Assistive technology

What is it?

Assistive technology is a catch-all term used to describe any device or system that can help a person with a disability, or an older person, perform a task that they would otherwise find difficult or impossible. The term includes selecting, locating and using devices which are assistive, adaptive or rehabilitative. Assistive technologies aim to promote greater independence for their users and increase the ease and safety with which tasks can be performed.

What does it look like and how can teachers, trainers & learners use it?

In practice, assistive technologies are as numerous as the disabilities they aim to moderate and range from those that are commonly available to the bespoke. In this resource we will consider a selection of the more widespread interventions in the two main categories: physical and learning support.

Physical support

AT1Alternative input devices

Learners who have difficulty with manual dexterity can be supported with a range of alternative input devices.

Alternative keyboards might have large keys, be compact, or have a limited selection of adapted keys. The keys on the keyboard may also be ordered using the alphabet, rather than QWERTY, so enabling the learner to focus on the task rather than letter positions.

Many alternative mice are available, including large trackballs and separated left and right buttons.

Keyboard stickers can be used on a standard keyboard to highlight individual letters for a particular task or make all keys stand out by using a bright colour.

But for those learners with more profound communication difficulties, the keyboard design may be quite different.

AT2Alternate communication devices

The illustrated alternative communication device could be used to help learners with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, Autism or other profound conditions to help them communicate more easily. This device provides a visual interface for the user so that they can use pictures as AT3shorthand for what they want to say.

Adaptive desks may also be required for learners with neurological impairments. Height, tilt and leg stirrups are all adjustable.

Resources for learners who are blind or visually impaired

Closed circuit magnifiers can be laid on a book or document to transfer the words to a computer screen for easier reading.

ReadWrite software can be used to have documents and web pages read out loud. This can also read out the words a learner types in his/her own documents. It includes:

  • AT4word prediction, which is similar to mobile phone predictive text
  • speaking dictionary, which reads out the definition of a word
  • homophone support for words that sound alike but are spelled differently
  • text conversion to produce an audio version of a document or web page
  • study-skills toolbar, which lets users select and collate important information from web pages or documents. It can even summarise long documents.

AT5AT6Braille translation devices attached to a computer can translate screen words and formatting then print braille versions for blind reading.

iZoom is a software magnification program which can be used to enlarge the screen with a range of different zoom settings. It also has a good selection of pre-built and customisable settings for colour . Mouse enhancements let users change the size and colour of the cursor and speech support helps the learner understand what’s happening on the screen.

AT7Resources for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing

AT8A personal amplification device directly increases the level of the sounds around the user.

The illustration below shows how an audio/visual communication device can combine a learner’s residual hearing with close-up views of the AT9speaker’s mouth movements for enhanced understanding. This illustration shows how the speaker’s mouth is seen by the user in close-up on the ceiling-hung TV screen and on a portable desk mounted viewer.

And for support in the other direction there is Voice to text translation software. AT10This device captures spoken words and translates them into readable text on a screen, as shown in this illustration.

But for many people with impairments, their needs can be met by the accessibility options that are standard in operating systems such as Windows and software applications such as web browsers. Options exist to enlarge text size, customise mouse operation, improve keyboard functionality, extend the range of audio outputs, replace audio warnings with visual equivalents and have customisable desktop colour schemes.

Learning support

Many of the above physical assistive technologies could also be classified as learning aids. Here we’ll look at some of the hardware and software aids for a common learning support need: dyslexia.


Learners can use recording devices such as minidisks or digital recorders to record lectures and personal notes for later reflection.

AT11Handheld spellcheckers can give a learner a great deal of confidence when completing handwritten work. They include a dictionary and thesaurus.

Scanning and reading pens are used to capture text and transfer it to a computer. The reading pens can also give the audio pronunciation and definition of a scanned word.

Portable note-takers (such as the AlphaSmart, pictured opposite) are basic word processors with simplified functionality and a low price tag when compared with a laptop computer – ideal for taking notes during a lesson.

As described earlier, text-to-speech systems convert text held on a computer system to synthesised speech to assist in the reading and creation of documents. The software commonly includes integrated talking dictionaries and a scanning facility, and also an optical character recognition function. The primary purpose of this software is not to read out the entire page content, but to read out, on-demand, sections of text selected by the user.

Concept or mind mapping software can be used by learners with dyslexia to help them organise information. It can help with note-taking, revision and the planning of reports and essays. Most of these software packages enable the user to export the graphic mind map to a standard word processor such as Microsoft Word.

There are many more health and safety related assistive technologies not covered in this resource. Cornwall Council has a useful website detailing many of these.

Where in the learner’s journey are you likely to come across it?

  • Recruitment, initial assessment and programme planning
  • Induction
  • Teaching and learning aids
  • Learner support and on-going monitoring of the effectiveness and sufficiency of the support offered.
  • Progress monitoring

What impact can it have on learning?

Assistive technology is available for many types of people with many kinds of disability. It can enable learners to access provision which might otherwise be out of reach. This technology will support them while on their programmes and help to minimise the impact of their disabilities, giving them the best possible chance of success. Improved confidence and self esteem for all, and, for some, improved employability and the opportunity for independence from their carers.

At its best it will… (where appropriate – help for judging good or better)

At its best, assistive technology will be planned carefully, well in advance of the start of the provision. The learners and their carers will be fully consulted and assisted by expert staff to arrive at the best blend of technologies to mitigate their disabilities.

Where appropriate, an ‘exit strategy’ will be built into the support plan. This should not be viewed as a negative – the removal of support – but a positive celebration of independence. This reminds us that additional learning support of any kind is about barrier removal and the development of independence from us, rather that perpetuating dependence on us.

Support will also be regularly reviewed to ensure its continued effectiveness. At the end of the programme, both the specific support provided and the support system as a whole will be reviewed for improvement themes.

At its worst it will… (where appropriate – help for judging satisfactory or worse)

At its worst, delays in assessing learners’ needs may mean they start their programmes without the necessary support in place. This could lead to early demotivation through potentially preventable underperformance and associated on-going issues.

Once support needs are established and assistive technology is in place, a weak provider may not develop a sufficiently sophisticated review system to enable them to reflect objectively on the support arrangements. A weak provider may also fail to carryout summative reviews to inform the future development of their whole support system.

What are the safeguarding implications?

If assistive technology does not meet the individual needs and preferences of the learner it may be ineffective or may even cause additional confusion or distress. Failure to meet a learner’s needs could leave them vulnerable to neglect. There may also be an ethical dimension to the support planning meetings if the learner lacks the capacity to give his/her informed consent.

If learners with additional support needs succeed at a rate lower that those without, this will be viewed poorly by the inspectorate.

Find out more

For which CIF evaluative statements could it generate evidence?

A1        How well do learners achieve and enjoy their learning?

A1a.1   learners attain their learning goals, including qualifications and challenging targets

A1a.2    there are any significant variations in the attainment of different groups of learners

A1a.3   learners’ work meets or exceeds the requirements of the qualifications, learning goals or employment

A1a.4    learners attend and participate as required.

A1b.1   learners develop personal and social skills, including, as appropriate, spiritual, moral and cultural aspects

A1b.2   learners enjoy learning and make progress relative to their prior attainment and potential

A1b.3   learners develop the literacy, numeracy, language and key skills required to complete their programmes and progress.

A2        How well do learners improve their economic and social well-being   through             learning and   development?

A2.1     learners develop relevant knowledge, understanding and skills which contribute to their economic and social well-being

A2.2     learners increase their employability

A2.3     learners progress(ion) to further learning and employment or gain promotion

A2.4     learners understand their rights and responsibilities at work.

A3        How safe do learners feel?

A3.1     learners use safe working practices in learning and at work

A3.2     learners say they feel safe.

A4        Are learners able   to make informed choices about their own health and wellbeing?

A4.1     learners have the knowledge and understanding to enable them to make informed choices about their health and well-being.

B1        How effectively do teaching, training and assessment support learning and             development?

B1.1     learning and assessment are linked to initial and current assessments and related activities are adapted to make sure they build on and extend learning for all learners

B1.2     interesting and appropriate teaching and learning methods and resources inspire and challenge all learners and enable them to extend their knowledge, skills and understanding

B1.3     technology is used effectively to promote and support learning, where appropriate

B1.4     staff have appropriate skills and expertise to provide good quality teaching, learning, assessment and information and support services for each learner

B1.5     assessment of learners’ performance and progress is timely, fair, consistent and reliable

B1.6     learners receive constructive feedback on their progress and how they might improve

B1.7     learners receive help to develop literacy, numeracy, language and key skills to support the attainment of their main learning goals

B1.8     learning, teaching, training and assessment promote equality and recognise diversity.

B2        How effectively does the provision meet the needs and interests of   users?

B2.1     the range, content and context of provision provides learners with a choice of subjects, levels and qualifications, that are relevant to their medium- and long-term personal, career and/or employment goals

B2.4     arrangements for training and assessment are flexible to suit learners’ and employers’ needs

B2.5     enrichment activities and/or extended services, including work experience, contribute to learners’ enjoyment and achievement, and their personal, spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

B3        How effectively does the provider use partnerships to develop its provision to meet learners’ needs?

B3.1     the provider develops partnerships with schools, employers, community groups and others that lead to tangible benefits for learners

B3.2     provision is well coordinated, relevant to local communities and promotes social inclusion and sustainable development.

B4        How effective are the care, guidance and support learners receive in helping them to attain their learning goals?

B4.1     learners receive appropriate and timely information, advice and guidance on their next step in training, education and employment

B4.2     learners receive individual care and support to promote their learning and development, and to help them achieve their potential.

C1        How effectively do leaders and managers raise expectations and promote ambition throughout the organisation?

C1.1     leaders promote very high standards in a positive and supportive culture that aspires to excellence

C1.2     the provider raises expectations through a clear and realistic strategy for planning and developing learning programmes and services

C1.6     resources, including staff, accommodation, facilities and technologies, are developed and used to support learning effectively.

C3        How effectively does the provider promote the safeguarding of learners?

C3.1     learners are safeguarded and protected

C3.2     staff take action to identify and respond appropriately to users’ welfare concerns

C3.3     safeguarding is prioritised

C3.4     providers work together with agencies and professionals to safeguard learners

C4        How effectively does the provider actively promote equality and diversity, tackle discrimination and narrow the achievement gap?

C4.1     manages equality and diversity, particularly disability, gender and race, and actively promotes equality and diversity among staff, learners, employers, parents and other partners

C4.2     assesses the impact of its work in relation to equality and diversity and takes appropriate action in response to its findings

C4.3     makes sure training in equality and diversity is effective so that leaders, managers, governors or supervisory bodies, staff and learners understand their roles and responsibilities in relation to equality and diversity

C4.4     makes sure that all learners and staff are protected from harassment, bullying and discrimination, including those based with employers and at other sites external to the providers

C4.5     manages incidents and complaints specifically about disability, gender and race equality

C4.6     sets challenging targets and uses data to monitor, analyse and improve engagement and performance by different groups of learners

C4.7     takes action to reduce any significant variation in outcomes between different groups of learners, to maximise their potential

C5        How effectively does the provider engage with users to support and promote improvement?

C5.1     the provider implements and monitors an effective strategy to involve learners and employers in the decision making of the organisation

C5.2     the views of different user groups are sought and acted upon to plan, manage and improve the provision

C5.3     external partnerships are promoted to ensure the needs of learners at all levels are met.


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