Myths are often created to explain things we don’t understand. There are many people who do not have a complete understanding of assistive technology and its educational uses for students with learning disabilities. As more people gain and share a better knowledge of assistive technology, these seven common misconceptions will be replaced with truths.
Myths are often created to explain things we don’t understand.
There are many people who do not have a complete understanding of assistive technology (AT) and the role it plays in education and the greater community of those affected by learning disabilities (LD). Students and adults who regularly use AT certainly know the benefits of the myriad tools available on computers and mobile devices. Likewise, the teachers, family members, and friends who support those with LD often have a solid understanding of how technology can be an equalizer and a gateway to success.
It is imperative that we all contribute to spreading AT awareness. As more people gain and share a better knowledge of assistive technology, these seven common misconceptions will fall from our conversations about learning disabilities.
Perhaps the most prevalent misunderstanding involving AT is that it gives LD students an unfair advantage over their non-LD classmates. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, all it does is provide equal access to the same learning experiences. Assistive Technology does not control the brains of students with learning disabilities. It does not generate thoughtful responses to essay questions. And it does not conduct science experiments while students sit back and watch. It does read text aloud to students who have brains that are not wired for reading. It does provide spelling assistance for students with encoding deficits. And it does help non-linear, visual thinkers organize ideas and projects. The educational outcomes of all students are affected by intellectual capacity and effort. Since students with learning disabilities can have equal intelligence and exert (at least) the same amount of effort as their non-LD classmates, the notion that AT can provide an advantage is purely myth.
The term “digital native" refers to someone who was born during a time of ubiquitous technology use. It does not mean, or even imply, that today’s students are born with the instinct to employ word prediction software or effectively use electronic graphic organizers. Those skills, like most others, need to be taught by experienced teachers. Some assistive technology is intuitive and easy to use, and some requires training and practice. Regardless of the learning curve, students need guidance and support while figuring out how best to apply technology tools to their educational experiences.
In theory, all teachers should be trained in how to best accommodate the needs of students with learning disabilities. While we are making progress in that area of education, the reality is that all teachers do not have the knowledge and ability to teach their LD students effectively. It is tempting to believe that assistive technology can make up for that shortcoming. But AT cannot coach students in developing argumentative essays, and it cannot identify and address individual weaknesses and emotional factors that affect the school work of students with LD. Good teachers are able to address all of a student’s needs and orchestrate a quality education for that student. By itself, assistive technology is merely an effective accommodation. When paired with good teaching, AT becomes a portal to academic success.
Once students find success with assistive technology, parents and teachers sometimes believe that their kids need to use AT for every academic task that is assigned. Learning disabilities are highly individualized, however, and students need to learn which technology tools to use and when to use them based on their own unique skills and needs. For example, a student with dyslexia may not need to use text-to-speech technology to read a simple paragraph with basic vocabulary because he or she has made solid progress in a remedial program. If students can complete certain tasks without AT, it is important for their confidence that they be allowed to do so. Students with learning disabilities usually do not over-accommodate themselves.
As mentioned earlier, assistive technology does not do the thinking for LD students, so they need to give just as much effort to school work as their non-LD classmates, even while employing AT tools. In fact, once they gain access to academic materials through the use of AT, LD students are often motivated to give extra effort to obtain knowledge that was previously unavailable to them. Are there students who shy away from giving their best effort in school? Yes, but that has nothing to do with assistive technology making the work any easier.
By the time they reach college or entered the workplace, many of today’s adults with learning disabilities will have already developed successful strategies to compensate for their weaknesses. When they were in school, they did not have the array of available AT that their kids benefit from today. They therefore had to enlist the help of other people to assist them with difficult tasks. That does not mean that it is too late for adults to learn how to use assistive technology and to gain more autonomy. Now that AT tools can be found on practically every computing device on the market, many adults with LD are already carrying assistive technology — in the form of smartphones — in their pockets. They just need to learn how to use that technology effectively and develop new habits that will lead to greater independence.
There has been recent discussion and debate about the very term “assistive technology." Some well-respected educators have taken the stance that all technology is assistive technology, and that therefore the word “assistive" should be removed from the name. Presumably, that position is based on an admirable effort to be inclusive and non-discriminatory. A closer look, however, reveals that the argument to eliminate the distinction is flawed. By definition, assistive technology refers to tools that are used by individuals with disabilities to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Not all technology meets that definition. For example, basic word processors may be effective productivity tools for non-LD students, but they do not make it possible for dyslexic students, who rely on dictation technology, to write quality essays. It should also be noted that while most AT can be useful for all students, regardless of ability, the opposite is not true. Technology that is not assistive can be difficult for LD people to use — and, in fact, not helpful to them at all. Instead of debating semantics, we should instead focus on the fact that some people have special needs, and that’s OK.
In the history of learning disabilities, assistive technology is really just in its infancy, so it is understandable that myths exist. We should strive to continue educating each other and ourselves, however, so that once AT use is well established, we will only be talking about its truths.