Universal and assistive technologies, together with general educational or instructional technology, offer a wide spectrum of tools now available to help meet the variety of diverse needs of individuals in today’s rapidly changing society.


What is Technology for Diverse Learners?

Woman holding phone

Universally Available Support Tools

Universally available support tools include features of many widely available technologies that can be beneficial for a wide range of students with diverse learning needs. The word ‘universal’ indicates both that these tools are widely available or somewhat ‘mainstream’ and, also, that they are widely beneficial. Because they are related, or similar to, general mainstream tools, they are relatively non-intrusive and ‘easy’ to learn and to implement.

An example is the feature that allows a user to ‘speak’ to their mobile phone in order to compose a text or email and send it to an acquaintance. While anyone may benefit from this feature, other individuals, such as someone who is blind and can’t see the keyboard, or an individual with a physical disability who is unable to type, may ‘need’ this feature in order to independently send a text or email.

Assistive Technology (AT) Support Tools

Assistive Technology (AT) support tools are those that are needed by an individual with a disability in order to appropriately participate in life, in general, or in education, specifically. Assistive Technology is specifically defined in disability laws. Because AT is sometimes highly specialized and may need to be tailored or modified for an individual’s needs, it may be more complex to learn to use and/or to implement than universal technology.

Although the definition of Assistive Technology clearly specifies that AT can improve functioning for individuals with disabilities, it has been shown that many AT tools can also benefit others with diverse needs in the general population. Those who speak English as a second language, or elders with increasing life challenges, and others may gain benefit from assistive technology tools.

An example is an FM system that amplifies spoken words so that an individual who is hard of hearing can better understand those words. In addition, individuals with attention deficits, or those learning English as a second language, or even all students in a large lecture hall listening to an effusive professor may benefit from hearing the words spoken more loudly and clearly.

Universal and assistive technologies, together with general educational technology, offer a wide spectrum of tools now available to help meet the variety of diverse needs of individuals in today’s rapidly changing society.

Universal Support Tools (Available to many BPS students)

Thanks to the 1:1 tech initiative currently underway in the Bellingham Public Schools there are numerous literacy support software features that are becoming universally available to all students, if they choose to use them. Beneficial literacy support features include:

For Reading (support reading comprehension):

  • Text-to-Speech – text read aloud supports comprehension of higher level text. May also include text highlighting while reading to provide multi-modal input to support attention and comprehension.
  • Dictionary - some have text-to-speech and/or pictures to support comprehension of definitions.
  • Language Translation – translate selected text into another language.

For Writing (support spelling, grammar, editing, etc.):

  • Text to Speech - hearing what they type helps students ‘catch’ errors and check for meaning.
  • Word prediction - ‘predicts’ word choices as the user begins to type – supports those with limited spelling ability, but some phonetic awareness.
  • Speech recognition / Dictation (or ‘Speech-to-Text’) – user’s spoken word is transcribed as text on the page. Needed by students with emerging phonetic spelling skills and other writing challenges when the emphasis is on ‘getting ideas on paper’ rather than ‘improving writing skills’.
  • Grammar checker - provide suggestions/options for spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and grammar usage.
  • Bibliography tools – help students organize sources in desired format (APA, Chicago, MLA styles).

The above features are made available to students as indicated below:

Microsoft Word features and OneNoteLearning Tools’

  • Available to: All BPS students at school and at home
  • Provides support for: Reading and writing
  • Video (2 min.) - Inclusive Learning for All Students
  • Features available (see feature descriptions, above):
    • Text-to-Speech – Yes
    • Dictionary – Yes (Picture Dictionary)
    • Language Translation – Yes
    • Word Prediction – No (not at this time)
    • Speech Recognition – Yes
    • Vocabulary Support - Yes
    • Grammar Checker – Yes
    • Bibliography Tools – Yes
  • Training Resources:  Learning Tools 
  • Notes & Exceptions:
    • Some features are available only in certain Microsoft programs, such as OneNote Desktop, Word online, etc.

Read & Write

  • Available to: Students whose teachers feel it is needed, then accessible at school and home
  • Provides Support for: Reading & Writing
  • Video (2 min.): Read & Write – Helping Millions of Students
  • Features available (see feature descriptions, above):
    • Text-to-Speech – Yes
    • Dictionary – Yes
    • Language Translation – Yes
    • Word Prediction – Yes 
    • Speech Recognition – Yes – on some platforms
    • Vocabulary Support - Yes
    • Grammar Checker – Yes
    • Bibliography Tools – Yes
  • Training Resources:  Read and Write
  • Notes & Exceptions:
    • Students must be identified by their teacher to have access to this program. Contact your child's teacher with questions about this.
    • The Read & Write Toolbar is available to use within other programs, such as Word, OneNote, Outlook, web browsers, etc.

Learning Ally

  • Available to: BPS students who qualify with a print disability or with the need for reading support (ask your child’s teacher). Available to use at school and at home.
  • Provides support for: Reading
  • Video (5 min.) - Learning Ally Audiobooks
  • Features available (see feature descriptions, above):
    • Text-to-Speech – Yes (this is its primary purpose – digital books are available to read aloud)
    • Dictionary – No/NA
    • Language Translation – No/NA
    • Word Prediction – No/NA
    • Speech Recognition – No/NA
    • Vocabulary Support - No/NA
    • Grammar Checker – No/NA
    • Bibliography Tools – No/NA
  • Notes & Exceptions:
    • Students must qualify - see above. Contact your child’s teacher w/ questions.
    • Only reads books accessed via the program (text books and popular literature available).
    • Some books are audio only (w/o visible text or highlighting).

iPad apps and Operating System (iOS)

  • Available to: BPS students who have access to an iPad or other iOS (Apple) device at school and/or at home.
  • Provides support for: Reading and writing
  • Video -
  • Features available (see feature descriptions, above):
    • Text-to-Speech – Yes (via iOS)
    • Dictionary – Yes (via iOS)
    • Language Translation – Yes (via Siri or apps)
    • Word Prediction – Yes (via iOS)
    • Speech Recognition – Yes (Dictation via iOS)
    • Vocabulary Support – Yes (via apps)
    • Grammar Checker – Yes (via apps)
    • Bibliography Tools – Yes (via apps)
  • Notes & Exceptions:
    • Some features are available via the operating system (iOS), independent of any apps
    • Other features are available via free or purchased apps, as above.
Assistive Technology Tools (For students in Special Education)

Definition - Assistive Technology (AT) is defined in the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to include:

  • Devices - any item, piece of equipment, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.
  • Services - directly assist a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.

Thus, AT can be literally anything (manual, electronic, digital, etc.) that improves functioning for individuals with disabilities - see the Assistive Technology Provision section, below, for a caveat. AT can sometimes serve as a ‘remediation’ tool that supports an individual as they improve developing abilities to the point where the tool is no longer needed. For other individuals the AT may be needed as a ‘compensation’ tool that is utilized to provide them with equitable access to educational curriculum or other aspects of life on an ongoing basis.


Assistive Technology tools can be organized or thought about, in many different ways, such as:

  • On a Continuum: the AT continuum places tools on a scale from ‘no/low-tech’ to ‘high-tech’:

This chart shows different types of tools including pencil grips which are low tech and speech generating devices which are high tech.

  • People often think that ‘low tech’ tools are inferior (mostly because they may cost less), but this is often not the case. There can be definite advantages to starting with the lowest tech tool that is appropriate to support the student – this must be determined on an individual basis. You can see some of the characteristics of ‘low’ vs. ‘high’ tech tools, below:
    • Low Tech Tools are readily available, relatively affordable, fairly straightforward to learn and use, may be useful for a range of people.
    • High Tech Tools are ordered from specialty vendors, generally more expensive, adapted or modified for limited users and often more difficult to learn.
  • By disability, either:
    • By level of frequency of ‘broad type’ of disability, such as ‘low incidence’ disabilities (more severe disabilities that occur less often, such as multiple disabilities), or ‘high incidence’ disabilities (that are more commonly occurring, such as learning disabilities)
    • By specific disability, such as ‘blind/vision impaired’, ‘learning disability’, ‘autism’, etc.
  • By task/skill, function, or purpose, such as: ‘reading comprehension’, ‘mechanics of writing’, ‘math calculations’, ‘daily routines - mealtime’, ‘self-management - organization’, etc.


Assistive Technology Provision

Headphones and computers

Assistive Technology (AT) includes a wide range of educational and specialized/adaptive tools that an IEP team may determine are needed or required in order for an individual student with a disability to access the curriculum and/or make adequate progress toward the goals and objectives of their Individualized Educational Plan. If needed, AT can facilitate a student’s access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education.

AT can be anything but is only classified as AT for an individual if that student requires or needs it. According to disability law (PL-94-142), every special education qualified student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which includes family, must consider whether that individual student needs/requires AT. There are no specific Federal or State guidelines to direct IEP Teams through this decision-making process, but ‘best practice’ suggests that Assistive Technology may be needed by a student with a disability if the student is not benefiting from their Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), as evidenced by one or more of the following:

  • Student does not have access to the general education curriculum,
  • or is unable to accomplish required tasks,
  • or is not making adequate (appropriate, expected…) progress on IEP goals and objectives

As the result of AT consideration, the team will reach one of three decisions:

  1. AT is not needed. The student is making adequate progress with the available instruction and interventions. Indicate “no.”
  2. AT is needed. Indicate “yes” and describe in the IEP how, when, and where the new or current devices and services will be provided.
  3. AT is needed, but the IEP team is unsure of what devices and services are most appropriate. Indicate “yes.” Then decide the areas on which AT will be tried and gather data to determine the best solution. The team may explore resources within or from outside the district to adequately assess the student’s need for AT.

If an IEP team decides that a need for AT is indicated, they may work together to provide AT trials/data collection to help decide which tool(s) will best match student needs. Sometimes this process is called an AT Assessment, which is a ‘best practice’ approach intended to:

  • gather additional information, if necessary,
  • brainstorm potential solutions,
  • conduct trials with various AT tools, as needed, over time.



Assistive Technology and the Law

Federal and State laws are in agreement when mandating the following related to AT in the schools:

  • Definition of AT Devices and Services
  • Consideration of AT Devices and Services
  • Provision [Delivery] of AT Devices and Services


Definition of AT Devices and Services

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act- 2004: 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 children with disabilities. The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted, or the replacement of such a device. (Authority 20 U.S.C. 1401(1))

Consideration of AT Devices and Services -

Provision [Delivery] of AT Devices and Services (IDEA 2004 Section 300.105)

  • On a case-by-case basis, the use of school-purchased assistive technology devices in a child’s home or other settings is required if the child’s IEP team determines that the child needs access to those devices in order to receive free and appropriate public education.

To learn more about the Federal and State laws, refer to the following:

Webinars, Training Modules and Videos

Trainings and Webinars

Special Education Technology Center

AbleNet University

Oklahoma AbleTech

Center for Technology and Disability


Center for Technology and Disability and Pacer Center

Ottowa Network for Education

Oklahoma AbleTech 

North Carolina Assistive Technology Program

Recommended Websites

There are a multitude of websites with information about Assistive Technology.


AT Act Programs

Every state has an Assistive Technology Act Program funded under the Assistive TechnologyAct of 2004 and administered by the Rehabilitation Services Administration. The intent is to improve the provision of assistive technology to individuals with disabilities through comprehensive statewide programs of technology-related assistance. These programs help enable individuals with disabilities, service providers and others to learn about, access, and acquire assistive technology needed for education, employment, and community living. Although services (e.g. device loans) may be limited to residents of a state, the following Assistive Technology Act Program websites are especially useful for learning more about assistive technology, in general:


Additional State-related AT Resource Centers

Many states also have additional AT Resource Centers, often associated with the state’s Department of Education, which can offer valuable resources (again, some services may be limited to state residents), such as the following:


National Resources

Some national disability-related organizations also have websites with sections of AT resources:


Washington State AT Resource Centers with AT Loan Programs

  • Special Ed Technology Center:
    • OSPI’s AT Resource center and lending library for P-12 school districts
    • Housed at Central Washington University in Ellensburg
    • SETC mails requested items for a 4-week trial period
  • Washington Assistive Technology Act Program:
    • Administered by the University of Washington, located in Seattle
    • Requested items (for any age user) are mailed for a 5-week trial
  • Ershig Assistive Technology Resource Center):
    • Woodring College of Ed at Western Washington University in Bellingham
    • Browse-able lending library of AT tools – open to anyone, but also used by WCE teachers-in-training learning about tools for their future students
    • Center does not mail items; users must pick up and return

AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication

ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act

ADL – Aids for Daily Living

ALD – Assistive Listening Device

AT – Assistive Technology

BPS – Bellingham Public Schools

DME – Durable Medical Equipment

ECU – Environmental Control Unit

FAPE – Free and Appropriate Public Education

FM – Frequency Modulation

IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IEP – Individual Education Program

IFSP – Individual Family Services Plan

iOS – Operating System for Apple’s iPod, iPod Touch, iPad

IR – Infrared

ITP – Individual Transition Plan

LRE – Least Restrictive Environment

OCR – Optical Character Recognition

SGD – Speech Generating Device

UDL – Universal Design for Learning

VOCA – Voice Output Communication Aid

WAC – Washington Administrative Code


Center on Technology and Disability Assistive Technology Glossary




Amy Fleischer

Assistive Technology Support Specialist