Assistive Technology

Assistive technology refers to the use of technological devices and situational modifications by or for individuals with disabilities to enable them to improve or maintain their functional capabilities. Because students with disabilities at institutions of higher education may use assistive technology in demonstrating their ability to meet the requirements of the programs in which they are enrolled, college and university personnel need to be cognizant of relevant legal issues. This entry provides an overview of federal legislation related to assistive technology and examines the ways in which assistive technology can enable students with disabilities to use such devices to meet the requirements of the programs for which they are qualified.

Assistive Technology Defined

While the impact of technology on the lives of persons both with and without disabilities has become pervasive, the use of certain types of technologies, known as assistive technology, has enabled individuals with disabilities to expand their functional repertoires and access environments and activities that, historically, have been inaccessible to them. Broadly speaking, the term assistive technology refers to two elements: devices and services.

Assistive technology devices are technological devices that enable individuals to maintain or improve their functional capabilities. An example of an assistive technology device that is common in institutions of higher learning is a desktop computer with voice recognition software. This assistive technology enables individuals with physical disabilities that prevent them from writing using pens or keyboards to produce legible texts by talking to their computers. Assistive technology services enable individuals with disabilities to select appropriate devices to use, be taught how to use them, and to maintain the equipment in good working order. Hence the term assistive technology refers both to the devices and services that comprise the technological solutions that enable individuals with disabilities to maintain or improve on their functional capabilities.

Legislation on Assistive Technology in Higher Education

One subset of the population of persons with disabilities who can benefit from the use of assistive technology consists of students, both those enrolled in K–12 public schools and those enrolled in institutions of higher education, including community colleges, colleges, and universities. Although federal (and state) laws work in concert to direct the use of assistive technologies by qualified students, this entry focuses on relevant federal statutes, because they are so pervasive in scope.

The key statute at the K–12 level is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004). The IDEA mandates the provision of special education services, which may include the use of assistive technology, for all qualified students with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive. The IDEA has played a key role in promoting the use of assistive technology. This act states that because disabilities are a natural part of the human experience, their presence does not diminish the rights of individuals with disabilities to benefit from receiving an education.

There are two key elements of the IDEA with regard to assistive technology. First, all qualified students with disabilities are entitled to receive appropriate special education and related services, including assistive technology. Second, assistive technology can be provided in the form of special education, a related service, or a supplementary aid, service, or support. Further, assistive technology has been designated as one of five “special factors,” which means that the need for its use by every student who is eligible for special education services under the law must be addressed annually in evaluating student progress.

To the extent that K–12 public schools are placing students ages 18 or older with moderate or more significant disabilities in specially designed programs that are located on campuses at institutions of higher education so that they can be in age-appropriate settings, the aforementioned elements of the IDEA are relevant. Consequently, although the IDEA does not generally apply in higher education, personnel at colleges and universities need to be cognizant of the circumstances under which it can come into play for specifically identified students with disabilities.

Two other federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on disability by institutions of higher education govern the use of assistive technology by persons with disabilities who are officially enrolled in their programs. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits institutions that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of disability. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) extends the prohibitions of discrimination based on disability to most public and private institutions of higher education regardless of whether they receive federal funds. While the nuances of which institutions of higher education are excluded from the provisions of Section 504 and the ADA is beyond the scope of this entry, the remainder of this discussion focuses on students and circumstances under which both laws apply.

Section 504 and the ADA protect students who have disabilities, who are “otherwise qualified” for the educational program or higher education activities in which they wish to participate, and who can do so by means of reasonable accommodations. Students are considered to “have disabilities” if they have physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities (such as learning, seeing, hearing, speaking, performing manual tasks, or caring for themselves), if they have a record of such impairments, or if they are regarded as having such impairments.

In addition to this legislation, the Assistive Technology Act of 2004 focuses on delivering assistive technology directly to persons with disabilities. Whereas its predecessor, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, enabled states to develop infrastructures for the purpose of getting assistive technology to persons with disabilities, the Assistive Technology Act of 2004 shifted the focus to direct-aid programs, such as assistive technology reutilization programs and device loan programs.

Assistive Technology in Practice

Students are “qualified” for programs or activities in higher education if they meet the academic and technical standards required for admission or participation by means of reasonable accommodation; of course, students can qualify and not need such accommodations. Examples of such higher education programs, services, and activities for which students with disabilities can ask to use an assistive technology include, but are not limited to, academics, admissions, research, counseling, athletics, recreation, and transportation.

The primary reason students with disabilities seek to use assistive technology is so that they can participate in programs, services, and activities for the purpose of obtaining the same benefits as their peers who are not disabled. Once students with disabilities have proven that they are qualified for programs, services, or activities, they must be provided with the means to overcome any limitations that may result from their impairments so that they can benefit from the programs.

The process that students with disabilities must follow in procuring assistive technology varies from one institution to the next. At many colleges and universities, the process is handled by a Section 504 or ADA coordinator, typically operating out of the institution’s office for student services. Regardless of the exact process that is followed, public institutions must give primary consideration to students’ requests, meaning that officials must honor these preferences unless they can demonstrate that equally effective alternative accommodations exist. Private institutions may decide unilaterally what a student needs as long as it results in effective accommodation. Institutions may not charge students for the cost of assistive technology devices that the institutions are required to provide by law.

Either type of institution may be relieved of the requirement to provide accommodation for a student with disabilities using one of three defenses under these laws: Institutions need not provide accommodation if it would be excessively costly; if it would require significant alterations in the nature of a program, such as in a case where a blind student was denied admission to medical school; or if the presence of the student with a disability would result in health or safety risks to the student or others.

As for the types of assistive technologies students might request, it must be noted that neither Section 504 nor the ADA uses the term assistive technology. Rather, both laws refer to services and modifications need by qualified individuals with disabilities. Yet many of the services and modifications that can meet the needs of these students are considered to be assistive technology in accordance with the information about assistive technology as described here. Such assistive technologies might include speech-generating devices, assistive listening devices, voice recognition software, talking calculators, Braille printers and typewriters, large keyboards, and books on tape, as well as humans providing assistance by interpreting speech or taking notes.

As noted, students with disabilities seek to use assistive technology so that they can obtain the same benefits from a program, service, or activity as their equally qualified, nondisabled peers. However, in order to obtain these benefits, it is reasonable to recognize that students’ uses of assistive technology must occur within circumstances that are meant to be all-inclusive. To this end, the provisions of Section 504 and the ADA direct officials in institutions of higher education to avoid engaging in discriminatory actions that would hinder the educational experiences of all students with disabilities, including those who use assistive technology. Appropriate actions institutions may engage in for the purpose of complying with applicable laws and creating an atmosphere of inclusivity that supports the use of assistive technology include administering programs in the most integrated setting appropriate to student needs, allowing students opportunities to participate in programs or activities that are not separate or different even if colleges or universities have permissibly separate or different programs, and selecting sites and locating facilities that can readily enable students with disabilities to use these facilities or services.

Timothy E. Morse

See also Distance learning; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Legal Citations

  • Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (1990).
  • Assistive Technology Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 3001 et seq. (2004).
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. (2004).
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq.
  • Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2201 et seq. (1988).