Home » Assistive Technology » A.T.TIPSCAST Episode #129: Redefining “Assistive Technology Device”

A.T.TIPSCAST Episode #129: Redefining “Assistive Technology Device”

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Christopher Bugaj

Download the audio directly – Episode 129: Redefining “Assistive Technology Device”

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Episode Overview-

Episode #129 features a reading of the blog post below which outlines challenges with the current definition of an assistive technology device and proposes a new way to define the term. I didn’t want to wait to record the audio to get these ideas across so the text below came out one day before the audio was posted.

Redefining “Assistive Technology Device”

by Christopher Bugaj

There is a problem with the definition of an assistive technology device. I am, someone who hosts a podcast, has co-written a book, authored an app, has a job title, and works in a profession which all use the common term “assistive technology” in the title, and yet I wonder if we either need to eliminate the term or, at least, redefine it.

Let’s start by quoting the definition of an “assistive technology device” as it stands with regards to education.

An “assistive technology device” is defined by education law 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 a child with a disability.”

Let’s focus on the verb. I believe the verb is the crux of the problem with the definition. The verb in question is “used”.

Let’s put that into play with a made up example juxtaposing two students; one with a disability and one without. For the purposes of the example, I’m going to use a made up piece of technology and a generic task, because the tools and task don’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the tool is high tech or low tech in relation to the definition.

Here’s the example:

“A student without a disability uses a flibbertyjibbet to learn math”. – We call the flibbertyjibbet “technology”.

“A student with a disability uses a flibbertyjibbet to learn math”. – We call the flibbertyjibbet “assistive technology”.

Both students are using the flibbertyjibbet to increase, maintain, or improve his or her functional math capabilities. The only difference between the two is that one has a disability and the other does not.

When used in this way, the term “assistive technology” spotlights the disability and is ultimately discriminatory.

Now, how about a real example, with a real piece of technology (just in case I lost you with the flibberyjibbet)?

“A student without a disability uses a keyboard to author his essay.” – We call the keyboard “technology”.

“A student with a disability uses a keyboard to author his essay.” – We call the keyboard “assistive technology”.

The only difference between the two students using the device, whatever that device might be, is that the student with the disability might require the device to complete the task where the student without the disability might not require it.

That is, a student with a disability might NEED the keyboard to author the essay where the student without the disability might only prefer to use the keyboard to author the essay despite having the ability to complete the task in other ways.

The need to use a tool is the difference.

So, what do we do to fix this problem with the definition?

I think there are two potential solutions.

Option 1 - Abandon the use of the term “assistive technology” and just call it “technology”. I tweeted a similiar message on Super Bowl Sunday of 2014 immediately after the Microsoft #empowering video aired.

Screenshot of tweet by Chris Bugaj on February 2nd that reads "It's time to lose the adjective "Assistive" before the word "Technology". It's just technology. #empowering Thank You Microsoft!"

You can watch the ad at http://bit.ly/msempoweringvideo. The point of the ad, besides selling Microsoft products, was to demonstrate how technology can be used to empower individuals, whether you have a disability or not.

The option to eliminate the term “assistive technology” would be hard pressed and wrought with pitfalls. I’m not saying it would be impossible, especially if everyone agreed this was the correct thing to do in the long run, but entire organizations, institutions, careers, professions, and college programs have been built around the term. It is an established “thing” and “things” are hard (not impossible) to change. Myriad questions about funding sources arise as well, as pointed out by some colleagues with whom I correspond via social media. If the term is too well established to be abolished, what else can be done?

That brings us to Option 2.

Option 2 - Redefine “assistive technology device” to use the verb “requires” or “needs”. What if the definition of an assistive technology device read “Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is required to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.”?

Wouldn’t that be a better definition?

Using this definition, any item used by a student, whether they have a disability or not, would just be considered “technology”. Any item necessary to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of the student would be considered “assistive technology”.

Are there repercussions I’m not thinking of when proposing the change in the verb in the definition from “used” to “requires” or “needs”?

At the very least the definition should be changed because the nouns “technology” and “device” are synonyms, making the term “Assistive Technology Device” redundant, right? :)

What are your thoughts? I’d love to read them publicly in the comments below or you can e-mail me privately at attipscast@gmail.com.

A.T.TIPS in this Episode -

A.T.TIP #417 – Redefining “Assistive Technology Device” swapping the verb “used” for the verb “required”.

Upcoming Presentations -

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ATIA Webinars

Low Cost Ways to Provide More Options To Help Students with Reading and Writing - 3:30pm – 4:30pm ET on November 12th, 2014. Webinar for the Assistive Technology Industry Association

Getting Your AT Party Started: Answers to Commonly Asked Questions About Program Building with Sally Norton-Darr – 3:30pm – 5:00pm ET on December 11th, 2014. Webinar for the Assistive Technology Industry Association

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11 Comments

  1. Linda Kelly says:

    Chris: I really appreciate your argument for changing the definition to use required or needs…As technology becomes more a part of students’ everyday lives in and outside of the classroom, the lines between technology and “assistive” technology have begun to blur. Let’s either call it all technology or more clearly define the difference between preference and need for students with and without disabilities.

    • Yes Linda! Here! Here! I think I’m hearing greater support for Option 2 as outlined in the post. I think that makes sense as a starting point. Now, any idea politically, how to get the definition changed? What do you do, start a petition or something?

      • Gideon says:

        So we’d be looking at rewriting 34 CFR 300.5-300.6 to change used to required. I think we’d need to wait for the next revision of IDEA, right? If you start a petition, I’ll sign for option 2!

      • I guess that’s right. I think the most recent version if IDEA is IDEIA from 2004, right? Is starting a petition the best course of action? I’ve never advocated for a change in legislature before. If so, let’s do it. I think next Wednesday night at 9pm ET this topic is going to be the focus of the #ATCHAT on Twitter. So far there’s been lots of support for Option 2. I’d like to see just how far that support reaches with other members of our profession and community to see if everyone is in agreement with Option 2. So far, so good though!

  2. Chris, beware the law of unintended consequences.

    I agree with your argument: it’s a better definition. That said, think of one way this change WILL impact users: it will make fewer devices able to qualify for funding.

    For example, here’s a rewording of your paragraph above:

    “…That is, a student with a disability might NEED the keyboard to author the essay where the student without the disability might only prefer to use the keyboard to author the essay despite having the ability to complete the task in other ways.”
    to
    “…That is, a student with a disability might NEED the high-tech SGD to communicate where another student might only prefer to use the high-tech SGD to author the essay despite having the ability to complete the task using low-tech (and low cost) SGDs.”

    In both paragraphs, a low-tech device (pencil in the first, and GoTalk in the second) is a slower, less expensive and less preferred tool. You will get bean-counters out there who say that the students doesn’t NEED the high-tech SGD.

    Again, I applaud the thought and the intention: you just have to be careful. If you change the text to “NEED”, you also need to add something about “the best possible outcome”. IANAL, but I’m sure there’s one out there who can help that.

    • I’m not certain I follow the new example…

      “…That is, a student with a disability might NEED the high-tech SGD to communicate where another student might only prefer to use the high-tech SGD to author the essay despite having the ability to complete the task using low-tech (and low cost) SGDs.”

      Did you mean to change the task? I’m going to guess that you didn’t mean to change the task and actually mean the following:

      “…That is, a student with a disability might NEED the high-tech SGD to communicate where another student might only prefer to use the high-tech SGD to communicate despite having the ability to complete the task using low-tech (and low cost) SGDs.”

      If that’s what you meant, we should all agree to NEVER EVER EVER look at cost. That is irrelevant to the decision making process. The process should be to look at what is LEAST RESTRICTIVE. That’s the approach to determine which tool to try first. “Which tool (there are often many tools that will do the job) restricts the student in the least way possible?” The least restrictive tool is usually (not always) a tool that is already available in the environment which often means no additional cost to the institution providing the tool (but not always). It’s a win for everyone. The institution doesn’t spend any additional funds and the students gets what they need.

      So, to the example of an SGD (Speech Generating Device – for the folks following along who aren’t familiar with the lingo), I’d say, if a student can use a tool that is already in the environment that meets a student’s communication needs, go for it! If you’re using a tool that is already in the evironment it means it is a tool he/she might already be familiar with using, a tool a teacher might already be familiar with using, and it is already readily accessible (nothing new necessarily needs to be taught or acquired) but, if that SGD in the environment doesn’t meet that student’s needs, then we’ve got to find one that does.

      Final thought, because you’ve got me thinking about SGDs, no matter the tool and no matter the task, what’s paramount is the idea that the approach comes first. That must be decided upon first. More lingo here, especially related to communication, but… Are we using a page-based system or semantic compaction? Are we focusing on motor-planning or not? Are we using core vocabulary or are we going with a noun-based system?

      The approach must come before tool selection.

  3. Jules says:

    Hi Chris, Jules here. I work for a charity over the pond in the UK (aidis.org in case you wanted to take a look). We specialize in Assistive Technology and have done since 1975, pre-dating many, if not all other institutions specializing in the area.

    The term Assistive Technology could also apply to items such as wheelchairs and even walking sticks. The first thing Aidis provided was a typewriter, then an electric typewriter, then we became more computerised.

    There is a section of organisations in the UK that are championing the phrase Electronic Assistive Technology (This has a cutesy acronym of EAT). Though electric wheelchairs are also electronic of course. Maybe Computerised Assistive Technology, then that makes CAT, where will it end? Maybe stick with what’s historically known.

    Anyway, option 2 of the 2 options for me I think. When you say in education law, this is US law I assume. Option 1 would end up sinking any purpose made or adapted for use device below the radar for most. What would people google to find devices and software to aid the disabled.

    Personally, I think I like the definition and yes, with the term ‘is required’. Though I would also like the term ‘child’ to read ‘person’ as there are adult student too and many people using Assistive Technology who aren’t students of course.

  4. Jules,
    You are so right, about it all.
    First, your feedback meshed with the other general feedback I’ve received on this post, which as been an unanimous “Option 2!”. I think that’s where I’m landing too.

    Second, I DO need to be careful to think more globally. Yes, I was referring the U.S. law. How is the law written in the UK?

    Third, Yes! Agreed! It should be “person” or “student”; not “child”. Those are more encompassing words to use.

    I have a question for you. You wrote: “What would people google to find devices and software to aid the disabled?” I’m sure you’re right that people do searches using Internet search engines like, “What app is best for autism?” or “Best Electric Wheelchairs?” but I wonder if those results meet their needs. I wonder if people actually find what they are looking for. I wonder if it’s not up to people like us to guide people to search other sources (like Twitter, Facebook Groups, or other Internet communities) to find what they seek? Then people could ask questions like, “My child has trouble doing X. What are some successful tools and strategies to help him do X?”

    Tell me if you see the same thing there, but what I think we see here is people doing searches for tools and finding the tool that’s best advertised, which is not always necessarily the best fit to help the person achieve whatever goal for which they are seeking assistance.

    Something like, “I did a search for ‘best apps for autism’ and this came up. I want it.”

    Instead of, “Here’s the problem the person I’m supporting who has autism is facing. What tools can help him/her address that problem?”

    Thanks Jules! When can I come visit :)?

    • Jules says:

      We find that many people who come to us are Occupational Therepists, Speech and language therepists etc. as well and they are aware of the term Assistive Technology and will use it. This is proven as well partly through things like analytic software that tells us what keywords they use.

      Yes, most people who know nothing/little, will google questions rather than use ‘industry’ terms.

      I’m not sure if we have an agreed definition for AT in the UK. There is the odd organisation that crop up that decide they wish to do this, but until there is a recognised governing body, this will probably not happen. If the NHS (National Health Service) take AT as a free service (we have free healthcare over here but AT isn’t included yet), then they may become our umbrella/governing body.

      If you’re in the locality, drop by :-)

  5. Brian Wojcik says:

    Keep in mind that the concept of “need” is already incorporated within US law. IDEA 2014 mandates IEP teams to consider whether or not assistive technology is needed. So, the concept is ready present within the law. Previously, IDEA 1997 mandated IEP teams to consider whether or not assistive technology was required. The language change slightly with the reauthorization of the law.

    I agree that the first option – to eliminate the term assistive technology – would be difficult. Currently, there are too many ties to funding that necessitate the classification of a particular tool as “assistive technology.” I would also propose that there is merit in ensuring that we have an operational – in addition to the legal – definition of assistive technology. In looking at how schools define assistive technology, the definition varies considerably. In my research, schools (as well as case law and the literature) seem to define a tool as assistive technology based on three criteria: (A) the tool be used by a student with a disability; (B) the IEP team agrees that the tool is needed for the student to receive a free appropriate public education; and (C) the tool provides compensatory benefit to the student allowing him/her to perform a task at an expected performance level that, without the tool, he or she would not be able to do. This last prong speaks to the purpose of assistive technology. This purpose has an implicit emphasis on the concept of “need.”

    I have not seen evidence that we, in the education profession, consistently apply a definition of assistive technology with regard to students with disabilities. I believe that this is one of the reasons that assistive technology is not working well in many places. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

    • Brian, I dig how you’ve defined “AT Device” here. Specifically, “(A) the tool be used by a student with a disability; (B) the IEP team agrees that the tool is needed for the student to receive a free appropriate public education; and (C) the tool provides compensatory benefit to the student allowing him/her to perform a task at an expected performance level that, without the tool, he or she would not be able to do.”

      If that were infused into the current legal definition, it might clear up a bunch of the confusion that we’re seeing from place to place.

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