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Part 3: Recognising Assistive Technology Needs

Introduction

As you will have realised from Part 2 of this section, there is a vast number of Assistive applications and tools available, some probably already on computers, tablets, and mobile devices, some stand-alone applications, some free and some paid for. So that raises the question of how to select the right one(s) for the users’ needs.

Searching the Internet

Searching the internet is a first approach but not always helpful. Many websites are produced by suppliers who may not be unbiased in which tool they think you should choose. Others may be trying to draw visitors to their own websites (one prominent site we found listed 70 assistive applications, but the main purpose of the site was as an essay mill, offering for a price, hundreds of essays for plagiarising answers to student assignments!). Probably most useful are web sites from educational, networks NGOs, charities and other organisations seeking to support learners with disabilities . Some of these may also offer free support services to educational organisations; others paid for support and advice.

However, there are several Frameworks and rubrics which can help in identifying appropriate and useful Assistive technologies.

Talk, listen, review

A good starting point is to recognise that in encouraging use of the assistive technologies it is very important to discuss with those who are disabled or differently abled, which types of technologies may work best, as one size does not fit all. As children become teenagers, but also for older users it is important to foster growth and confidence by including them in the decision-making process on which types of technologies will work for them [Assistive Technologies: Equity And Inclusion For All]  As the Council for Exceptional Children says [The SETT Framework and Evaluating Assistive Technology Remotely] many users of assistive technologies will be able to tell you what works for them, start by listening to the user and go from there! They go on to suggest trying out an access method with the student, ask them if what you are trying makes things easier, if it doesn’t try something else and point out this may need to be tried over days/weeks and in context.

The UK Jisc add to this the exhortation to review. “Something might work initially or for a while. If you don’t check this you won’t know whether what you have put in place is still working. Ultimately, if it isn’t working, change it!”, they say. [Jisc] The SETT Framework

Perhaps best known of the frameworks and rubrics is the SETT Framework

In 1990, Dr. Joy Zabala developed the SETT Framework to promote collaborative decision-making during:

  • Consideration of assistive technology services for students with disabilities
  • Implementation of assistive technology services within a school setting
  • Evaluation of effectiveness of the assistive technology services provided to the student

SETT is an acronym that stands for:

  • Student
  • Environment
  • Tasks
  • Tools

On her website, Dr. Zabala reminds us to keep the following in mind when using SETT student, environments, and tasks do not need to be explored in order or separately. Tools are the last to be considered and are only selected after the individual or team has fully considered the:

  • Student’s strengths, abilities, and skills
  • Environments where the student will use the assistive technology
  • Tasks the student needs to complete to participate in school and achieve his or her IEP goals.

You can find out more about the SETT Framework at www.joyzabala.com.

Assessing Assistive Technologies

In an academic (but very readable) paper, Fouzia Khursheed Ahmad puts forward a useful rubric far assessing different Assistive applications.

  1. “Suitability to Users and their Environment – The devices should be compatible with
    the users’ aspirations, emotional needs, and ways of life, and with their culture and local customs; unobtrusive by local standards, and physically comfortable from users’ perspectives. It should assure user safety, be useful in a variety of situations (Warger, 1998), and be durable, dependable and reliable especially in rural areas, remote areas and rugged conditions, and compatible with the ground surface and other conditions of a user’s physical environment.
  •  Inexpensive and Easy to Purchase – The devices should be low in purchase price. Government and/or NGOs can also support in the provision and purchase of the devices, free of charge or at subsidized rates. The devices should be easy and affordable to assemble or produce and maintain, so that keeping the devices in working order would require minimal resources and can be repaired with the use of locally available materials and technical skills.
  • Easy-to-Use – The devices should be easily understandable by users with limited exposure to technology, portable (easy to move from one place to another), and easy to operate without prolonged training or complex skills. Depending upon the differential abilities of the learners, and the context and feasibility of the approach, assistive provisions in education can help assist students with disabilities in learning, and a collaborative effort in the use of assistive devices, assistive technology, resource room support and innovative educational strategies to promote and sustain inclusion can support these students to learn at par with their non-disabled peers in inclusive educational settings.” [Use of Assistive Technology in Inclusive Education: Making Room for Diverse Learning Needs]

Digital Assistants

The Open University in the UK have an innovative approach to identifying the needs of students with disabilities. They have developed Taylor, an AI-based digital assistant, to improve the student experience for disabled learners. Dr Tim Coughlan, Senior Lecturer in Education Technology at the Open University explains the idea behind Taylor.

“Listening to our disabled students, we recognised that the administrative burden placed on them is a substantial barrier to success and experience (Coughlan & Lister, 2018). With rising numbers of students disclosing disabilities and needing timely support, there are also organisational challenges to tackle here, in order to create effective processes. Our aim was to create an alternative to completing forms and to explore with students and staff how this could be designed to be accessible and helpful as a part of these processes.

We also know that students benefit from conversations with our disability advisors, but this expert human support is a limited resource that needs to be used wisely. In this space, a digital assistant offers a lot of potential. Because it supports a dialogue, there is the potential for both the assistant and the student to ask questions and clarify anything that was said, before finalising the information that is shared. It is also our goal that the student learns something useful from the conversation and that it feels more beneficial than filling in a form.”

Besides providing information about assistive technologies amongst other things, Taylor helps the student to provide information, covering things such as the nature of their disabilities, any assistive technologies they use, and areas where they could require support or adjustments in study. Taylor is an alternative to the usual process of filling in forms to provide this information.

The second purpose for the digital assistant is to help each student to better understand what Open University study entails and the support that they could benefit from. Students are given some introductory information on key topics, and they can also ask Taylor questions. This is designed to be part of the conversation throughout, with the idea that students can learn from the conversation and give better answers to the questions they are asked.

With growing interest in the potential of Digital Assistants, in education and beyond, it seems likely there will be more use of this technology to assist people with disabilities in the future.

The Open University in the UK have an innovative approach to identifying the needs of students with disabilities. They have developed Taylor, an AI-based digital assistant, to improve the student experience for disabled learners. Dr Tim Coughlan, Senior Lecturer in Education Technology at the Open University explains the idea behind Taylor.

“Listening to our disabled students, we recognised that the administrative burden placed on them is a substantial barrier to success and experience (Coughlan & Lister, 2018). With rising numbers of students disclosing disabilities and needing timely support, there are also organisational challenges to tackle here, in order to create effective processes. Our aim was to create an alternative to completing forms and to explore with students and staff how this could be designed to be accessible and helpful as a part of these processes.

We also know that students benefit from conversations with our disability advisors, but this expert human support is a limited resource that needs to be used wisely. In this space, a digital assistant offers a lot of potential. Because it supports a dialogue, there is the potential for both the assistant and the student to ask questions and clarify anything that was said, before finalising the information that is shared. It is also our goal that the student learns something useful from the conversation and that it feels more beneficial than filling in a form.”

Besides providing information about assistive technologies amongst other things, Taylor helps the student to provide information, covering things such as the nature of their disabilities, any assistive technologies they use, and areas where they could require support or adjustments in study. Taylor is an alternative to the usual process of filling in forms to provide this information.

The second purpose for the digital assistant is to help each student to better understand what Open University study entails and the support that they could benefit from. Students are given some introductory information on key topics, and they can also ask Taylor questions. This is designed to be part of the conversation throughout, with the idea that students can learn from the conversation and give better answers to the questions they are asked.

With growing interest in the potential of Digital Assistants, in education and beyond, it seems likely there will be more use of this technology to assist people with disabilities in the future.

Of course, it is one thing to find an appropriate Assistive Technology, it is another thing to get it up and in use. We are not ignoring the fact that many people with disabilities may themselves be proficient and confident technology users. But others may not be, and depending on the nature of their disability, may need assistance in using Assistive technology.

Supporting learning with Assistive Technologies

Of course, it is one thing to find an appropriate Assistive Technology, it is another thing to get it up and in use. We are not ignoring the fact that many people with disabilities may themselves be proficient and confident technology users. But others may not be, and depending on the nature of their disability, may need assistance in using Assistive technology.

One thing is helping set up or install the technology and another showing how to use it. But we also know that half of the battle with introducing technology for learning is the pedagogy – how to integrate the use of technology in teaching and learning practices. And it can be argued that supporting learners using Assistive Technology is yet another competence for teachers, trainers, and other educational professionals to acquire.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing number of professional development programmes around selecting assistive technologies for learning and for using the technologies for teaching and learning. Obviously, the provision varies between different countries and appears to at least partly being driven by regulatory requirements. But it is worth looking out for what such provision might exist in your country. And it is well worth looking out for online courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are often international in nature. You might also want to look for Open Educational Resources (OERs) which you can follow in your own time (see the OER Commons Public Digital Library for examples). The Mobilities for All project which has developed this toolkit is planning to publish OERs in different languages in 2022.

JISC (2020) Assistive Technology For All, https://coronavirus.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2020/03/25/assistive-technology-for-all/, accessed 26 April 2022

ALSC Blog, Assistive Technologies: Equity And Inclusion For All https://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2018/12/assistive-technologies-equity-and-inclusion-for-all/, accessed 26 April 2022

Council for Exceptional Children,The SETT Framework and Evaluating Assistive Technology Remotely https://exceptionalchildren.org/blog/sett-framework-and-evaluating-assistive-technology-remotely, accessed 26 April 2022

Joy Zabala, The SETT Framework, www.joyzabala.com, accessed 26 April 2022

Fouzia Khursheed Ahmad, Use of Assistive Technology in Inclusive Education: Making Room for Diverse Learning Needs, https://www2.hu-berlin.de/transcience/Vol6_No2_62_77.pd

Tom Moule (2021) How digital assistants are promoting enhanced accessibility at the Open University, Jisc National Centre for AI, https://nationalcentreforai.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2021/09/27/how-digital-assistants-are-promoting-enhanced-accessibility-at-the-open-university/, accessed 26 April 2022

(Coughlan & Lister, 2018) Tim Coughlan, Katherine Lister, Katharine (2018). The accessibility of administrative processes: Assessing the impacts on students in higher education. http://oro.open.ac.uk/54760/1/CoughlanListerW4A2018cr.pdf, accessed 26 April 2022

OER Commons Public Digital Library, https://www.oercommons.org/, accessed 26 April 2022

Previous Part 2: Defining Assistive Technologies
Next Part 4: Examples of Assistive Technologies in different countries and languages
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