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Assistive Technology

What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive Technology, or AT, is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system…that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability” (from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004, Statute IA 602(1) (PDF Document 275 KB)). This description applies whether the tool is bought commercially or is an already-owned device that has been changed or customized. AT can and should improve the quality of life and add to the independence of people with disabilities.


Children with special needs may be able to do more with assistive technology. Below we offer an overview of types of AT, tips to help with choosing AT, and resources to help you find what you need.

Types of Assistive Technology

There are many types of assistive technology available for different needs. Over 40,000 AT devices are on the market.
  • Aids for Daily Living - Items to enable more independence with Activities of Daily Living (ADL), such as bathing, carrying, grooming and dressing, feeding and drinking, reaching, toileting, and transferring.
  • Blind and Low Vision - Products that help vision, give non-visual alerts or message, and help with tasks despite low vision.
  • Communication - Devices to help with speech, writing, and other methods of communication (see Augmentative Communication (AAC)).
  • Computers - Accessories to enable use of desktop and laptop computers and other kinds of IT.
  • Controls - Mechanisms to start, stop or adjust electronic devices. (see Switches)
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing - Items that augment hearing and give non-auditory alerts or messages (see Hearing Aids and Hearing Testing)
  • Deaf Blind - Products that enable or enhance alerting, communication, and task performance for individuals who are both deaf and blind.
  • Education - Aids to access educational materials and instruction in school and other learning environments.
  • Environmental Adaptations - Mechanisms that make one’s built environment more accessible, such as indoor and outdoor furniture, lifts, lighting, signs, and houses. (see Home Retro-fits)
  • Housekeeping - Items that aid in cooking, cleaning, and other household chores, as well as adapted appliances.
  • Orthotics - Braces and other items to support joints or limbs.
  • Prosthetics - Prostheses and other items for amputees.
  • Recreation - Items to aid with free time and activities (see Adaptive Skiing and Adaptive Cycling).
  • Safety and Security - Products to protect health and home, such as child-proof alarms and locks (monitors are included in the Therapeutic Aids category).
  • Seating - Products that help people to sit comfortably and safely at home and on the go; includes car seats.
  • Therapeutic Aids - Tools that aid in treatment for health problems and physical therapy.
  • Transportation - Vehicles, equipment and accessories to enable people with disabilities to drive or ride in cars, vans, trucks and buses.
  • Walking - Products to aid walking or standing.
  • Wheeled Mobility - Wheelchairs, scooters and carts, and extras that enable moving freely indoors and outdoors (see Wheelchairs and Adapted Strollers).
  • Workplace - Tools to aid working.
The Medical Home Portal also has a section on medical technologies that replace or support a physiologic function, such as a ventilator for breathing, or feeding tubes for eating. See the Portal's Medical Technology section.

Choosing and Obtaining Assistive Technology

There are thousands of AT devices on the market today. Picking the right device with the best fit for the person, setting, and technology is a multi-step process that takes time. The information below can help you in the process of choosing and buying a device.
  1. State your main goal. What do you want to do with the AT device? What will the technology enable the user to do that he or she is now limited in doing?

  2. Assess the situation. Get input from the user, family members, school, and medical professionals, co-workers, and caregivers—anyone who will frequently work with the user or the technology or has experience/expertise to offer. Think about the abilities and limitations of the user as well as of the available technology choices. For how long will the device be needed or useful?

  3. Choose a device/system. Does the device represent the simplest, most efficient way to accomplish the task? Can it adapt to changing needs? Do the benefits provided by the device justify the cost? AT fairs may be a good chance to check out options.

  4. Select a vendor/dealer. An important thought in buying equipment should be the dealer’s responsiveness, professionalism, service, training, and technical support.

  5. Pursue funding. The costs of AT devices can be high. Finding help with funding may take great time and effort. Potential sources are: health insurance plan, public programs, charitable groups, and loans. Manufacturers or retailers may offer discounts on used or refurbished items. It is important to provide proper documentation and fill out forms correctly when seeking funding. Initial requests may be turned down, but appeals can be successful. Buying used devices can cut costs. See the "Seek Funding" section in Selecting and Obtaining Assistive Technology - UATP (PDF Document 308 KB) for more detailed information.

  6. Identify training needs. The user and anyone else who works with the device should get proper training. This may be provided by the dealer, a representative of the manufacturer, or a staff person from an educational or medical institution.

  7. Conduct follow-up. Short-term follow-up should be performed within a couple of months. Long-term re-evaluation should also be performed on a regular basis, perhaps once a year.
(This information adapted and greatly condensed from the Utah Assistive Technology Program (UATP).)
Some important things to note:
  • Avoid running out to buy the “AT device of the month.” Test one out first.
  • Be objective and do not be pressured into buying a device.
  • Find the right team of “experts” to help decide what device to buy. Therapists, doctors, and educators can be helpful, as can other parents. There are also AT experts in many states (see Services below).
  • Before purchasing a device, consider the skills needed to use it to make sure the item is a good fit.
  • There are both high tech and low tech AT devices that make a real difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities. Sometimes low tech devices do a better job at a lower cost.
  • One person’s idea of “low tech” might be the same as another person’s idea of “high tech.” Most of the time low tech devices are simple to use and keep up, are easy to fix, and cost less. High tech devices often have specialized engineering or technology and may be more costly to fix or replace. Tablets, like the iPad, are a examples of a high tech product that is very easy to use but high-priced to repair or replace.

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

AbleData.com
ABLEDATA gives objective information on assistive technology and rehabilitation equipment available from domestic and international sources. Parents can look at items they are thinking about purchasing and see details and the ratings users have given for them. Sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Adaptivation
A commercial assistive technology device company that also gives age appropriate ideas for using assistive technology.

Autism Speaks - Technology and Autism
Offers a national database for assistive tech resources all over the country.

ATIA – Assistive Technology Industry Association Funding Resources Guide
The ATIA Funding Resources Guide identifies various sources and resources that you can investigate and explore as prospective funding options. This list is not all-inclusive but can be a good place to begin or expand your funding research.

Utah Assistive Technology Foundation
UATF is a private, not-for-profit organization that works with Zions Bank to provide low interest loans, and some limited small grants, to purchase assistive technology to enhance independence, education, employment, and quality of life for Utah citizens with disabilities. They often pay half of the interest on the loan.

Utah Assistive Technology Program (UATP)
Nonprofit organization at Utah State University located at the Center for Persons with Disabilities (CPD) that helps children with disabilities and their parents access and learn about AT.

Utah Center for Assistive Technology (UCAT)
Provides resources for families to learn about and access AT, including information and technical services; augmentative communication, bicycle, steering wheel, and wheelchair assistance, including assessment and cost estimate. Utah Augmentative Alternative Communication and Technology Teams evaluate children for assistive technology needs for school.

Utah Assistive Technology Teams (UATT)
Provides assistance for improving the lives of children and adults living with disabilities and has an excellent program that works with the school district to evaluate and work with your child for communication and assistance with access to curriculum. Offers free consultations, workshops, information, augmentative communication loaning program

Services in Utah

Select services for a different state: ID, MT, NM, NV, RI

Assistive Technology Equipment

See all Assistive Technology Equipment services providers (90) in our database.

For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: December 2011; last update/revision: March 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Jennifer Goldman-Luthy, MD, MRP, FAAP
Contributing Author: Mindy Tueller, MS
Reviewer: Tina Persels