Assistive Technology

What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive Technology, or AT, refers to “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)). This description applies whether the device is acquired commercially or results from modification or customization of a purchased or already owned device. AT can and should improve the quality of life and increase the independence of individuals with disabilities.

Children with special needs or disabilities may benefit from a variety of assistive technology. Below we offer an overview of available types of AT, information to guide selection of AT, and resources to help you find what you need.

Types of Assistive Technology

There are many types of assistive technology that address different needs; over 40,000 AT devices in 20 broad categories (AbleData Product Categories) are marketed. A general look at each AbleData category follows. Medical Home Portal Technology Review pages that provide more detail are linked when available.
  • Aids for Daily Living - Items to enable more independent performance of activities of daily living, such as bathing, carrying, grooming and dressing, feeding and drinking, reaching, toileting, and transfering.
  • Blind and Low Vision - Products that augment vision, provide for non-visual alerts or communication, and enable performance of tasks despite low vision.
  • Communication - Devices to assist 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 information technology.
  • Controls - Mechanisms to start, stop or adjust electric or electronic devices. (see Switches)
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing - Items that augment hearing and provide for non-auditory alerts or communication, (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 enhance access to 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 assist in cooking, cleaning, and other household activities, as well as adapted appliances.
  • Orthotics - Braces and other items to support or supplement joints or limbs.
  • Prosthetics - Prostheses and other items for amputees.
  • Recreation - Items to assist with their leisure and athletic activities; includes music, gardening, toys and crafts. (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 assist people to sit comfortably and safely at home and on the go; includes car seats.
  • Therapeutic Aids - Equipment and aids that assist in treatment for health problems and therapy and training for certain disabilities; includes a variety of items used in physical and occupational 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 accessories that enable moving freely indoors and outdoors. (see Wheelchairs and Adapted Strollers)
  • Workplace - Tools to aid functioning at work.
The Medical Home Portal also includes 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.

Selecting and Obtaining Assistive Technology

There are thousands of AT devices on the market today. Selecting the right device with the best fit for the person, environment, and technology is a multi-step process that takes time. The information below, adapted and greatly condensed from the Utah Assistive Technology Program (UATP), provides general information to guide you through the selection and acquisition process.
  1. State your main goal. What do you want to accomplish with the AT device? What will the technology enable the user to do that he or she is currently 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. The assessment should include thinking 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, taking into account growth, development, changing technology, etc.?

  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 opportunity to check out different options. Evaluate the choices critically – resist choosing the first or the flashiest option.

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

  5. Pursue funding. The costs of AT devices range from quite inexpensive to extremely expensive. Finding assistance with funding may take considerable time and effort. Potential sources include: health insurance, public programs, charitable organizations, and loans. Manufacturers or retailers may offer discounts or used or refurbished items that are less expensive. It is important to provide proper documentation and use correct wording and procedures when requesting funding. Initial requests may be turned down, but appeals can be successful. Purchasing used equipment can reduce 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 receive appropriate 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 annually. Users who experience changes — either in themselves or their environment — that affect the usefulness of their equipment should seek a re-evaluation.
Some important things to note:
  • Avoid running out to buy the “AT device of the month.” If possible, test one out first.
  • Be objective and if you feel you are being pressured, you probably are.
  • Find the right team of “experts” to help determine what device to purchase. Therapists, medical personnel, and educators can be helpful resources, as can other families. There are also AT professionals in many states (see Services below).
  • When choosing a tablet computer, consider that newer tablets may be lower in price and have more apps available. Look at different apps to purchase or download and make sure your platform will support them.
  • Before purchasing a device, consider the skills necessary 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.” In general low tech devices are simple to use and maintain, are easy to repair, and cost less, or they may be used for a variety of purposes. High tech devices often include specialized engineering or computer technologies and may be more expensive to repair or replaced. Tablets, like the iPad, are a examples of a high-tech product that is very easy to use but expensive to repair or replace.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients
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).
Assistive Technology for people with a disability who find operating a computer difficult, maybe even impossible. This web site will direct you to adaptive equipment and alternative methods available for accessing computers.

A commercial company with information and assistance to make adaptations to assistive technology; this can help families see different options for use of devices.

Assistive Technology Overview (NECTAC)
from the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center

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

How Tech Can Change Your Special Needs Classrooms
How technology has served to empower special needs students and enable them to excel not just in the classroom but also in the community. From the University of Cincinnati.

Services in Idaho

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

Assistive Technology Equipment

See all Assistive Technology Equipment services providers (47) in our database.

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

Authors & Reviewers

Last update/revision: September 2012; initial publication: December 2011
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Jennifer Goldman-Luthy, MD, MRP, FAAP
Contributing Author: Mindy Tueller, MS