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Assistive technology, or AT, refers to anything and everything that helps people with disabilities do all of those things the rest of us do without giving them a second thought. That includes obvious items like wheelchairs, walkers, canes and hearing aids. Stuff that’s been around forever. But over the last couple of decades, the AT world had blown wide open with the development of thousands of amazing digital hardware and software products.

Access to most free and affordable AT requires owning either a computer or mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet. Or, more likely, both. For many people with physical and learning disabilities, purchasing a computer will be their biggest AT financial investment. The form of choice today is – no surprise – the laptop, although many AT applications can be run on desktops as well. Fortunately, the cost barrier to owning a computer that can handle lots of AT applications has dropped significantly over the last few years. The advent of the Chromebook is a big reason why, but laptops running Windows – and even some Macs – can also be gotten today for a fraction of the price of just a few years ago. The same is true for mobile devices.

Once you’ve purchased your computer or mobile device (or both), assistive technology’s infinite possibilities are at your fingertips. All you need to do is decide the kind of help you need and begin your AT search. And this guide is the perfect place to start, with useful information on the most common types of assistive technology out there and descriptions of some of the best and most popular AT apps and tools currently available – all offered at affordable prices or completely free-of-charge. You’ll also find below a thoughtful and enlightening interview with University of Toronto professor and AT expert Dr. Todd Cunningham.

So, let’s get started!

Built-In AT: Microsoft and Apple

Before buying any computer, it’s important to consider operating systems. For lots of folks, that means one of the big two: Microsoft Windows or Apple’s Mac OS. The good news is that both Windows and Mac operating systems now come chock full of excellent AT applications fully built-in and free of any additional charges. Here’s a look at some of the most popular AT features that are currently included with Windows and Mac:

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The number and range of accessibility features built into Windows 10 is nothing short of amazing.

  • Narrator (screen reader/text-to-speech, braille display support)
  • Magnifier (screen magnification)
  • color filters (for distinguishing colors on-screen)
  • Speech Recognition (voice control/speech-to-text)
  • cursor and pointer adjustments
  • visual notifications to replace sound prompts
  • keyboard shortcuts and toggle keys
  • high-contrast themes
  • on-screen keyboard
  • adjustable mouse settings
  • closed captions
  • mono audio (particularly useful for users with deafness in one ear)
  • reduced animation and background images settings (for minimizing distractions)
  • reading view (to clear distracting web content)
  • Learning Tools (in Microsoft Edge) that read documents
  • eye control support (requires tracking hardware sold separately)

In addition to Windows 10, many of the above-listed features are also available with Microsoft Office 365 and Xbox, as well as other Microsoft products.

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Mac users will also find a large selection of similar built-in AT applications fully accessible on their desktops and laptops.

  • VoiceOver (screen reader/text-to-speech, braille display support, iTunes compatible)
  • Zoom (screen magnifier)
  • Dictation and Dictation Commands (speech-to-text)
  • Siri (voice control)
  • cursor, pointer and keyboard adjustments
  • contrast and color adjustments
  • Reduce Motion (decreases movement in Spaces, the Dock, Notification Center, and other areas)
  • mono audio
  • closed captions
  • Screen Flash (visual replacement of audio alerts)
  • Type to Siri (keyboard control for Siri)
  • FaceTime (for communication between sign language users)
  • Accessibility Keyboard (on-screen keyboard)
  • Switch Control (allows users to move the pointer, choose menus, enter text and more by clicking a switch)
  • Word Completion (predicts words for faster writing)

Many of the above features (or similar ones) can also be found built into other Apple devices, such as iPhones, iPads, Apple Watch, Apple TV and HomePod.

What about Chrome?

One of the biggest bargains in laptop computers today is the Chromebook. Chromebook laptops run Google’s increasingly popular Chrome OS operating system, which is based on the Linux kernel and employs Google’s Chrome Browser as its user interface. The big advantage to Chromebooks is that they offer lots of computing power for a low price. Chromebooks presently come with several powerful accessibility features built-in to either the Chrome OS or the Chrome browser, including:

  • ChromeVox (screen reader/text-to-speech, braille display support)
  • High Contrast (changing and inverting color schemes)
  • Magnifier (screen magnification)
  • keyboard shortcuts and sticky keys
  • on-screen keyboard
  • TalkBack (Chrome browser feature incorporating spoken work, vibration and audible feedback for browsing the internet and interacting with what’s on the screen)
  • text, image and video size adjustment and zoom
  • mono audio
  • voice typing (speech-to-text)
  • curser highlighting and size adjustment, tap dragging, and automatic clicking

You’ll note that the built-in accessibility features of Chrome OS and the Chrome browser, while substantial, are still a bit limited when compared to Windows and Mac OS. Don’t let that discourage you. As you’ll see below, there are tons of great Chrome-compatible free and affordable applications that can be downloaded and installed on a Chromebook. All that’s required is a bit of time and effort to locate the ones that best fit the specific Chromebook owner’s needs.

And How About Phones and Tablets?

AT apps are also a very big deal for mobile devices. Android is Google’s mobile device operating system for tablets and smartphones, and it comes packed with a healthy number of free built-in accessibility features itself, including:

  • TalkBack and Select to Speak (screen readers)
  • BrailleBack (support for connected braille displays)
  • display adjustment (contrast and color, magnification, display and font size)
  • Voice Access (voice control)
  • Switch Access (use of switches instead of the touchscreen to interact with the device)
  • Live Transcribe (speech-to-text)
  • Sound Amplifier (for use with wired headphones to amplify, augment or filter surrounding sounds)
  • real-time text (for use during telephone calls)
  • closed-captions

iOS is, of course, the operating system used Apple mobile devices, like iPhones and iPads. Here’s a look at some of the AT built-ins you’ll find with iOS:

  • VoiceOver (screen reader/text-to-speech, braille display support, iTunes compatible)
  • Zoom (screen magnifier)
  • font adjustment
  • contrast and color adjustments
  • audio descriptions for movies
  • Siri (voice control)
  • Dictation (speech-to-text)
  • hearing aids and sound processors
  • Type to Siri (keyboard control for Siri)
  • FaceTime (for communication between sign language users)
  • iMessages (instant messaging without having to speak)
  • mono audio
  • closed captions
  • Switch Control (allows users to move the pointer, choose menus, enter text and more by clicking a switch)
  • screen touch adjustment
  • predictive text
  • keyboard shortcuts

Free and Affordable AT: Apps and More

Most people with a computer or mobile digital device use one of the above operating systems, but there are exceptions. And just because you use a popular OS doesn’t mean that your device comes with all of the AT features you need. That’s no problem, though, since there are literally hundreds of great apps created and offered by independent developers, plenty of which you can have either entirely or nearly without charge. To get you started, we’ve put together this list of popular apps for some of the most common AT requirements.

  • Vision
    • Screen Readers/Text-to-Speech

      Balabolka is a text-to-speech freeware app that allows Windows users to both open a wide range of supported formats (HTML, PDF, DOCX, MOBI, EPUB and many more,) and to cut and paste text directly into the program. Over 30 languages are supported. Features include customizable voice parameters (rate and pitch) and bookmarking. Balabolka is available in a regular downloadable format as well as a portable version that does not require installation and can be run entirely from a USB drive.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Windows

      Another excellent text-to-speech offering, NaturalReader comes in two free personal-use options. NaturalReader Online allows users to log in from any computer and convert documents in a number of formats (Docx, PDF, RTF, TXT), as well as Google Docs and webpages, into natural-sounding speech. Users can additionally access NaturalReader Online from their mobile devices via OneDrive, Google Drive or Dropbox. NaturalReader Software is a downloadable application available for both Windows and Mac users. The free version of NaturalReader Software works with Docx, PDF, TXT and ePub formats, and features a floating bar to read text in other applications. Paid versions of both programs are also available, each with additional features.

      cost
      Cost: Free and paid versions
      compatible
      Compatible with: Most browsers (NaturalReader Online);Windows, Mac OS(NaturalReader Software)

      Created by NV Access, a registered charity and software development company, NVDA is probably the single best option for Windows users seeking a high-functioning and affordable screen reading program. NVDA features include: speech synthesizer support for over 50 languages, as well as many third-party voices; support for a wide range of browsers (such as Firefox and Google Chrome), email clients, office programs (such as Excel and Word), music players, chat software, and more. NVDA also supports many refreshable braille displays.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Windows

      Among many other free text-to-speech options to consider are Panopreter Basic, WordTalk, and the Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader.

      Screen Magnifiers

      Simply place your cursor on the area of your screen you want to magnify. Features include up to 40x magnification, smoothing, dual monitor support, and a stay-on-top of window option.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Windows

      Virtual Magnifying Glass is a free, open-source, multi-platform screen magnifier that is easy-to-use, customizable allows users to zoom in on text and images with up to 20x magnification.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, FreeBSD (download all versions from the product website)

      Vision Assist allows those with Apple mobile devices to use their built-in cameras to magnify whatever is in front of them. Use Vision Assist to read menus, labels, newspapers and magazines, and look at photos and other images. You can also use your device wirelessly with your Apple TV or Apple Lightening Adapter. Up to 20x magnification.

      cost
      Cost: $1.99
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS

      Object Recognition

      Google Goggles is an image recognition mobile app using visual search technology and a device’s camera to identify objects. Users take a photo of the object they wish to ID and Google Goggles searches for and retrieves information about the image. Uses include barcode and QR scanning, recognition of logos, artwork and other 2D objects, conducting searches for similar objects/products, and more.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iPhone (included in Google iPhone app), Android

      With the NantMobile Money Reader, user point the camera of their iOS mobile device at any currency, and the application will instantly identify and tell them the denomination. More than 20 world currencies are recognizable, including the US Dollar, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, UK Pound, Euro, New Zealand Dollar, Japanese Yen, Indian Rupee, and many more.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS

      With TapTapSee, users take a video or photo of an object with their mobile device’s camera and the app will identify the object out loud through the device’s VoiceOver function. TapTapSee can identify both 2D and 3D objects at any angle. Results can be shared by text or email, and on social media.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Android
  • Hearing/Auditory
    • Speech/Voice Recognition

      Google Voice Typing allows individuals using Google Docs or Google Slides (via the Chrome browser) to perform dictation and to carry out literally dozens of commands to edit and format dictated text in practically every way imaginable. Voice Typing is free and comes built into Google Docs and Google Slides, and is also available for most Android devices.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Chrome browser, Android

      Another free Chrome browser-based (no download required) option, Speechnotes bills itself as a user-friendly “online notepad” for dictation and text editing. Speechnotes is built on Google’s speech-recognition engines and employs a clean, simple design in which users can move easily from key-typing to voice-typing and insert punctuation by speech command or a single mouse click.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Chrome browser

      SpeechTexter is yet another free speech-to-text application available to Chrome browser and Android OS users. The program offers real-time continuous speech recognition for the creation of practically any type of document, email, blog post, report, etc. SpeechTexter currently supports over 60 languages, and features a custom dictionary that allows users to add their own commands for punctuation and other data.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Chrome browser

      Additional free and affordable speech recognition options to check out include e-Speaking (for older Windows versions), Otter Voice Notes, Speech Recognition SoundWriter (add-on for use with Google Docs), Voice Finger (voice control of keyboard and mouse), and Verbit.

      Sound Amplifiers/Enhancement

      Hearing Aid with Replay (Lite) is a real-time sound amplifier for Android mobile devices. The app also automatically records what’s going on around the user, allowing for up to 30 seconds of instant replay. Additional features include creation of up to two sound profiles, selection of sample rate, and the ability to share and save recordings. A paid version with more features is also available.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Android

      Mobile Ears provides sound amplification, noise filtering and noise reduction to better hear conversations, lectures, TV and movie audio, and more via your iOS mobile device. Requires the use of earphones.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS

      Closed Captioning

      Ava offers virtually instantaneous (less than a second) closed captioning on your smartphone and other mobile devices. The free version of Ava allows for up to five hours of live conversation closed captions per month, and unlimited captioning for Ava sessions that you join. You can also save your conversations for later review. Ava Premium allows for unlimited live captioning at a price of $29 per month.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Android

      Telephone Captioning

      The Hamilton CapTel app allows users to place and receive captioned calls either directly on their Android-running smartphones or on their Android tablets via a landline or mobile phone. Works with most wireless networks, but requires a Hamilton CapTel account. Smartphone and tablet versions for iOS-running devices are currently not available but are promised soon, so keep checking the company’s website.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Android

      RogerVoice uses automatic speech recognition and speech synthesis to provide real-time captioning of calls at anytime, to and from anywhere in the world. Requires a broadband connection (Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G), and separate mobile carrier plan and phone number. Calls between RogerVoice users are free. However, calls to and from landlines or mobile devices without RogerVoice require a monthly subscription (plans currently available from $2.99 to $29.99).

      cost
      Cost: Free (for calls between RogerVoice users)
      compatible
      Compatible with: Android, iOS
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication
    • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to communication tools and methods employed to replace or supplement writing and speech for those persons with impairments in the comprehension and production of written and/or spoken language. AAC is most often used by individuals with cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, intellectual impairment, or – most commonly – autism. There are literally dozens of AAC applications on the market today. Which ones are useful to you or your loved one depends upon the specific impairment in question.

      JABtalk is a free, open source speech communication app that combines personalized voice and images with an easy-to-use interface. Users can download an unlimited number of images from the internet, as well as add pictures from their own device’s camera or via memory card. Audio can be added to words and categories via microphone or memory card. JABtalk is available in English, Dutch, French, German and Slovenian.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Android

      LetMe Talk is an AAC talker app that allows users to line up images in a meaningful way to create and read them out loud. LetMe Talk incorporates over 9000 images from the ARASAAC and allows users to add their own images as well. Other features include voice support for images and sentences, creation of new categories, capacity for several user profiles, and support for 18 languages.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Android

      Verbally is a comprehensive assisted speech app available for iPads. Features include a Core Words Grid with 50 essential words, a Core Phrases Grid with a dozen common phrases, and Text Prediction that learns words and names commonly used by the individual user. A premium version with additional and expanded features is available for $99.99.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iPad

      Other free and affordable AAC apps include, among others PiktoPlus, Niki Talk, and YouTalk AAC.

  • Task Management & Organization
    • This time management app for mobile devices running iOS allows users to create task lists with an unlimited number of tasks, and set timers for completing each task. Features include a completely gesture-based interface and customizable icons, labels, colors and reminders.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS

      myHomework is a cross-platform student planner app with which students can track classes, assignments, tests, projects, and most other school-related activities. Users can sync across a range of devices for access anytime, anywhere. There are two options: myHomework Basic and myHomework Premium with additional and enhanced features.

      cost
      Cost: Free (myHomework Basic); $4.99 per year (myHomework Premium)

      Remember The Milk is an easy-to-use task planning app. Users enter task properties (due date, tags, priority, repeat, etc.) on a single line and receive reminders via text, IM, email, twitter and mobile apps. Remember The Milk syncs across most devices with calendars, including iCal, Outlook, Google Calendar, Gmail, and others. An upgrade with expanded features can be purchased for $39.99 per year.

      cost
      Cost: Free

      Additional task management and organization apps to try include Any.do, iStudiez Pro, MyStudyLife, Todoist and WorkFlowy.

  • Time & Distraction Management
    • Cold Turkey Blocker and Cold Turkey Writer are apps that allow users to eliminate certain distractions and focus on their work in order to minimize wasted time. Cold Turkey Blocker blocks an unlimited number of websites for a set period through the use of timers. The app also provides statistics that identify the user’s biggest time-wasters. Cold Turkey Writer allows for distraction-free writing by blocking all other apps until the user reaches a set period of time or word count. Paid versions with additional features are available for both apps.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Cold Turkey Blocker Basic – Mac, Windows; Cold Turkey Writer Basic – Mac, Windows

      Fokus is a basic, simple-to-use browser extension that helps readers focus on the on-screen text they’re reading by covering the rest of the screen with a semi-transparent black foreground. Users can adjust the overlay opacity and padding around the selected text.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Chrome and Firefox browsers

      Time Timer time management apps allow users to customize, save and re-use timers with a simple-to-use and colorful interface. Time Timer additionally offers a line of stand-alone time management devices.

      cost
      Cost: Varies by device
      compatible
      Compatible with: Android ($2.99), iPhone ($2.99), iPad ($4.99), Apple Watch ($2.99), Mac and Windows desktops ($20.95)

      Additional free and inexpensive time and distraction management apps you may want to consider include Focus Booster, SelfControl, StayFocused , Strict Workflow, Time Tracker, and WriteRoom.

  • Notetaking
    • AudioNote allows users to synchronize their notes with the audio of their lectures, as well as insert text, photos, and drawings in the appropriate places along the way. On playback, users can go directly to corresponding audio, photos, graphs, etc., simply by tapping the specific note. There are a number of AudioNote versions currently out there. AudioNote Lite for Android is available for free. There’s also a version for Android simply called AudioNote available for $5.99, but listing the exact same features as AudioNote Lite. There’s also a free version of AudioNote Lite for iOS devices. However, the app’s creator advises iOS users to download a newer version called AudioNote 2, which is also available free of charge. Paid versions are additionally available for Windows (currently $19.99) and Mac (currently $14.99). Confusing? Yes, so it may be good to try out each of the versions available for your device to see which one best suits your particular needs.

      cost
      Cost: Free and paid versions available
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac

      A somewhat less confusing option, Evernote Basic offers many of the same features as AudioNote and other notetaking apps to sync, organize, and share notes in a wide range of formats (written notes, photos, audio and video clips, charts, graphs, and more). You can also use your device’s camera to scan and organize paper documents, drawings, business cards, etc., and combine them with other notes for easy accessibility and review. Evernote Premium with expanded and additional features is also available for $7.99 per month.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac

      The Notability app is a great choice for those with Macs and Apple mobile devices. Users can combine typed or handwritten notes with photos, graphs and user-made sketches, You can also add and annotate PDFs, and sync them all with their lecture audios. Then, store everything on iCloud for accessibility anytime, anywhere.

      cost
      Cost: $9.99
      compatible
      Compatible with: iOS, Mac

      Other free and affordable notetaking apps to check out include Audiotorium, iAnnotate, and SoundNote.

  • Brainstorming & Mind Mapping
    • MindMeister is a fully web-based brainstorming and mind mapping app which can be accessed directly from your web browser via Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. App downloads are also available for mobile devices. MindMeister is offered in four price/feature tiers, three of which are suggested for individuals. MindMeister Basic is free and allows up to three mind maps at a time. MindMeister Personal allows an unlimited number of mind maps and adds several additional features, including image and PDF export, file and image attachments, and mind map printing. MindMeister Pro adds even more features, including multiple team member access, team stats and reports, and more.

      cost
      Cost: Free (MindMeister Basic); $4.99 per month (MindMeister Personal); $8.25 per month (MindMeister Pro)
      compatible
      Compatible with: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

      Popplet is a mind mapping and brainstorming tool that allows students and others to think, organize and learn visually. Users can create mind maps with their own added images, text, videos, drawings, etc. Mind maps can be exported as PDFs or JPEGs to be printed or shared between devices. The Popplet Lite version is totally free, but users are limited to one mind map at a time. The upgraded version allows for unlimited mind maps. Popplet is available both as an online resource and iOS app.

      cost
      Cost: Free (Popplet online and Popplet Lite); $4.99 (Popplet app upgrade)

      WiseMapping is a free, web-based open source mind mapping platform that allows users to create mind maps alone or in collaboration with others. WiseMapping can be used on a wide range of browsers, including Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and others.

      cost
      Cost: Free
      compatible
      Compatible with: Most browsers

      There are lots of other free and affordable brainstorming and mind mapping options to consider, including Bubbl, Coggle, FreeMind, Freeplane, Lucidchart, Mind42, MindMap, Scapple, and SpiderScribe.

Expert Perspective: Interview with Dr. Todd Cunningham

Dr. Todd Cunningham is a clinical and school psychologist, and Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. Dr. Cunningham’s innovative research investigates the integration of assistive technology and learning strategies for children with learning difficulties. A sought after public speaker and consultant, Dr. Cunningham has shared his expertise with parents, students, educators, school boards, and other professionals across Canada.

Dr. Cunningham can be found online at: academicinterventionlab.com, a research website associated with the University of Toronto; LearnDifferent.org, helping students, families and schools address “learning difficulties and social/emotional barriers” with a combination of instruction, technology and leading research; and ATSelect.org, where individuals can get information and help in selecting the right AT tools to fit their unique needs.

What exactly is assistive technology and how does it relate to the average person?

Assistive technology is any technology that we use to enhance or modify a person with a disability’s functioning so that they are able to do the same types of activities as others. The way I like to think about assistive technology is to think of the wheelchair. Before the wheelchair was developed, if someone was paraplegic and they had to get from point A to point B, they could either pull themselves across the ground, a very effortful task, or they could ask someone to pick them up and move them, not allowing for a lot of independence. With the development of the wheelchair, that person can move from point A to point B much more efficiently and independently. That is the promise of assistive technology, to allow individuals who have a disability to use technology to do things more independently and more efficiently than if they didn’t have it.

How is assistive technology in practical use today?

It’s everywhere. So, you have your traditional devices to help with physical and sensory impairments: wheelchairs, walkers, canes, hearing aids, and all that. Then you get into the educational field where you have students with learning disabilities who, for example, are unable to read at the speeds needed to keep up, so they have text-to-speech software that can read out loud. We have students who have difficulties with organizing their ideas, so we have these graphic organizing programs to help them to consolidate their ideas and put them out. We have individuals who forget stuff, so we have our amazing smartphones with alarms built into them and the ability to know where they are in space, so as they are about to leave the school a reminder goes up saying, “Hey, did you actually get those textbooks out of your locker?”

If you look at the technology in the learning environment, the only thing that makes it assistive is that it’s being used by someone with a disability. You and I are using the exact same technology. We have our computers reading to us, like our GPS’s that talk out loud. That’s using text-to-speech software. We talk to Siri and Google these days with voice recognition software. We have our reminders on our apps to tell us what to do. So, the only thing that’s really making assistive technology assistive technology right now is the way we’re employing it to overcome or bypass an area of disability for a specific person.

Are you seeing any specific challenges to accessing assistive technology in the classroom?

Here some of the major areas. Area number one: School boards are often governed by their information technology groups, their IT. And so therefore the products that they choose may not necessarily be the tools that a specific student needs. So, they might be saying, “Oh, look at that big suite of tools over here. We pay a licensing agreement with this company, we’re going to get all of this stuff. That’s great.” But what happens is that they sit the student down and go, “I will train you on all of these tools,” but really the student only needs one of the tools. So, what happens is that they get confused. It’s an over-prescription of assistive technology that occurs. Also, classroom teachers are often completely removed from the decision-making process for choosing the AT products and don’t understand their purpose.

The next major area that we run into is the perception of what’s going on. I always love the worksheet. So, you have a student who has like a $2,000 laptop with all of this cool reading software built into it. And then the teacher comes with the worksheet and gives it to all of the students. Well, the problem with the worksheet is that I still have to get that worksheet into my laptop to be able to have it read out loud. So, suddenly we have an inherent barrier that has just come up for that student. Now, we can use smartphones to take pictures of it and download in into the laptop or we can have a portable scanner with the student. There are ways to work around this stuff, but the students don’t do that because it’s an additional step.

It’s a hassle.

It’s a total hassle. The other thing that we’ve found is that a lot of school boards are going for internet-based stuff. Google Classroom, for example, is really big these days. But if you are living in a rural community and you don’t have really super high-speed internet, when you’re using these products, they’re taking a long time to load. We have an article that’s coming out right now looking at the average bandwidth in rural Ontario and how long it takes for a student to activate their assistive technology. There’s a rule that basically says if it takes more than nine seconds to like turn a program, students these days just stop using it. What we’re finding is that some of this internet-based assistive technology takes over two minutes for it to load when you’re in a rural area with low bandwidth. And so again, what do we see? Students just don’t use it.

What’s the answer to that? Getting faster internet would be one, I suppose.

Or we need to really have an understanding of the ecosystem that we’re deploying the technology into. You know, if you don’t have the internet then don’t buy internet-based assistive technology, buy a computer-based program. If you are going to have a student use technology for the computer to read out loud, then provide work in a digital format to that student. We wouldn’t give a student a wheelchair and not provide a ramp into the school. That’s kind of what’s happening at this point. We’re not actually stepping back and thinking about the full ecosystem in which we need to deploy the technology to make it successful.

A big piece of this is just teachers needing better training to understand what the technology actually is. Teachers spend a lot of time in the classroom trying to teach the kids how to use these programs, but that’s not the help they need. They just need to be allowed to use [the programs] and have materials provided in a format that allows them to be able to deal with it.

So, it’s educating the teachers and getting the kids up to speed a little bit, and then the kids pretty much take it from there.

Oh, yeah. Kids are quite amazing in how well they can use computer programs.

What can parents do to help get their kids the assistive technology they need?

So, the first thing they have to do is find the right technology tool to help their student. To try to help, we’ve created a website called ATSelect, and what ATSelect does is help guide the user through a process of decision-making. Basically, users ask, “What are the challenges my child is having?” and we recommend the type of technology tool that they should be using. So, that’s a really important thing. You have to know what the right tool is to help the student that you are working with.

Once we have the tool aspect done, the second thing is that it’s really important for parents to work with their child at home to start to feel comfortable using the technology before rushing to the school to deploy it. If we rush to the school to deploy it and we run into some of the barriers that we were just talking about, then the student is most likely to abandon the technology and it’s very hard to get them back onto it.

Is cost a factor for families these days or are we finding that it’s not quite the problem it used to be?

It depends on what tool you need. So, let’s take reading tools, which represent 80% of the tools that most students with learning disabilities require. Text-to-speech, it’s free. It’s built into Microsoft, it’s built into Mac OS. If you can’t find either of those, you can go and download the free software off the internet. Voice recognition for talking to a computer is free, too. Again, all of the major companies have it built into their operating systems. Now, if you want the state-of-the-art one, you will have to fork over like $300, but it’s not required to do that at this point. So, cost should not be a major barrier.

The place where cost comes in is just getting your first device. Parents need to know that they don’t have to run out and buy like a $2,000 Mac Book. You can buy a Chromebook these days or you can get a $300 laptop and load it up with all of the free technology. We have a selection tree on ATSelect to help determine the primary device you should be getting, what’s the minimum thing I need to buy for my child so that they can feel successful in using the technology.

It sounds like the cost barrier is getting lower all the time.

It really is. Five years ago, you were likely to spend at least $2,000 on a computer and another $1,500 on the software. So, we’ve seen a drastic change in the landscape. It’s really amazing where we’re at now in terms of price points.

What are you seeing on the horizon in terms of assistive technology? What’s exciting you?

My goodness, all the cool stuff. I love my toys. My office is full of them. What’s really cool is seeing how the interfaces are beginning to change. We’re not going to be limited by the old keyboard/mouse interfaces. We’re definitely moving into the world of neuro-controlled interfaces, which is really, really exciting. But I think the more exciting thing is the push we’re making now at really helping educators and parents to understand how assistive technology fits into the learning landscape of their child. It doesn’t need to be this magical thing that’s happening, it’s just adding to what they’re already doing. So, if I have a profound learning challenge, it doesn’t disqualify me from being able to do the work that others are able to do because I now have these tools that allow me to get into the game.

It’s all very encouraging.

It is. And our science is at a point where we can identify kids even in kindergarten who will benefit from this technology. We don’t have to wait until failure has set in for these students. It’s a great time to be in education because our research and our tools have gotten to a point where we to are able to help students who are struggling.

You hit on something, that the technology is being employed before a point of failure by the student. That’s enormously important, I would think.

Yes, it’s huge.