How to Get Assistive Technology for Your Child

closeup of daughter and parent touching an iPad screen together

Editorial note: With school back in full force, you may be concerned about how the school year will progress. Assistive technology is an important component of your child’s accommodations, but sometimes the expense can be a hurdle. We’re delighted to welcome Erin Sheldon as a new guest blogger, sharing her story about working with the schools to get her daughter Maggie an iPad.

I do workshops for parents on effective advocacy. I compare a parent asking for an iPad to a teenager asking Mom for an iPhone. If your teen comes to you and says, “Mom, I NEED an iPhone!” We all say, “no, you don’t, and here is why.”

But if our teen comes to us and says: “Mom, as a new driver, I need a way to always find my way home and find my destination. I need a way to get in touch with you at all hours. I need a way to keep track of all my school assignments and deadlines. I need a way to record my work and volunteer hours. I need a way to organize all my school notes to help me prepare for tests. I need a way to research college options…”

Then we tend to say, “OK, that’s all legit, let’s start comparing our possible solutions.” An iPhone could very well be the best possible solution.

What matters is that the teen has not come to us with her own pre-determined solution. When a parent says to the school, “my kid needs an iPad,” the parent likely has something specific in mind. The parent has likely seen an iPad provide an opportunity to another child and the parent wants her child to have the same opportunity. The parent is really saying, “My child needs to be able to communicate. Needs to be able to engage with digital materials rather than paper in order to enhance attention. My child needs a keyboard or TTS or STT. My child needs a mobile way to search the web. She needs a way to show what she knows and who she is. My child needs easily adapted materials on the go. My child needs access to 1000s of photos and videos to communicate and engage with the world.”

I tell parents that when they ask for an iPad, they have left the school team out of the problem-solving process. If people aren’t part of the problem-solving process, then they aren’t invested in the solution. But we can never persuade people to a solution unless we agree on the problem. So we need to start with what our child needs to be able to do.

Anyway, I find parents really respond to this kind of discussion and to this kind of analogy.

So often, the problem rests as much with the rest of the IEP team. If the occupational therapist (OT) does not believe the child can engage in any kind of generative writing, then she won’t be problem-solving how the child can access the alphabet. If the school team has restricted literacy goals to matching letter names and sounds then they won’t be problem-solving how the child can access texts for wide reading. We HAVE to discuss WHY we need technology and access, in order to uncover the assumptions behind each professional’s goals.

I say all this as a mom who went out and bought my kid an iPad because the school wouldn’t. I say this as a mom who had the special educator, general educator, OT, and SLP all get together to approach me as a group to tell me it was a waste of money to even consider it. I say this as a mom who did it anyway. I say this as a mom for whom iPad technology was SO revolutionary for my daughter that our school board’s entire iPad pilot project was performed in my daughter’s school as an extension of what we had learned with Maggie. I say this as a parent in a board who now routinely prescribes iPads as a tool for kids with the most significant disabilities to access quality literacy instruction. I say this as a mom for whom our school board AT specialist said to me last May, “Can you believe that only a few years ago we all thought Maggie had profound intellectual disability, but just look at her now.”

And I say this as a mom who responded, “Maggie hasn’t changed. Her disabilities haven’t changed. What’s changed is that she now has the technology to provide access and opportunity to show us what she knows.”

For Maggie, the iPad has been a diagnostic tool as much as an instructional tool. We now understand her cortical visual impairment, low vision, and auditory processing disorder so much better than we did before. We now understand much more about the accommodations she needs in order to attend and learn. This is information that was denied her educational team before we had the option of seeing her response to touchscreen mobile technology.

Mom to Maggie, age 11, Angelman syndrome