PDF] to the Center for Assistive Technology or Technology Solutions directly.
Assistive technology after high school
Under law, a transition plan to support successful employment and education after high school must be developed for every student with an IEP by the time they reach the age of 15. This is true whether your child will be graduating from high school with a diploma, receiving one of the alternative special education credentials, or aging-out of DOE services at the age of 21. For more on graduation options and transition planning, see our page on transition planning services.
If your child has been receiving AT during his or her school-aged years, then you should discuss continued AT support as a part of his or her transition plan when you meet with the rest of your IEP team. The team should consider questions such as:
For more information on AT and transition planning, see:
- The Center on Technology and Disability's Family Information Guide to Assistive Technology and Transition Planning [PDF]
- The National Center for Learning Disabilities' Assistive Technology: Checklist of Questions to Ask Colleges [PDF]
For more general assistive technology videos, watch recordings of Advocates for Children of New York's AT webinar (below left), the ARISE Coalition's student-led AT conference (below right), and the District 75 Conference addressing the need and place of AT in school.
Here are some additional links you may find helpful:
- AAC Connection offers AAC consultations and training for individuals/families; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (929) 256-3650.
- ATHelp at the JCC in Manhattan provides free assistive technology support for students, families, and professionals. Available by appointment only on select Tuesdays and Sundays; email ATHelp@me.com or call (917) 586-8000.
- Bookshare provides free read-aloud versions of printed materials for students with print disabilities.
- Bridging Apps has an app search tool for assistive technology device (search for apps by age, subject, skill, etc.), and the University of Michigan has compiled a list of apps for individuals with dyslexia.
- The Center for Technology and Disability provides a comprehensive assistive technology glossary [PDF], a guide for families and teens, Getting Started: Exploring Assistive Technology with Your Teen or Young Adult, and a tip sheet, Involving Teens and Young Adults in Selecting Assistive Technology. See also their webinar demonstrating accessibility features in a number of devices that can be used by students to complete their school work independently.
- Council for Exceptional Children's Assistive Technology and IDEA Regulations [PDF] explains the relationship between IDEA and assistive technologies, and the Vermont Family Network's Assistive Technology & Section 504 [PDF] explains the relationship between Section 504 and assistive technologies
- See District Administrations piece, Enhancing Education with Assistive Technology: Products to Help Prepare Students for Life Beyond K12.
- Google (Chrome/Android), Apple, and Microsoft (Windows/Office) provide resources on making your devices more accessible.
- United Cerebral Palsy of NYC provides resources including AT SHARE Lending Libraries, to borrow various AT devices; TechWorks Technology Resource Centers, for various AT trainings and trials; and TechWorks To Go! mobile resource van, to bring AT to schools and fairs. Email email@example.com or call (877) 827-2666 for more information.
- Wrightslaw's Strategies for Assistive Technology Negotiations offers tips on how to discuss your child’s AT rights with school staff.