Assistive tech: What it is and how it helps
Stay in the know
We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.
From the talk-to-text feature on a phone to a lap desk, many people use assistive technology (AT) every day. For kids who learn and think differently, assistive tech can make learning easier. But how do you know if it’s something your child needs?
In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek welcome returning guest Shira Moskovitz. Shira, a special education teacher and technology specialist, shares some of the ways assistive tech can help. Tune in to learn about the different types of AT, how they work, and how to figure out if they’re right for your child.
Check out Understood’s Assistive technology resource hub
Shira Moskovitz on a Season 4 episode of In It: “Homework battles: What really matters”
Plus, you can find Shira in our free community app, Wunder. Check it out to get expert support and connect with other parents.
Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs…
Rachel: ...the ups and downs...
Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.
Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely "in it." Today, we're talking about assistive technology.
Gretchen: What is it? What's it good for? And how do we know if it's right for our kid?
Rachel: And to help us figure this all out, we're talking with Shira Moskovitz.
Gretchen: She's a teacher in New York City who we've had on the show before.
Rachel: She's got a lot of experience on this topic, and we're so glad she could join us, which she did from her classroom. That's why occasionally you might hear some distant voices in the background.
Gretchen: Shira, welcome back to the podcast.
Shira: Thank you so much for having me.
Gretchen: We're so excited to talk to you today. And as you know, we're going to be talking about assistive technology. But first, I was wondering if you could tell us about your job and how your work makes you especially familiar with this topic of assistive technology.
Shira: Sure. So, I am a public school teacher in New York City, and I actually have two roles in my school. One is a special education teacher who provides special education services for students in a general education classroom. And my other job is the technology teacher. And what I do is take my special education experience and my technology experience, and assistive technology is where those two worlds collide.
Gretchen: That is why we are talking with you today.
Rachel: We were doing a really informal survey amongst ourselves, our very small focus group of the "In It" team, and for some reason, the first thing that came to mind for most of us when we said the term assistive technology are like those voice text apps that help kids who may have trouble writing or processing language and even like what we use when we're texting people now. But the term encompasses such a wider range of tools, right? Can you tell us a little bit about what goes beyond that?
Shira: Sure. And I think that that's not an unfair assumption. Most people hear assistive technology and they think of the things that we all use every day and is a huge component of assistive technology. But it really goes so much broader than that. Assistive technology is any tool that supports independence for a child in the classroom. That can be anything from a listening device for someone with a hearing impairment, a lap desk, it can be, honestly, even like a walker can be an assistive technology for someone.
Gretchen: So, the word assistive tech, it makes me think I have to push something, right? Or plug it in. But assistive tech doesn't have to be something electronic.
Shira: Definitely not. And my mind goes right to a lot of tools for fine motor skills. One of the supports can be something digital and the other supports that are things that we probably use all the time without realizing it. Pencil grips, pencils, or pens of different sizes and widths. Even something like a magnifying glass or a larger print text would be something assistive for someone with vision impairment. Now there are digital tools to support all of those needs as well, but they're not limited to plugging it in, pressing a button type of technology.
Rachel: So, I imagine that the tech changes also as kids get older. Can you talk about that a little, like how assistive technology changes as kids grow?
Shira: Sure. So, I think it has to do with what we're expecting them to do independently as they grow, right? So, as their skill level and expectation increases, the demand for technology or the support increases. In kindergarten, if we're talking about a writing challenge, we may say that there are some predictive software that will try to help a child, right? In kindergarten, we're probably writing a word, so they may hit the first letter and it'll try to predict what word they're trying to write. In middle school, a word is not going to cut it.
Shira: So, assistive technology, there are, there are things that will help them build sentences. They may transition away from that into something more of a speech-to-text that the child's capable of verbally producing the answer. Or maybe they can't write it down or they can't type it. So, you may replace something like that with just a speech-to-text where they can speak their entire essay and then edit it. So, as their skill level increases, we want this technology to be able to show what they know.
Rachel: As you were talking through those really helpful examples and you know how it can change from helping a kid kind of come up with or get out a word versus a sentence or a paragraph, I feel like it might be important without going down a total rabbit hole for us to clarify how that's different from AI in like ChatGPT, which people are thinking about now when they're like, "Oh, I need a sentence for this." It's not that.
Gretchen: Or is it?
Rachel: Or is it?
Shira: Yeah, it is and it isn't. They serve different functions and mind you, this is, this is my rabbit hole. This is where I live. But AI kind of gets a bad rap with ChatGPT and some ethical and professional questions that come up with it. But we've been using assistive technology for a really long time. When you type something in in Google, "what is the..." and it gives you predictions, that is AI. So yes, it is using artificial intelligence to try to predict based on a category. And I'll give a really simple example. There is an app that will give students who are minimally verbal or nonverbal categories and they can press on a picture and it'll verbalize words for them. That's a way for them to communicate.
So, yes, they pick on the category. It prioritizes the categories that they pick more often. And then based on that, I'll give one letter and it uses AI to then guess what word are they going to use. Is it using the methodology of AI that Chat GPT is? No, it's not pulling from public sources in that type of way. It's pulling from internal data tracking that this child uses it over and over again to make a more effective resource for them. So, yes, it is artificial intelligence and no, it is nothing like what ChatGPT is, if that's a fair comparison.
Rachel: Yeah, no, and I know it's kind of apples and oranges, but I think the way that we're talking about it is really helpful for you to have clarified that. So, thank you.
Gretchen: So, now that we have a general sense of what assistive tech is, in schools, is assistive tech only for students who have IEPs or 504 plans?
Shira: Yes and no. I will say like this: a child who is mandated to have assistive technology will have an IEP or a 504 plan. But like every other learning resource out there, just because it is designed or is intended in a classroom for a certain need, does that mean that it can't help everyone? Of course it can. So, many teachers and many parents will advocate for their children to have access to those types of tools, especially because a lot of those tools are really simple. You know, asking for your child to have pencil grips or an option to use that is not a crazy thing. Most teachers are already providing them.
The same thing goes for the more techie options. Just because one child may be assigned their own device to use speech-to-text, does that mean that all of the classroom iPads can't use speech-to-text? Of course they can. These accessibility features are built into every single device that exists. So, it's just a question of learning how to use them and making sure that's an appropriate setting. Because let's say I said: now every child — I have a class of 32 students — they're all going to be using speech to text at the same time, the microphone won't pick it up, right? So it's, whereas that one child may have to use it all the time, any time they're producing writing, maybe other students use it on a rotating basis, or maybe a parent who's concerned and they're just starting the IEP process or starting the evaluation. It doesn't mean you have to wait until the end. We know that can sometimes take months.
Rachel: Yeah, right.
Shira: It does mean you have to wait until the end where they say "Yes. Now your child needs it," to start using it.
Rachel: So, how do you know if your child needs or could benefit from some form of assistive technology? Is it something that the teacher will tell you, or do you kind of have to figure that out on your own?
Shira: I think it's a good question. It depends on the need of the child. Some things are very obvious. "My child cannot do X," whatever the skill may be. They have the cognitive ability, they understood the concept and they cannot produce by themselves. Writing is a good example of that. You know, my child, for whatever reason, their fine motor skills or their executive function prevents them from showing what they know in written form. What can we do? And so you can speak to your child's teacher. Understood is a great resource for that. You know, there's lots of articles about finding based on the need, what tools there are out there, and even a simple Google search or might I say ChatGPT.
Rachel: Yeah, I was actually going to say, I mean, could it be as simple as Googling like "Assistive technology for.." whatever the issue is that your kid is running into?
Shira: Now, mind you, as a parent with no education background, you may find some things and not be able to filter through what is the most appropriate. And that's why reaching out to your child's teacher is going to be helpful. But not every teacher is a specialist in assistive technology and they may be doing that same Google search that you are and just able to filter out. So, including the teacher in that discussion is definitely appropriate.
Shira: A lot of times if the ability or the skill that we're talking about is language-based or physical-based, there might be a speech therapist or an occupational physical therapist involved. And that's when your school's support team would be able to answer that. So, maybe your child doesn't get speech therapy yet, but a speech therapist who may or may not eventually work with your child can still answer some questions.
Gretchen: And I've got to say, we keep talking about looking up things and finding, you know, finding your own assistive tech. I would just like to say it all ages assistive tech, because recently I discovered that my hand was cramping when I was writing and I started to realize my pencil grip like, has deteriorated and no longer looks like what a perfect pencil grip should be. So, I went on and ordered myself some pencil grips. Anyway, side note, I was like, "Oh yeah, like my pencil grips I ordered."
Shira: I'll say for myself that I use some of the assistive technology that I recommend to my students just because it makes my life easier.
Rachel: What's something that's especially helpful to you?
Shira: I recommend Google Keep to lots of students with executive functioning struggles because it allows you to take notes in lots of different ways. You can do a voice note, you can type it out, you can do speech-to-text, you can draw, you can set reminders based on a note, based on a calendar, or based on the location. It helps in so many different ways. And now Google Keep is my number one used app on my phone because I'm always just writing down grocery shopping, work stuff. You know, I don't have to worry about leaving my grocery list at home because it's there. I don't have to worry about my husband forgetting to tell me something because we share a note. The collaboration aspect, there's just so much to it, and it's free.
Rachel: Yeah, I'm going to check it out. Thank you.
Gretchen: What if your child brings something home that their teacher gave them? Maybe it's part of their IEP or 504. Or maybe it's just something the teacher thought, "Oh, this could help tonight with this," and they bring it home and they don't quite know how to use it, and neither do you. What do you do in that case?
Shira: Well, I would say if it's part of their IEP, part of the process also is training.
Gretchen: Got it.
Shira: I think it's funny because I think that oftentimes schools err on the side of giving the parents all the training and the teacher is not enough. Both parties need to be involved in this training because it's not helpful if the child can go home and use it and then they come to school and the teacher doesn't know how to support them. And obviously, the opposite is also true, that if they're in school, they know how to use it and they come home and they have no clue, not a positive working relationship. So, we want to make sure that when you advocate for yourself and your child in the IEP process, that you're advocating that you all get the support and the training. And then if you've kept an open relationship with your teacher, which I always advocate...
Shira: ...sending them an email or a message is not a crazy thing, saying, "Hey, help me out with this." And they'll be able to clarify because it's not a given that you're going to infer how to use this. And it's also not a given that your child with learning and thinking differences can easily communicate to you how this worked, especially if it's a new tool for them.
Shira: Probably a Google search will also help with that. But....
Gretchen: But it could be a rabbit hole.
Shira: Yeah, right.
Rachel: All right. So, devil's advocate question. Is it ever a bad idea for a student to use some certain types of assistive technology? Like is it kind of like, you know, relying on training wheels for too long where all of a sudden it's like, no, we really need to not be using that? Or is that not what we're talking about?
Shira: I think it depends on the child. Definitely, technology's the future. So, people talk all the time "No, my kid needs to learn how to handwrite an essay." When was the last time that you as an adult handwrote multiple pages in one sitting? Probably never.
Gretchen: Yeah, I would need multiple pencil grips.
Shira: Right. So, why are we pushing this if your child is providing resistance? Because this is hard for them, either emotionally or physically. Why are we pushing this model that doesn't really exist anymore? Let's think about those 21st-century skills and get them acquainted with how they would likely be producing paragraphs and pages of writing in the future. Would I say then that children never need to learn handwriting or they never have to write anything? Of course they do. Now, mind you, if they can't, this is a great option. But if they can, should they be doing it sometimes? Yes. I think that there is this fear that even for the kids that need it, sometimes people have this resistance like, "Oh, and then they'll never want to go back to the old school way of doing something." And I don't think that's the case. I think that oftentimes this assistive technology gets them over a hurdle, either a temporary one or a permanent one that allows them to feel confident and engage in the skill further.
Let's talk about reading, for example. Kids who struggle with reading. Let's say a child has dyslexia. They're not pushing back because they don't want to read. They like they really, really, really want to do this thing and they just can't.
Shira: So, giving them the audiobook will just make them more engaged in the reading lesson. And so that when the teacher ask them a question, they're there, they're present, they're participating. Because otherwise, they've likely checked out. They've either physically left the room, they're acting out, they're doing something to mask the fact that they weren't able to read the text to begin with. They're not feeling great about themselves right now.
So, this assistive technology gets them over the immediate hurdle of right now, today. And maybe it also keeps them more engaged. Maybe they're going to attempt that book, you know, next week or in the future they'll attempt a reading if they have a more positive experience around reading. If everything is just pushing this old school model, because you got to learn how to read from a physical book in front of you, you know, you're never going to have those experiences of turning the pages. If we want them to ever have that experience of turning the pages we need to think about here and now, what's going to make that happen for them in the future. So, I'm a huge advocate for using it when needed and then for everyone else. OK, maybe anyone else rotates through an audiobook, you know, let them have that fun. I listen to audiobooks all the time. It doesn't, it's not going to harm, and it can only do good.
Gretchen: Yeah. So, the audiobook example is related to this, what I think is a stigma around assistive tech or a misconception that using assistive tech is a way of cheating, that listening to an audiobook is not really reading the book, therefore it's cheating. So, what would you say to folks who see it that way?
Shira: I think that a lot of people come from that, from just a lack of understanding of what using any assistive technology actually looks like, especially in a school setting that's still designed for the old-school way. You know, so providing a kid with assistive technology is not because it's making it easier. It's making them step out of the norm and the traditional way of doing things just so they can access it. So, a child who's doing that, it's not because they're trying to cheat, it's because they're working so hard to access what you are setting up for them in a likely traditional way. Are we really concerned about cheating or are we concerned about things looking different than what they used to? Because I think that's what a lot of that comes from, "It's foreign to me, and therefore it must not be authentic or accurate."
Rachel: So, let's talk a little bit about access. You know, we talked about the stigma of the idea of like, is this cheating or, you know, what is it or is it not? But there's also the potential barrier of cost. So, you know, some well-resourced schools may be able to make all sorts of tools and devices available to students. And other schools just don't have the budget for that. And some families don't have the budget for that. So, are there resources out there to help get kids the assistive technology they need when those resources aren't just readily available?
Shira: Yes, I will say, though, that part of a free and public education includes assistive technology when necessary. So, I can obviously only speak for my school district and how it works. But an assistive technology device doesn't come from a school's individual budget. It's from a district-wide thing. So, I think that approaching your school and requesting this at the IEP meeting, don't be worried that if you happen to know as a parent that money is tight at your school or in your district, still request it because the resource in that funding comes from a different bucket. The other thing is that I think that people assume that a lot of these things are very expensive and there are certain things that are. Obviously, if we have a non-verbal child or a child with limited mobility, that these things need to be customized to them and to their body, that definitely is a larger cost.
But I think that remembering like, when we said, when we started out, we said that most people just think like speech-to-text, text-to-speech. There's a reason for that because that is a huge component of what people use for assistive technology. Those are free on every single device. You or someone you know has an old cell phone or an old laptop or an old iPad. It may not have the best graphics or the best image, but if your child can take that to school and type on it and connect to the Internet, yeah, you're winning. So, there's that assistive technology right there.
I think the other thing to think about is specific apps. Finding out what app is appropriate for your child may be a lot more cost-effective than thinking about purchasing a whole new device. And there can be some apps that are very costly, but some of them are like five, six dollars and that's all it takes to get that specific need for your child. And when we're talking about it in my school, yes, so my school or my district will purchase that app for the child and put it on the device for them. But if you're getting pushback or they're saying maybe we can't justify this, whatever it may be or maybe not right now, that doesn't mean that you can't go and purchase that app for yourself. If you found something that you think will be helpful when we're talking about apps costing maybe even twenty dollars, you know, we're not talking necessarily huge, huge budgets for things.
Gretchen: OK. So, what do you do, though, if your child has an assistive tech device, you know, perhaps something through their 504 or IEP, and maybe the teacher is not aware of this and they tell them to put it away. Like we've heard, for example, from another guest, and this is an older student, but that, you know, the teacher said, "No, you need to take notes by hand in here. I want all phones away. No recording of the lecture," kind of thing. What do you do as the student or the parent in those situations?
Shira: I think this is where self-advocacy comes in, and that's OK to say, "I understand that you would really like all students to take notes by hand or to read this physical book, but I'm using this tool to help me get to that same goal as per my 504, IEP or discussions with my parents and my teachers from previous years. I'm happy to provide you with information." I do recommend, though, that this be something that you discuss with the teacher in the beginning, especially if you know coming in, "Hey, my kid has an IEP," add that back to school night or meet the teacher or that initial phone call, whatever it may be saying, "Heads up. This is a part of how my child has succeeded in the past." Then hopefully there is less resistance. Can we guarantee that? Never.
Teachers come in all stripes and some people have more or less comfort with technology. It may just be a discomfort themselves. They may be nervous that then they're going to have to start supporting this device. And you say "Look, I'm going to get this on my own. Maybe, you know, I'm able to get the book from the library and I'm just going to be listening along while everyone else is reading," letting a teacher know that it's not on them. We can get you that free training too, though. We can request that from the IEP team if that's something that you want. It's interesting because I've actually heard the flip of that, that the teacher's encouraging the child to use it and the child feels uncomfortable because they may be the only one. They don't want to stand out. So, norming this and one just saying "Everyone does the learning that they need to get to the same goal," but also that's when allowing other students to use that can be really helpful. Say, "OK, you know, we have a rotation and some kids get to listen to the audiobook and then next book someone else is going to," and then the one child who does need it doesn't feel singled out.
Rachel: Yeah. So, as we wrap up and this has all been super interesting, is there a new app or assistive technology tool out there or just something you're aware of that's coming up — because this is your wheelhouse — that you're excited about and that maybe our listeners or maybe we should know about?
Shira: Well, there's a tool that I just found out about this week. It may not even be new, but it was so exciting to me. Because a lot of times when we think about assistive technology, we're very used to hearing the reading, the writing, the math. And something that gets glossed over a lot is executive function, which is maybe your kid can read, but it's the other skills in doing a task that are challenging, starting a task, maintaining, staying focused, those types of things. So, I've been doing a lot more research into tools that support that because I think that's an underserved area, let's say. And I found this website called Goblin Tools. And what it does is it takes a big task and breaks it down to smaller tasks, because a lot of people — and I'm not even going to say children because adults, we struggle with this too, with the overwhelm of "I have this huge thing and I don't know what to do and therefore I'm just going to procrastinate or I'm not going to do it."
So, what this website does is breaks it down into smaller steps and there's a little checkbox that you can take it off if you want, or you could just print out the checklist. And it's really funny because they say, How spicy do you want this to be? And that's how nuanced do you want it to be? So you can say, "You know, I just need this broken down a little bit for me," or "I need really, really minute steps of how to do this."
So, one of the examples that I looked up was for an elementary school student to get their homework done. And I tested at first just like not so, like broken down to a couple of steps and it was like, "Get out your homework folder and check what's inside and make sure you're completing every task. Make a list, make sure you take breaks, check in with a parent, see if everything is good, put it away, and put a back in your backpack." And that seemed great. Like, that's really helpful. And then I moved it spicier, you know, more detailed. And it was saying things like, "Open up the folder, take out your papers, make sure you have a pen and pencil handy, sit in a comfortable position, check off every task as you do it. Put everything back." You know, it was including those steps from before, but it got way more detailed and I was like, wow, I can imagine that there's kids who lose details would be way too much. But I can really imagine those students that this level of detail would be super helpful. And I was just making up tons of scenarios and testing it now, and I was having so much fun with it.
Shira: And we all know that satisfaction of checking something off the to do it. So, sometimes breaking it down even smaller is just to feel that satisfaction. If you start to sit down and before you even completed any assignment of homework, you've had five checks, you've done five things successfully. How much more willing are you going to be to do the rest of your homework? So, setting yourself up for success, whether or not executive function is the exclusive barrier or it's just the general doing homework is hard.
Shira: It was just such an exciting and free website.
Rachel: That's really cool. And did you say Goblin? Like G-O-B-L-I-N?
Shira: Yeah, goblin.tools is the website.
Gretchen: I am totally going to check it out. Well, this has been such a helpful conversation, Shira.
Rachel: Yes. Thank you so much.
Shira: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Gretchen: You can find more great tips and insights from Shira, on Understood's Wunder app.
Rachel: And a reminder for those who may not know, Wunder, and that's W-U-N-D-E-R is a free community app for parents and caregivers raising kids who learn and think differently. So, it's a place to connect with other parents who get what you're going through.
Gretchen: There's all these different groups there, and the one Shira leads is called Ask an Expert: Dyslexia, reading, and math. Go check it out. You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.
Rachel: This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.
Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently, discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Illana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music.
Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.
Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.