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2017 Parent Night

Obtaining assistive technology (AT) for students with learning disabilities can seem overwhelming for parents or caregivers. Learning about what’s available, how AT can benefit students, who is eligible, and how to collaborate with public schools or districts to acquire services will help demystify and facilitate the process.

During our annual Parent Night on October 3, Senior Educational Technologist Nanci Shepardson presented an overview of AT that included a review of students’ rights under federal laws, guidelines to follow when working with a child’s education team to determine appropriate supports, tips for assessing effectiveness, and resources available to parents, students, and educators.

Though not a replacement for dedicated, well-trained teachers and quality instruction, assistive technology can be a powerful supplement for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, shared Nanci, a credentialed K-12 Reading Specialist and credentialed Wilson® Dyslexia Practitioner (W.D.P.) and International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Dyslexia Practitioner.

Assistive technology can be as sophisticated as eye gaze software that allows a person to use his or her eyes to navigate a computer, or as simple as an erasable highlighter to color code information in a textbook, Nanci explained. Unlike instructional technology, such as an app on an iPad to provide additional exposure or practice, assistive technology enables access to the curriculum to help level the playing field. AT is defined by the Federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as any piece of equipment or product “that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.”

“The law requires access to text. It’s really important for parents to know this,” Nanci said. “Students have to be able to access grade-level text.”

AT should be considered once it has been determined by a student’s educational team that either a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is needed. Each state, and even different towns and cities within the same state, have different forms for requesting AT through a public school system. It’s important to request an AT evaluation by a qualified AT specialist during the 504 or IEP planning process in order to determine if there is a need for it, and if so, what tools should be provided to the student.

Public school systems are required to provide AT supports that can be used at school and at home. While private schools are not required to provide AT, some independent schools are eligible for IDEA funding for AT tools.

It’s crucial that the child’s education team first consider the student’s unique needs and learning environment―how and where he or she will be using the supports―before selecting a particular tool. Nanci emphasized the importance of following  the SETT framework―Student, Environment, Task, Tool―to find solutions that will level the playing field. She also shared a number of resources that will help families navigate the process, including Understood, the International Dyslexia AssociationLearning Ally, the Center on Technology and Disability, and the Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology.

Tools can be geared toward visual, auditory, or kinesthetic approaches. Some tools being used by students with dyslexia include Snap & Read, a text complexity leveler, Bookshare, which is federally funded and free to students with a documented disability, and a wide range of text-to-speech apps for PCs or Macs. It is important to ask which site licenses a school district has purchased, as this can help streamline access.

Massachusetts parent Sheri Costa said the presentation provided “great ideas for tools” that can assist her daughter as she enters high school. Diagnosed with dyslexia in fourth grade, Sheri’s daughter learned to read through the Wilson Reading System®. The literacy skills she developed through WRS, coupled with appropriate tools, will further empower her daughter and other students, Sheri said. “She can be completely independent.”

The event also included remarks from Decoding Dyslexia-Massachusetts’ Executive Director and Co-founder Nancy Duggan, who provided an update on pending legislation and displayed this year’s state proclamation recognizing October as Dyslexia Awareness month.

More information about assistive technology can be found in Nanci Shepardson’s article, “Assistive Technology: An Overview for Parents of Students with Learning Disabilities.”