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Five Things AT Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology Systems

Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems logo, girl with Down syndrome smiling and holding a tablet device

The first in our three-part series, “Five Things EdTech Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology Systems,” described how sometimes assistive technologies (AT) become ubiquitous technologies — tools for learning, living and working. So what do AT professionals need to know about working in an inclusive technology ecosystem?

A person with a disability can … acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, enjoy the same services … in an equally effective, equally integrated manner with substantially equivalent ease of use … as a person without a disability.
Visit Defining Accessibility from the National AEM Center at CAST

To set the stage for an inclusive technology conversation, it’s helpful to have standard definitions for accessible technology and assistive technology. Accessible technologies and materials afford people with disabilities the opportunity to “acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as people who do not have disabilities.” When technology is accessible, a person with a disability can achieve these three goals “in an equally integrated and equally effective manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use” (Joint Letter from the US Department of Justice and US Department of Education, June 29, 2010). Educators can illustrate this definition of accessibility through the provision and use of assistive technologies used to “increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities” for learners with disabilities, as well as other supports.

The Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (CITES) at CAST, working closely with seven partner districts across the nation, has set out to discover what it takes to create and sustain inclusive technology systems. For the second part of this three-part series, we dug into the research and current landscape of technology tools that were once considered AT but now are ubiquitous in general technology. In addition, we explored the role of AT in inclusive technology ecosystems.

Two Sides of the Equity Coin

When districts moved into emergency remote learning environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, they immediately recognized various inequities within their technology systems. The word “access” was used to describe the availability of devices, Internet connectivity, and learning materials. District technology leaders scrambled to establish equity of access to get devices and the Internet into the hands and homes of teachers and students. Meanwhile, special educators and educators supporting marginalized populations discovered inequities stemming from barriers to learning that students and staff were facing. They found that access is only one part of the two-sided equity coin. They were encountering barriers in equity of use.

Even when students have access to devices, the Internet, and materials, many struggle to use the technologies and materials for learning meaningfully. Identifying additional strategies, tools, and methods to support technology use creates more equitable (and enjoyable!) learning opportunities. This side of the equity coin directly addresses the definition of accessible technology. The only way to fully address equity in a technology system is to address both sides of the equity coin. Assistive technology personnel can directly impact both sides but can significantly impact equity of use.

Goals & Strategies First, Then Tools

In the provision of AT, the goal is to increase, maintain, or improve an individual learner’s ability to do whatever tasks they are engaged in — including educational activities, sports, ambulation, or even eating. Digital learning opportunities add a layer of complexity. Whether applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) or combining it with another instructional framework, teaching with technology must first start with the instructional goal. Instructional goals align to grade-level content and standards that ALL learners work toward. And remember, access to grade-level content isn’t a privilege; it’s a right.

With a firm understanding of goals and flexible means for achieving them, educators can begin to identify ways to support all learners, including those with disabilities, in meeting grade-level standards. Instructional strategies that enable learners to choose how they address the standards provide this flexibility. By pairing instructional strategies with flexible means that include tools with robust accessibility features, educators offer learners agency in how they interact with the content and show what they know. However, just because a learner uses AT doesn’t necessarily mean that all of their instructional technology needs are met. Assistive and accessible technologies are complementary but not mutually exclusive. Pairing the science of teaching with instructional tools that allow for personalization and support in the learning process is a winning combination.

When AT is for All, Is It Really AT?

Middle school and high school students often report not wanting to “look different” than their peers if they require AT. Offering robust accessibility features within a universally designed technology used by all students can help mitigate that stigma by assisting learners in developing the skills needed to successfully and independently navigate technology-supported learning. For learners with disabilities, using and navigating accessible tools can reduce the threat of social reproach. And often providing accessibility features class-wide enables learners with disabilities to be “resident experts” to their peers. We can’t ignore the positive impact of providing accessible technologies and personalized learning tools, but neither can we ignore the provision of AT.

When a learner with disabilities requires specific educational technology features to participate fully, those features become AT for that learner. AT professionals are masters at gathering data to differentiate between “nice to have” or “needed” features or tools. In settings where robust accessibility features and tools are the norm and available to everyone, it can be tricky to gather these data. Often overlooked as a data source, student interviews can inform whether a tool is “nice to have” or “needed.” Once identified as a need, we must document the tool in the student’s individualized education plan (IEP). By documenting the need in the IEP, we ensure that when that learner enters a classroom that isn’t universally designed and does not offer the needed tools, their needs will still be met through the provision of AT. It’s a safeguard.

Universal Supports for Everyone

Providing safeguards for learners with disabilities is a right established by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), but what about learners who aren’t served under IDEA but benefit from similar tools? Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) offer opportunities for educators to make data-based decisions to personalize the learning process for all learners, not just those with identified disabilities.

A critical component of MTSS is the universal level of instruction that addresses the needs of all learners. Proactively designing core instructional opportunities that support and account for the variability within and among our learners is essential. But not every classroom is designed the same way. Within MTSS, services and support once reserved for students served with IEPs integrate into a problem-solving process used for all students. District and building staff can intervene with direct, explicit instruction to support learning and provide what has been historically referred to as accommodations. By identifying needed technology support tools as part of the universal level of instruction, accommodations become available to any learner who needs them, regardless of which classroom they’re in or their current ability. This shift in the locus of decision-making for assistive technology and accommodations is incredibly impactful for assistive technology in education.

Share the AT Love

As the field of technology in education continues to grow, so does the role of the AT professional. Long ago, the AT field positioned itself in an expert model; students were seen by “experts” who supported decision-making and implementation of their AT. In the era of ubiquitous accessible technologies, working within this expert model is no longer considered best practice. As we ask teachers, schools, districts, and education service agencies to do more with less, it’s not feasible to hire more AT professionals. Sharing is caring, and AT professionals care about learning and the provision of AT tools.

The CITES team believes that by positioning AT as part of a technology ecosystem, service professionals can reimagine and retool the way students (and staff!) are supported. Building capacity within the system reinforces a district or service agency’s ability to provide quality services. Building knowledge and support from administrators and those educators in leadership and management positions offer the opportunity to integrate AT services and supports in teaching and learning practices. Shifts in organizational structures and collaboration can then operationalize roles and responsibilities between general educators, special educators, AT professionals, and EdTech professionals. Sharing the AT love across these professional groups provides equitable and accessible learning opportunities for all learners, especially those with disabilities.

Be sure to check back for the next article in this three-part series, “Five Things District Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology Systems.”

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