Assistive Technology Platforms: What You Need to Know

By Jamie Martin

Expert reviewed by Shelley Haven

An adult with headphones on is typing on a a computer.

At a glance

  • Kids with learning and thinking differences can use assistive technology (AT) tools on several platforms.

  • The three major platforms are desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices and Chromebooks.

  • There are pros and cons for each platform.

Like people, assistive technology (AT) comes in different shapes and sizes. At your child’s school, there may be computers, digital tablets and Chromebooks. Understanding the different platforms can make it easier to figure out which tools will work for your child.

Here’s what you need to know about platforms for AT.

Basics About Platforms

A platform is a base of technology on which AT tools can operate. It’s typically a hardware device controlled by built-in software called an operating system.

There are three main platforms kids can use AT on:

  • Desktop and laptop computers
  • Mobile devices (includes smartphones and tablets)
  • Chromebooks (and the Chrome browser used on any device)

Kids can use AT tools like text-to-speech, dictation (speech-to-text), word prediction, calculators and more on each of these platforms. Some tools are built into the operating systems.

You can also add tools to each platform:

  • You can add new tools to computers with software.
  • You can add new tools to mobile devices with apps.
  • You can add new tools to Chrome and Chromebooks with apps and extensions.

Using AT on one of these platforms is different from using a single-purpose AT device, like an audio recorder. A single-purpose device can only do a fixed number of things—like record and play sound. It can’t add new functions.

Here’s how the different platforms work.

Desktop and Laptop Computers

Desktops and laptops are the first computers most parents learned to use. And many AT tools were first developed for these computers.

The two most popular operating systems for desktops and laptops are Windows and macOS (previously called Mac OS X). A variety of companies make computers that run Windows (like Lenovo and Dell). Apple makes its own computers that run macOS (like the iMac and MacBook).

Here are some of the benefits of using desktop and laptop computers for kids with learning and thinking differences:

  • Windows and macOS come with built-in AT tools, like text-to-speech and dictation.
  • Kids can access more AT tools on computers by using software. For example, Dragon NaturallySpeaking (Windows) and Dragon for Mac (macOS) provide more powerful dictation software.
  • The software available for desktops and laptops tends to have more features than apps or extensions do. This can be more useful for complex homework.
  • They make it easy for kids to use AT tools in combination. For example, kids can dictate into a document while also using word prediction.
  • They have plenty of storage space for documents, videos, photos and other files.
  • They typically have built-in physical keyboards, which is helpful for kids who prefer touch typing.

Desktop and laptop computers also have some drawbacks:

  • Desktop computers aren’t portable, and laptops aren’t as portable as mobile devices like smartphones and most tablets.
  • They can be expensive.

Explore some popular AT software options for reading, writing and math issues.

Mobile Devices

In recent years, many students have started using AT on mobile devices to help them with schoolwork. The two most popular mobile operating systems are Android and iOS. A variety of companies make mobile devices for Android (like Samsung and HTC). Apple makes iPhones and iPads for iOS.

Here are some of the benefits of using mobile devices for kids with learning and thinking differences:

  • Like desktops and laptops, mobile devices come with built-in AT tools. For example, iOS and Android have basic text-to-speech.
  • Kids who need more AT tools can download apps onto their mobile devices from the iTunes App Store (iOS) and Google Play Store (Android). There are lots of apps that can help kids with learning and thinking differences. For instance, Voice Dream Reader is a full-featured text-to-speech app available for both iOS and Android.
  • Smartphones and tablets are portable.
  • Smartphones and tablets have touchscreens, which some kids with learning and thinking differences may prefer.
  • Kids who use apps can take advantage of the camera on mobile devices to scan documents and add photos to projects.
  • Some mobile devices are less expensive than desktop and laptop computers.

There are some drawbacks, too:

  • Mobile devices generally have less storage space than desktops and laptops and can fill up quickly.
  • Mobile devices have smaller screens than most laptops and desktops, sometimes making it difficult to see an entire page or project. When using the device’s onscreen keyboard, even less of a page or project is visible.
  • Many mobile apps have a single use. This can make doing complex schoolwork more difficult.

Check out these helpful apps for grade-schoolers and tweens and teens with learning and thinking differences.

Chrome and Chromebooks

One of the newest and most popular platforms is Chrome. Chrome is a web browser made by Google. Chromebooks are simple laptops that use the Chrome browser for most functions.

When kids do schoolwork on Chrome and Chromebooks, they’re usually doing it online. Instead of using software that’s downloaded to the device, Chrome uses apps and extensions that live online “in the cloud.”

Chrome apps are web-based tools that are used in their own windows and tabs. They’re similar to apps for mobile devices.

Extensions are tools that add (or “extend”) new functions to the Chrome browser. For example, kids can use word prediction extensions to help them spell words correctly while typing in Google Docs. Apps and extensions can be found in the Chrome Web Store.

Here are some of the benefits of Chrome and Chromebooks for kids with learning and thinking differences:

  • Kids can use Chrome tools on Chromebooks or on any computer that has the Chrome browser. For example, they can use the Chrome browser on a Windows desktop computer or a Mac laptop.
  • Kids can add Chrome apps and extensions to their Google account. Then their AT tools will be available on any Chrome device on which they’re signed into Google.
  • Chromebooks are often less expensive than regular laptops.
  • Chromebooks often have longer battery lives than traditional laptops and mobile devices.
  • It’s easy for teachers and parents to supervise kids’ Google Chrome accounts.

There are some drawbacks, too:

  • Many AT tools found in desktop software and mobile apps aren’t available for Chrome.
  • Many Chrome apps and extensions only function if the device is online.
  • Chromebooks have limited hard-drive storage.

Learn more about Chromebooks and their AT features in this video.

Understanding these different platforms can help you choose the right AT tools for your child. Use this list of questions to ask as you look at different AT tools. If you aren’t sure where to start, read about the first AT tool an expert recommends to parents.

Key takeaways

  • Many different functions and tools can be added to an AT platform.

  • Desktop and laptop computers and mobile devices have built-in AT for kids with learning and thinking differences.

  • Your child can use Chrome tools on any computer with the Chrome browser.

About the author

About the author

Jamie Martin is an assistive technology specialist at the New England Assistive Technology Center (NEAT) in Hartford, Connecticut.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Shelley Haven has spent more than 30 years helping individuals with physical, sensory, and cognitive challenges unlock their potential with technology.