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Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative

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Volume 11, Issue 4: Fall 2003

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Assistive Technology:
Buyer Beware

How to avoid mistakes when purchasing educational assistive technology

Dan Fendler, AT Specialist, Sussex County ATRC

Several weeks ago, a mom stopped by the ATRC looking for something that would help her 9-year-old son with school. He has a central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). Typically, children with CAPD can hear, but may have difficulty understanding and interpreting what is said.

The school he is attending is aware of his special needs, and in good faith, purchased a sound field system for the classroom. Sound field systems do help some children with CAPD. Unfortunately, the system did not help this particular child. The mom borrowed our FM System (a personal amplification device) and indicated that she thought it was working well.

There are dozens of other examples of unsuccessful attempts to use assistive technology in the classroom. Most schools have a "closet" that contains discarded AT, or tools that are not longer used. One need only look as far as that closet to see examples of AT that did not work.

Whatever the area, whether it is overcoming a learning disability or using an augmentative communication system, finding a device or software program that actually works and helps solve a problem can be a daunting task. There are a few steps you can take to help ensure an assistive technology success story.

Know your resources

Many school districts have an individual who is designated as the District AT Specialist. It has been my experience that many of the AT Specialists are overworked - they often carry this additional responsibility along with full time teaching duties. But, it is a good place to start.

The physical therapist, speech language pathologist, or occupational therapist might also have information and knowledge that could be critical in providing a solution depending on the student's needs.

ATI's AT Resource Centers have qualified AT Specialists who are available to help sort through the vast array of options.

Take a structured approach

It is extremely important to consider each individual case on its own merits. A common pitfall to avoid is to assume that what worked for one student with a similar condition will work for all similar cases. Each individual case should be thoroughly and methodically approached.

One possible approach to consider is the use of the SETT framework developed by Joy Zabala and Diana Carl. The SETT Framework is a guideline for gathering data in order to make appropriate assistive technology decisions. The SETT Framework considers first the STUDENT, the ENVIRONMENT(S) and the TASKS required for active participation in the activities of the environment, and finally, the system of TOOLS needed for the student to address the tasks. For more information on SETT, check out

If you opt not to employ this type of methodology, you should consider some other structured approach that will help ensure that each student's needs are appropriately accommodated.

Augmentative communication

One of the most common mistakes I see is related to the selection of communication devices. Often, the selection seems to be based on the device with which the speech pathologist is most familiar. Aug comm devices are expensive, and each device has different features. The trick is to find one whose features align the needs and abilities of the potential user. If you are a member of the team, ask questions. Find out those devices with which each member of the team is familiar. If no one has experience with aug comm devices, it may be necessary to bring in an objective consultant.

Try before you buy. After a potential device has been selected, make sure the student gets a trial period where s/he can actually use the device. The AT Resource Centers have a number of devices available for loan. Check to see if we have the device you need. If not, speak with the device sales representative to see what their policy is regarding loaners. Many of the aug comm companies have devices that they make available for trial.

When you do make the final selection, make sure everyone who needs to learn how to use the device does so, including the child's family. Training is key. Training is often provided by the device manufacturer and is usually included in the purchase price. Training for staff and family members can also be written into the student's IEP.

Software purchases

Whether it is designed to help with learning disabilities, visual impairment or literacy, software may be a great accommodation for some students. After you have gone through the process of selecting appropriate software, check to see if the company makes its software available for trial. Many have 30-day evaluation copies available. It makes a lot of sense to try before you buy, particularly with expensive products. Kurzweil makes the Kurzweil 3000 product (a reading, writing and learning solution for individuals of all ages with print difficulties) available on a trial basis. The website is

WYNN, a similar product made by Freedom Scientific, also makes its product available for trial. Check

If you need screen readers to help students with visual impairment, JAWS and Window Eyes both make their products available for evaluation. Many companies are eager to establish relationships with schools and may be willing to accommodate your needs.

Some final notes

The Internet is a powerful tool that can provide a wealth of information. If you are working with a child who has a particular need, check out the Web to see what others have found. When approached properly, the process of incorporating AT in the classroom can be successful and satisfying, especially when you see the difference it can make. As always, if there is anything we can do to help, give us a call. The AT Resource Centers are here to help.

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