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Overview of Assistive Technology

An overview of assistive technology for students who are blind or visually impaired, including those with additional disabilities

Evelyn Kelso presents an overview of the tools and devices used by the visually impaired to assist their daily activities. She is the Blind and Low Vision Consultant at the New Hampshire Assistive Technology Evaluation and Consultation Services.

Photo of Evelyn Kelso behind podium at Children's Hospital, Boston

Technology is a tool to unlock learning and expand the horizons of students…Technology can be a great equalizer…It enhances communication and learning and expands the world of blind and visually impaired persons in many significant ways.” – Koenig, A. & Holbrook, C. (Foundation of Education, 2nd Edition, Vol. 2)


What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology (AT) can be defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” – National Institute of Standards and Technology

It can be low tech (such as an object, a marker, a slate and stylus) or high tech, such as electronic devices, computer software, or switch-activated materials.

Three Types of AT Solutions

  • Low, Medium, and High Tech

My definition of high tech is anything you plug in.” – Evelyn Kelso

  • Never underestimate the power of a simple solution

You don’t take a helicopter to go to the grocery store.”

Goal of Assistive Technology

The goal of assistive technology is to give children with disabilities access to literacy and communication in the school, home, and community. It is not an end in itself.

It is important to plan ahead about 2-3 years as a child will need different tools at different stages of development. It is important to create a toolbox of different solutions. For example, CCTV might be used to help a child learn to read, but once a child is reading, it might be phased out in favor of something else.

Assistive Technology and the Law

Assistive technology is defined in the IDEA of 2004 as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.”

Assistive technology has a federal mandate in both the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) and the Tech Act of 2004. Training and use of assistive technology must be addressed in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and is a part of the expanded core curriculum for students who are blind or visually impaired including those with mulitiple disabilities.


Assistive Technology Assessment

Essential Background Information:

  • Medical Eye Condition & Other Diagnoses
  • Functional Vision Assessment
  • Learning/Literacy Media Assessment

Environmental Considerations

  • Lighting
  • Positioning
  • Glare
  • Contrast

For example, contrast is extremely important for a student with albinism. This presentation discusses a student who was in a new classroom where everything was white and it was necessary to cover things with black sheets of paper to provide contrast.

Increasing Access to Print

  • Font style
  • Font size
  • Bold
  • Color
  • Layout


Characteristics of a student who might be a likely candidate for a print reading program may include:

  • Uses vision efficiently to complete tasks at near distances.
  • Shows interest in pictures and demonstrates the ability to identify pictures and/or elements within pictures.
  • Identifies name in print and/or understands that print has meaning.
  • Uses print to accomplish other prerequisite reading skills.
  • Has a stable eye condition.
  • Has an intact central vision field.
  • Shows steady progress in learning to use her vision as necessary to assure efficient print reading.
  • Is free of additional disabilities that would interfere with progress in a conventional reading program in print.


Optical Aids

  • Eyeglasses
  • Magnifiers
  • Telescopes
  • CCTV

A video magnifier or CCTV (closed circuit television) is a device that can magnify things and display them on a television screen. Telescopes can be helpful for reading things such as road signs, or watching games. They’re best for situations where there’s high contrast and large distances. Eyeglasses can be simple magnifiers or have a prescription.


Slate & Stylus
A slate and stylus for a person with blindness or low vision is the equivalent of a pencil and paper for a sighted person. The major advantages are that it’s portable and low-cost. It is a relatively low-tech solution. The slate is a pair of metal sheets hinged together with holes to serve as guides for punching in Braille with a stylus. The sheet of paper is held between the two sheets of metal and using the guides, a person can punch in Braille using the stylus. It is necessary to punch in the Braille backwards using this method, as you’re actually punching in on the backside of the paper so you can turn it over and read the braille.

Perkins Brailler
If the slate and stylus is the equivalent of a pencil and paper, then the Perkins Brailler is the equivalent of the typewriter. It’s basically a typewriter with 6 keys that types braille.

Portable Notetaker
A portable notetaker is like a small handheld word processor designed for students with disabilities. They’re usually able to download text to a regular computer and often have text-to-speech and other helpful software.

Characteristics of a student who might be a likely candidate for a braille reading program may include:

Shows preference for exploring the environment tactually.

  • Efficiently uses the tactual sense to identify small objects.
  • Identifies her name in braille and/or understands that braille has meaning.
  • Uses braille to accomplish other prerequisite reading skills.
  • Has an unstable eye condition or poor prognosis for retaining current level of vision in the near future.
  • Has a reduced or nonfunctional central field to the extent that print reading is expected to be inefficient.
  • Shows steady progress in developing tactual skills necessary for efficient braille reading.
  • Is free of additional disabilities that would interfere with progress in a conventional reading program.


  • Recordings
  • Talking Calculators, dictionaries, etc.

Tactile Graphics: Literacy Is More Than Print

  • Maps
  • Graphs
  • Diagrams
  • Pictures


Computer Access

Enlarging software (e.g. Zoomtext)
Software designed to enlarge what’s on a computer screen.

Screen Reader (e.g. Jaws)
A text-to-speech program that reads text aloud.

Tactile access (e.g. refreshable braille)
Refreshable Braille displays are electronic devices which can be hooked up to a computer and display a line of
braille at a time. They do this by raising cells of pins under the surface that a person touches.

For more information, see also:

AT for Students with Multiple Disabilites

Switch Access
Switch access refers to alternative devices which allow a person to use a computer or operate an environmental control. These are usually based on whatever parts of their body they are able to control, for example, there are switches that can be controlled by blinking the eyes or by using the feet.

  • Schedules
  • Communication systems


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