4 ways to tell when an AT tool isn’t the best fit

AT tools can be helpful for people with learning disabilities. But not every tool is a good fit on the first try. Learn four ways to tell when an AT tool is effective. And what to do when it’s not.

By Tara Drinks

Expert reviewed by Shelley Haven

Updated October 5, 2023

An adult in a wheelchair is showing another adult their tablet.

At a glance

  • There are many reasons why an AT tool may not be helpful for a user. 

  • One way to tell a tool’s effectiveness: Compare performance when using a tool versus not using a tool.  

  • Ask questions like, “Did it take less time to finish a task?” or “Are there fewer errors?”

Assistive technology (AT) tools can enhance the lives of people who learn and think differently. But that’s only if the tool is effective for what a user needs. Here are four ways to tell when a tool isn’t the right fit — and what to do next. 

1. Look at both the experience and the result.

It can be easy for users to miss signs that a tool is helping or not. They look at the end result instead of the complete experience. So, one way to tell a tool’s effectiveness is to compare what it’s like to complete a task while using the tool versus not using the tool. 

For example, people who have trouble with writing might use a tool with speech-to-text technology to draft a letter or write a report. To assess the tool’s effectiveness, they can write one letter using the tool and another without using the tool. Then they can create a chart to compare the two on different aspects of the experience.

They may ask things like: 

  • “How long did it take to finish writing?”
  • “How many spelling errors were there?”
  • “Was writing this letter more frustrating or less frustrating when using the tool?” 

2. Get feedback from others.

Users aren’t the only people who can notice when a tool is helpful or not. Teachers, managers, and peers can give feedback too. Think about a child who is working with a reading tutor. The child may use text-to-speech technology to help improve reading skills. The tutor can observe if the tool is helping the child to read more fluently and at a better speed. 

For adults in the workplace, a manager or colleagues can offer feedback too. These people are likely to notice when a person is working more effectively and at a faster speed. And they don’t have to know when an employee is using an AT tool. 

3. Consider where the tool is being used. 

Sometimes, it’s not a simple yes-or-no answer as to whether a tool is helpful. A tool may be helpful for some tasks but not others. Or the tool may work in some places but not all. 

It’s helpful to take note about what’s happening when the tool is useful — and when it’s not. 

Think about the user who used dictation to write the letters. In a quiet home, this tool may be a perfect solution. But in a noisy place like a coffee shop, dictation may not be as effective. A user might decide to use one tool at home, and they can find a different option for outside the home. 

4. Determine why the tool is being used.

While AT tools are helpful resources, they’re not a cure. In some cases, making necessary adjustments, like allowing more time to complete a task, will meet a person’s needs better than a tool can. AT tools may help a person work faster and more efficiently. But they may still need that extra time to get the job done. 

What to do next

If a tool doesn’t seem to be helpful, there may be specific reasons —and steps you can take. Here are some common ones:

  • A user needs more time to learn how to use the tool. 
  • A tool’s settings may need to be adjusted, like increasing the font size or slowing down the reading speed. 
  • A tool’s software and operating system may need to be updated. 

Other times, the tool just may not be a good fit. It may not have the right features. Or it might be too simple or complex to meet the user’s needs. When this is the case, it may be time to find another AT tool to try. There are plenty of options, and not everyone finds a good fit on the first try.

Key takeaways

  • Teachers, managers, and peers can give feedback about whether or not a tool is helping. 

  • AT tools may work in some environments but not in all. 

  • There are plenty of AT options to choose from. Not everyone finds a good fit on the first try.

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