a girl with headphones on sits in front of a computer screen and smiles at the camera


“Look, my student is reading a novel with OrCam!” A special education teacher in a rural school district in Wisconsin excitedly shared a photo with Charisa Cheek, an occupational therapist (OT) and assistive technology coordinator for the Cooperative Educational Services Agency in central Wisconsin. Cheek currently is working with school districts to test the OrCam Learn product. It’s a new assistive device that has been reported as successful in using technology to help students with reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, vision impairments, and other learning disabilities.

Cheek’s agency serves 35 school districts with a wide range of special education services, including providing reading specialists and a special education instructional materials center. The center is home to more than 1,600 pieces of instructional assistive equipment and materials that can be used with students who have special learning challenges. It also offers trials and loans of special education materials and testing equipment, as well as assistive technology for school districts to borrow or try to determine a just-right fit for their own students before purchasing as needed. 

New technologies for reading

From 2009-10 through 2020-21, the number of students ages 3-21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) increased from 6.5 million to 7.2 million, or
13 percent to 15 percent of total public school enrollment. Among students who received special education services under IDEA in 2020-21,
33 percent had specific learning disabilities and 19 percent had speech or language impairments.

In the fall of 2020, 95 percent of school-age students served under IDEA were enrolled in regular schools. As students with learning disabilities are increasingly expected to master content in the general education curriculum, the need for effective instructional supports has become more important than ever before. Evidence shows that reading difficulties experienced by some elementary students likely resulted from underlying learning disabilities.

Research suggests that throughout elementary grades, students with learning disabilities show some different patterns in reading achievement from their peers without disabilities. Students with learning disabilities were reported to experience increasing difficulties in reading when they moved to a higher grade level. The divergent growth in reading throughout elementary grades often leads to an increasing achievement gap over time.

Assistive technology has been used to mitigate reading disabilities for almost three decades, and text-to-speech and speech-to-text apps have been used recently to scaffold reading and writing.

New assistive Technologies

IDEA defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child and specifically excludes a medical device that is surgically implanted or the replacement of such device.” They encompass a spectrum of tools and devices, as well as the services and support used to ensure that those devices are used appropriately. Assistive devices can be viewed along a continuum of low-, mid-, and high-tech items.

Low-tech devices are readily available, inexpensive, and typically do not require batteries or electricity (e.g., specialized rubber pencil grip, page holder, modified scissors).

Mid-tech devices are usually digital and may require batteries or another power source (e.g., calculator, audio book, digital recorder).

High-tech devices are typically computer-based, likely to have sophisticated features, and can be tailored to the specific needs of individual students (e.g., tablet, screen reader, voice recognition software).

Computer-based assistive technologies have been rapidly developed for students with disabilities. In 2000, the Kentucky Department of Education embarked on a technology-based initiative to help students with disabilities become more independent when reading grade-level text. The program centered on text-reader software that uses synthetic speech to read text aloud while the same text is highlighted on a computer screen.

Using assistive devices

School districts have different standards to determine how to use assistive technology to support students with special needs. For instance, according to Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, “The art of assistive technology is in finding the right amount of support to help a student based on his or her needs.” The district differentiates remediation and compensation for students with special needs.

Another trend is to have artificial intelligence embedded in an assistive device. This design enables educators to collect student performance data, use the information to target each student’s reading challenges, and individualize learning. When using such technology, school leaders should work with parents and consider measures to protect students’ data privacy.

It should be noted that high-tech devices are often expensive. School districts serving high-poverty communities often cannot afford such devices for all students with disabilities. To provide equal access to high-quality learning tools, policymakers should find ways to meet the special needs of all students, particularly disadvantaged students. In many states, through assistive technology lending libraries, school districts can borrow devices and specialized software or participate in new trials.

Jinghong Cai is the senior research analyst at NSBA’s Center for Public Education.

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