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Can Assistive Technology Improve My Child's Quality of Life?

Technology is one of the buzzwords of the late 20th century, conjuring up images of computers that talk or televisions so thin they can be mounted on the wall like a picture. Technology isn't just a matter of high-tech solutions to simple problems, however. People with disabilities are now taking advantage of all kinds of technological advances to overcome barriers caused by their disability.

If you're a parent of a child with a disability of any kind (physical, mental, or learning) you've probably heard the term assistive technology used in reference to your child. But you may not know where to begin finding out about it or looking for help. What are these technologies and where can you find them? What technologies will work best for your child? Keep reading to find help in answering these questions and more.

What Is Assistive Technology?
We all use technology - phones, radios, computers - to help us in our day-to-day lives. Although all these technologies can be considered "assistive" in that they help us to better perform tasks or improve our quality of life, the term assistive technology has specific meanings according to United States law. The definition of assistive technology is broken down into two categories: devices and services.

An assistive technology device is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." These devices can include high-tech equipment like computers, but also simple magnifiers, splints, pointers, and ramps. The single most important characteristic of an assistive technology device, whether it is high- or low-tech, is its ability to meet the specific and individual needs of your child.

An assistive technology service is "any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device." Assistive technology services include:

  • evaluation of the needs of a child with a disability
  • purchase or leasing of assistive technology devices
  • selection, fit, customization, maintenance, repair, or replacement of a device
  • coordination of other therapies, interventions, or services
  • training or assistance of either the child who will use the device or individuals who will assist the child in using the device

These services are as critical as the devices themselves in ensuring that an assistive technology solution is effective. They often are an ongoing process (for example, training may not stop a few weeks after a product is purchased, but may continue for as long as the child uses the product).

Assistive technology helps kids with disabilities increase mobility, improve communication, accomplish daily tasks, and enhance learning both at home and in school. Assistive technology products can help a child overcome the barriers a disability creates.

When Should My Child Be Introduced to Assistive Technology?
 Little girl using assistive tech"The younger children are when introduced to assistive technology, the better it is for them and their parents," says Richard Lytton, a clinical assistive technology services specialist. "Assistive technology should be introduced to a child as soon as a significant delay in functional skills or development is identified."

Childhood is when most of us learn the lessons and skills we need to function as adults. We learn these lessons through experimentation, exploration, trial and error, imitation, practice, and direct education. Your child may be limited in terms of his learning approaches because of some combination of a mental or physical barrier, caution on the part of adults around him, and isolation caused by his disability, but this is still the time when he needs to learn these lessons and skills.

Fortunately, even infants can use assistive devices, in the form of special toys or tools, that help overcome these barriers by allowing them to interact with and manipulate objects in their environment. A comprehensive evaluation for assistive technology needs should therefore be completed as soon after the diagnosis of a disability as possible.

The Importance of Evaluation
It is impossible to determine exactly what technology will work best for your child (or if any is even needed) without looking at his specific needs and challenges. Before any decisions are made regarding devices for your child, arrange a comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation through your child's doctor, school, or therapy team. You will need to look at what your child can and cannot accomplish and what functions he needs to perform. A formal assessment will help determine cognitive, motor, communication, self-care, sensory, and fine-motor abilities and limitations.

Collaboration is a key part of this process. You will want to assemble a team of appropriate professionals including, for example, special education teachers, rehabilitation professionals, speech and language therapists, physical or occupational therapists, your child's doctor, and any other adults who have a role in your child's care. The number of specific individuals involved will depend on your child's needs. You should also involve family members, friends, and anyone else who interacts with your child on a regular basis.

Your child should be involved in this process as much as possible. Children with disabilities are aware of many of their own needs and have their own opinions and preferences about how these needs should be met. "The child is crucial in helping the parent pick out the product," says Beth Mollica, director of the Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative in Wilmington, Delaware. If children are happy with the solution, they are more likely to participate fully in its implementation. Any assistive technology device is only as helpful as your child's willingness and ability to use it.

Whenever possible, evaluation should take place in the settings where your child will use the technology (usually at home and at school).

Characteristics of Appropriate Assistive Technology
Once you, your child, and your evaluative team have determined the exact nature of your child's needs, you can begin looking at the appropriate assistive technology devices and services. Among the questions to ask members of your team are the following:

  • Is there a low-tech device that will help meet my child's needs?
  • What types of high-tech devices might help my child?
  • Can the technology be used at school, home, and in any other situation, such as on the playground?
  • Is training required to use it?
  • Is the device being considered appropriate for my child's needs and abilities?
  • How reliable is this piece of technology?
  • How long will the solution be appropriate?

It is important to bear in mind that the best solution for your child may not be the most technologically advanced. The simplest, most appropriate device or solution is the one you will want to choose. An evaluation, with opportunities to try a range of products, will help you identify those items having features your child wants and needs.

Some of the terms you'll hear or read as you shop for assistive technology will be new, or even a little confusing. Don't hesitate to ask for more information about a product.

Try out any device before you purchase it. A tool that seems like the perfect answer may turn out to be difficult to use. Or it may break. Using the device for several weeks will give you and your child a chance to see how well it adapts to the various environments in which he will be using it.

Paying for Assistive Technology
When you are looking at the cost of device, consider any additional costs that may arise. For example, if you are purchasing a computer, do you have to buy a printer, monitor, and software? Are there a number of expensive adaptive devices you may want to purchase?

Consulting with some of the members of your child's evaluative team might give you some insight into potential future costs. Whether you pay for the device yourself, or get help from an outside source, it is important to have a clear budget to help you make decisions about what to purchase.

Costs are a major concern for parents buying assistive technology products. The price can range widely. Sometimes families pay for a device, or it may be covered through health insurance, purchased by a school district, or funded through a private foundation. Sources of funding include:

  • early intervention programs
  • Head Start
  • state programs
  • vocational rehabilitation programs
  • Medicaid
  • nonprofit disability associations
  • civic organizations

Follow Up
Once you have purchased an assistive technology device, you will need to make sure that it continues to meet your child's needs. Plans for monitoring your child's use of the device should be included in the evaluation you perform before purchasing it. Members of your child's evaluative team should periodically check to make sure the device is functioning properly, that no adjustments need to be made, and that it is effective and safe for your child as he grows.

Maintaining the device will be important, so before purchasing it you should find out what kinds of warranties it has and whether you can have it easily repaired at a location close to your home.

Communication with your child and with his teachers, therapists, and other caregivers is also important. The device may be functioning well, but if your child is not getting the help he needs to be properly integrated into his classroom or child-care setting, then the adults and children who interact with him may need more training and information. It is important for all of the people involved with your child to understand why and how he is using the device.

Assistive technology can have many positive benefits for your child, including less isolation, increased independence and self-esteem, and improved learning. Setting out to find the right technology for your child can seem intimidating, but remember, there are lots of organizations to help you and your child.

More Information
Access devices help children interact with computers. These aids help children use head, neck, or eye movements to operate equipment that allows them access to computers. Other devices included in this category are input devices such as switches, alternative keyboards, special mice, touch windows, speech recognition software, and infrared pointers. These tools allow children to enter or manipulate data.

Assistive-listening aids help students who have hearing problems or auditory processing problems. They include hearing aids, personal FM units, Phonic Ear, TDDs, or closed-captioned television.

Augmentative-communication devices and techniques supplement a child's natural speech and communication. These may be low-tech, such as communication notebooks and boards; high-tech, such as electronic communication devices or speech synthesizers; or no-tech, such as sign language.

Computer-based instruction can make possible independent participation in classroom activities. Software can teach the same lessons the rest of the students are receiving, while offering different ways for children to respond. Software can provide the tools for writing, spelling, calculation, reading, basic reasoning, and higher-level thinking skills.

Mobility aids are designed to help children whose impairments limit their mobility. These devices include self-propelled walkers, manual or powered wheelchairs, and powered vehicles such as bikes and scooters.

Positioning and seating aids help children achieve healthier and more functional positions in a variety of settings. Items may be simple, such as a footrest, or customized, such as lateral supports to assist with stable, upright trunk and head positions. Aids include standers and devices that assist children in maintaining a variety of positions.

Self-care devices allow children with disabilities to dress, clean, and feed themselves. They include electric feeders, adapted utensils, and specially designed showers and toilet seats.

Social interaction and recreation devices allow children with disabilities to have fun with their peers, and include drawing software, computer games and simulations, and adapted puzzles and games.

Visual aids help children who have vision problems. Devices include screen readers and enlargers, large-type books, taped books, Braillers, light boxes, high-contrast materials, synthesizers, and scanners.

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