Assistive Technology for Special Education

Technology has truly been a game changer for students with special needs. The pages in this section provide information on some of the products out there-- and how to get them for your students!

Assistive technology is a special education service written into students’ IEPs. Under IDEA, the law that governs special education nationally, IEP teams have to “(v) consider whether the child needs assistive technology devices and services” as part of their consideration of special factors. That’s why every district has some version of a box in special factors that asks whether the student needs assistive technology!

In terms of what assistive technology is, the answer is pretty much everything! IDEA 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 the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” (300.5

So here are some examples of assistive technology:

  • An augmented communication device
  • Large print materials
  • A text-to-speech program
  • Visual timers
  • A Braille interface
  • Pencil grips
  • Audio books
  • Wiggly seat cushions

Note that assistive technology includes more than just computer-based technology! It is all of the physical  and digital supports that students need to succeed!


While district to district procedures for qualifying for assistive technology vary, the law does not! The law spells out that special education includes assistive technology services as well as products. That service includes the evaluation of students, the acquisition of the products students need, and training for the student, family, and teachers on how to most effectively use the product.

What that means is that:

  1. Assistive technology is FREE to students. The district has to pay for it.
  2. The district has to have an expert who can help the team identify the products and programs that might help the child.
  3. That expert has to train the team on how to use the product.

Assistive technology is often recommended by occupational therapists, speech therapists, or physical therapists in which case they are the experts who will provide the training and consultation. However, if what you want is AT for reading, writing, or organization that often comes from a district AT expert. If you don’t know who yours is, find out!

Here is exactly what the law says:

300.6 Assistive technology service.

Assistive technology service means any service that directly assists a child with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device. The term includes—
(a) The evaluation of the needs of a child with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the child in the child’s customary environment;
(b) Purchasing, leasing, or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology devices by children with disabilities;
(c) Selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing, or replacing assistive technology devices;
(d) Coordinating and using other therapies, interventions, or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;
(e) Training or technical assistance for a child with a disability or, if appropriate, that child’s family; and
(f) Training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education or rehabilitation services), employers, or other individuals who provide services to, employ, or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of that child.

Educational technology includes all of the amazing array of tools and supports used in modern classrooms that all students have access to. While assistive technology programs are carefully selected for an individual student with an IEP (and ALWAYS paid for by the school district), educational technology programs are typically available to all students in a district or classroom. While educational technology programs can be paid by the district, the school, or the teacher, they are also something that families often pay for out of pocket for home access.

Sometimes, assistive technology and educational technology can overlap! In that case, you want to be strategic about what is most useful for the student. The most common overlap is on laptops as many districts have moved to a one-to-one device policy. Let’s say a student needs access to a device with a good text-to-speech program at all times. The text-to-speech program is always going to be AT as it needs to be specially installed on the machine. However, the machine itself could either be a special one provided by the AT department or the district’s one-to-one device! To figure out what is most useful, you would need to think about whether the district device works well with text-to-speech and also about the social complexities– many students want to use the same devices as their peers.

Here are two examples of common educational technology programs that can be helpful to students with disabilities:

  • Google calendar to help with assignment tracking
  • Word processor for assignments to help with handwriting and spelling

There are other products out there, however, that are slightly more specialized and can either help a general education teacher meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, or help a student with an IEP get a bit more practice in!

There are a lot of programs out there that purport to teach students reading or mathematics. On the positive side, they give students lots of opportunities for repetition.

The downsides, however, are often larger with students too often spending their general education time plugged into a machine and hitting levels where they will fail– and fail– and fail.

These programs can be awesome but are often incredibly expensive and far too easily abused. When people talk about being nervous of educational technology they are often talking about these programs. When people talk about educational tech as the “savior” of education they are talking mostly about these programs.

These are programs focusing on reading or math that students can go through at their own pace. Often they are created to look like video games. Students have to master skills at each level before they can move to the next level.

At their best, these programs give struggling students extra exposures to already taught material and give higher students previews of the next few concepts and ideas. At their worst, they become a way to decrease teaching and interaction in the classroom and a way to push lower students off into the corner in the name of differentiation.

While these programs can help struggling students, parents need to ask lots of clarifying questions about how schools use the programs. How much of the school day is a kid learning from a video game/program and how much of the day are they learning from their friends and teachers?

School is about the socio-emotional learning and the skills gained from hearing and working with peers as much as it is about learning foundational skills.

Moreover, these programs are pricey. The companies that make them are almost always in it for the bottom dollar so beware of the claims they make and do research before buying one!

Here are a few programs that I have used and liked:

Learning Upgrade: This program has a Reading Upgrade that has 50 levels moving from ABCs to CVC words to multisyllable words. It also has a Comprehension Upgrade working on reading comprehension skills. It also has a Math Upgrade at each grade level. You can assign struggling students a lower grade level to reteach skills from previous years. The graphics, music, and videos are great and kids love it.

Programs focused on differentiation don’t try to teach students– they focus instead on giving teachers the tools they need to teach all of their learners in their classrooms. These programs can be a powerful way to support students in general education classrooms.

While leveled learning platforms claim that they are doing differentiation by letting kids learn at their own pace there are some awesome Web 2.0 programs out there that actually let teachers differentiate their instruction.


  • On a variety of different platforms teachers can assign students reading assignments on similar topics at different reading levels. Other platforms let teachers and students search for articles by Lexile level so everyone gets an article that they can read.
  • Newsela: Teachers can assign articles to their class to read at different Lexile levels. That way everybody in the classroom can read articles on the same topic written at their reading level.


  • Teachers get a lot of control on digital platforms on the assignments their students receive. They can write multiple versions of an assignment—requiring different numbers of sources, words, whatever—and push out the differentiated assignments to students on their e-learning platform. It is very little extra work for a teacher and because it is online students get a little privacy about their differentiated work.


  • Teachers can easily differentiate assignments by letting students do presentations or assignments in a medium of their choice. Some students might want to do a podcast while others might want to write a paper, shoot a video, or do a slide show. As long as the criteria is the same for each of the platforms, it doesn’t necessarily increase a teacher’s workload while allowing weaker writers other mediums to show of their mastery of content.


  • Digital collaboration is a fantastic way to get all students involved in learning. When an assignment is done on-line,  the teacher has the ability to set guidelines for who does what and to give students tasks that suit their strengths. Not everyone has to do the same thing on the assignment and platforms like Google make it easy to see who has done what.

Have more IEP questions? Check out: