Learning Disabilities and Assistive Technologies Guide: Chapter 2 - Considering Assistive Technology

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Considering Assistive Technology for Learning Disabilities

There are a number of reasons why assistive technology (AT) devices may enhance the lives of persons with learning problems. Specifically, the rationale for using AT devices relates to five factors:

  • the persistence of the learning problems across the life span,
  • the benefits of AT devices demonstrated by research,
  • the help AT provides to "work around" a deficiency rather than trying to "fix" a deficiency that shows resistance to such an approach (that is, compensation rather than remediation),
  • the independence AT can offer, and
  • various contexts within which AT devices are appropriate.

Let's examine each of these factors:...

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Persistence of Learning Problems

Learning problems are not “cured” or outgrown. In many instances, children with learning problems grow up to be adults with learning problems. Learning problems that persist into adulthood are associated with a wide range of difficulties (e.g., reading, writing, speaking, listening, spelling, math, organization, social functioning, psychological adjustment).

These persistent problems are manifested in such areas as:

  • independent living,
  • home management,
  • money management,
  • job retention and success,
  • post-secondary education, and
  • social interaction.

The recognition that learning problems persist into adulthood has resulted in the search for alternative approaches for helping persons with learning problems reach their full potential and lead satisfying and rewarding lives. The use of AT devices is one such approach, in that AT devices help an individual compensate for specific disability-related limitations.

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Research on the Effects of Assistive Technology

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of AT as an empowering aid for individuals who have learning problems. These researchers have shown that such devices and systems as word processors, “reading machines,” “talking computers,” speech recognition systems, and electronic spell checkers can be used by individuals with learning problems to compensate for reading, writing, and spelling difficulties.

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Compensation Versus Remediation

Despite years of remedial intervention aimed at improving areas of deficiency, numerous learning problems experienced by children and adolescents persist in their adult years. Continued efforts to remediate, alleviate, or “fix” problems with younger people may be in vain. Learning problems may remain despite years of intervention, regardless of the particular approach, strategy, or technique used to “treat” the problem.

Given the failure of past approaches for remediating learning problems, AT offers a viable alternative to traditional approaches. Assistive technology does not try to improve deficits that have shown resistance to remedial approaches, but rather provides a compensatory approach that circumvents or “works around” deficits while capitalizing on strengths.

It is important to add that identifying AT solutions does not necessarily mean that all other attempts to remediate specific skill deficits should be halted. Rather, AT solutions can often be effective supplements or adjunctive approaches to remediation. In fact, AT may serve to reduce “remedial burn-out,” a negative attitude or aversion toward remedial methods experienced by some persons with learning problems. This attitude may result from prior years of remedial instruction and the tremendous effort and frustration associated with it--efforts which may have done little to alleviate specific learning dysfunctions. The intention here is not to suggest that remedial approaches have no value or should not be used, but rather that a compensatory approach through the use of assistive technology may offer an expeditious means of addressing specific difficulties within particular contexts.

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The Potential for Independence

Research has shown that many individuals with learning problems are overly reliant on parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and co-workers across a variety of settings including work. When individuals with learning problems continually rely on others to help resolve their problems, the transition into adolescence and adulthood may be slowed and self-esteem will plummet. Furthermore, over-reliance on others may raise anxiety levels and stress interpersonal relationships. Such dependence is the “last thing” needed by persons who may already suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, and frustration, and poor social relationships.

Assistive technology provides a means for students with learning problems to accomplish tasks independently. The benefits of independent accomplishment in persons with learning problems have been stressed by Polloway, Smith, and Patton (1988). For the most part, the device will be there when and where it is needed, and should reduce the potential psychological stress and possible negative social ramifications of having to rely continually upon others.

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Contexts of Interaction

Although learning problems are generally considered with regard to the school setting, it is important to keep in mind that individuals with learning problems function in other contexts as well. They must also function at home, in the workplace, at social gatherings, and in recreational/leisure activities. The availability of easily portable AT devices (many of which are pocket-sized) allows the individual with a learning problem to transport a compensatory tool from one setting to another. Whether it is organizing a class report, writing a letter to a friend at home with the assistance of a word processor, checking for spelling errors in a memo to a co-worker, or using a calculator to help keep score in a card game, assistive technology devices may provide the needed support to accomplish effectively tasks in a variety of contexts and settings.