Get tech savvy to support your child’s education
Unlike adults, kids seem genetically predisposed to intuitively grasp technology. Many are masters at Fortnite or Mindcraft and can set up smartphones in a flash, but are they also accessing assistive technology (AT) at school to help them learn and demonstrate their knowledge? Technology is very attractive—particularly to those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, or autism—even addictive, and it also has the potential to provide greater access to their education.
What is assistive technology?
Federal law defines assistive technology 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 children with disabilities.” In the school setting, AT includes specialized devices and software for learning and for addressing students’ educational needs, as defined by their individualized education program (IEP) goals: accessing the curriculum, verbal and written communication, computer access, and environmental control.
Read&Write for Google Chrome
The front-runner in the fast-growing field of AT for students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD is Google’s G Suite platform, which includes Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Drawings. Many school districts and colleges use Read&Write for Google Chrome, a free extension on the Chrome browser that can be installed on most computers. Students with IEPs who need more accommodations can request the Premium version, which includes Word Prediction, Text to Speech, Proofreading, Talking and Picture dictionaries, Screenshot Reader, Highlighting, Voice Notes, and Talk&Type.
Sam, a ninth grader who has been using the Premium Read&Write for Google Chrome for many years, says that his favorite features include the text reader dictionary and Check It, a spelling and grammar check. One way he learned how to use all the features was to watch Read&Write for Google Chrome—An Introduction on the YouTube channel that Texthelp (maker of Read&Write for Google Chrome) produces. Before he had an IEP, his mother was researching tools to help him learn how to read and write and discovered Read&Write for Google before anyone in his school did. Although Sam’s middle school is technology focused, Sam and his mom still needed to show the teachers how to use the Premium version so Sam could access the AT tools he needed for his education.
Other AT tools and resources
Parents need to ensure that Read&Write for Google Chrome—Premium version is in their child’s accommodations (whether part of an IEP or a 504 plan), along with other types of assistive technology. One tool that Sam uses regularly is audiobooks, and he also uses apps that help him with organization and homework.
The number of available apps has grown exponentially, and the multiple choices for any function can be overwhelming, especially if you are struggling with executive-function issues such as organizing, prioritizing, time management, and planning. Tech nerds such as Jamie Martin—an assistive technology specialist at the New England Assistive Technology Center and an expert at Understood, a comprehensive online resource for those with learning and attention issues—have put together Tech Finder, a tool that sorts AT apps and games according to a child’s age, needs (e.g., reading skills, listening comprehension, speech), and goals. Martin is also one of the leading experts on AT for students with dyslexia, and he offers valuable AT content (short tutorials, extensive reviews, and instructional webinars) on Understood for parents and teachers.
Some students need other types of AT devices or programs and can request an AT evaluation with their special-education team. Define the student’s specific struggle or need, and then look at what kind of AT will address that need. AT can be as simple as lined paper and pencil grips. If AT is determined to be a necessary part of a student’s education, then it should be documented in the student’s IEP, and the school is responsible for providing the materials.
The big picture
We need to view AT in a broader context. It goes beyond a text reader for a school project. Young people who are able to learn and access technology are gaining critical skills for adult life. Adults use apps for things such as scanning and depositing checks as part of online banking, controlling and managing emotional states, and monitoring daily health needs. We also use virtual-assistance products such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, and have our Roomba vacuums and thermostats controlled through apps on our phones.
We as parents need to understand that allowing some screen time for our children plays a role in helping them develop into tech-savvy adults. It may help to keep these thoughts and tips in mind:
- AT is not cheating; it is a standard accommodation used in colleges and the workplace.
- Consider supervising screen time so it’s used appropriately.
- AT is something many of us use and will continue to use throughout our lives.
- Don’t confuse personal screen time with using Read&Write for Google Chrome.
- Take time to learn about these tools.
Assistive technology is part of everyday life. We use word prediction to text, check the weather app to decide if we need to wear a raincoat, go through the self-checkout line at the grocery store, and return emails with Google’s Smart Reply automated response suggestions. Let’s give our kids the full range of technological supports that can make their lives easier and help them learn—now and into the future.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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