Assistive technology counts for little without proper planning, support and the will to use it
We have most of us been there at some point in our lives. After a lovely meal and a glass or two of wine in a restaurant, the end of the evening arrives, along with the time to divide the bill. A flurry of awkward shrugs and guilty glances ultimately ends when one plucky individual among the group announces: “I was always rubbish at maths anyway”. We can all relax; we have been given permission to make known our collective fear of all things mathematical and reach for the calculators that now happily reside on our phones.
Fear of maths and its close cousin, fear of technology, are never far away, no matter what context we as professional find ourselves in. Scratch the surface in many roles and we find examples of colleagues shying away from technology and somehow feeling justified in doing so. How many of us know of colleagues who never truly make use of the ubiquitous interactive white boards that have taken pride of place in most teaching spaces?
Whilst this ostensibly UK affliction can be laughed off at some levels, it is my personal experience that a lack of capacity or even unwillingness to engage with technology can and often does lead to poor outcomes for some individuals, specifically those who rely on assistive technology (AT).
AT is a departure from the usual gamut of devices we all experience in our lives; its use, in many cases, is crucial – sometimes life critical – and not just for user convenience. Therefore, it is essential that a greater degree of importance is given to the process of implementing AT and supporting the user.
Imagine learning to drive using only a text book or taking lessons from a person who can’t drive either. Doesn’t fill you with confidence, does it?
This is how some AT users have been made to feel in the past. Their expectations are often that AT will make a material difference to their lives, affording them greater levels of function and consequently independence at home, at work or in the classroom. Their hopes can be dashed when a support worker, carer or teacher, to name but a few, struggles to turn it on, plug a switch in, set it up or even attach it.
If, like me, your first car was more rust than car, you will remember the too common occurrence of needing to be somewhere, getting into your car, turning the key and finding that nothing happens. Ultimately, the wholly unreliable jalopy was sent for scrap and a more reliable car purchased – or you buy a bicycle as I did.
It is common sense not to rely on such poor resources; similarly, if a person’s AT is not available and working properly at the point when they really need it, surely they will opt to use or return to a more reliable or secure alternative. Often, in my experience, they revert to using what they used or did before their new AT arrived.
Knowing how to support the use of AT, and its user, and having that support in place – whether that be in the classroom or at home – in many cases is just as important a factor as the AT itself. Unfortunately, this support can often be overlooked and many studies have shown that lack of competent, trained support is often a key factor in technology abandonment1.
When delivering an AT solution, how the technologies will be integrated into living and learning, how they are supported and by whom are key factors that need to be well defined during the planning phase. How the equipment will be utilised and who is responsible for embedding it into the curriculum are often poorly thought through, leading to instances of technicians installing software on machines, as requested, on the assumption that teachers will know how to use it. In reality, teaching staff who may have seen a demo six months ago are often left with scant knowledge of how to integrate the AT into their schemes of work, lesson plans or student plans. With such a gap in provision, it is no wonder some students fall through it.
One potential means of plugging the gap might be to employ the recently introduced education, health and care (EHC) plans. These are replacing statements of SEN and they identify educational, health and social needs and set out the additional support required to meet those needs. The new SEN Code of Practice states that: “High quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised will meet the individual needs of the majority of children and young people. Some children and young people need educational provision that is additional to or different from this.”
This statement raises the notion of additional/different needs. Therefore, when identifying additional needs and recommending the technologies that might address them, it is essential that support for the technology, in terms of using it and embedding it in teaching, is included.
The setting of pragmatic and achievable goals in the implementation and use of AT is another important factor. By acknowledging that a student might have to learn to use his or her AT whilst also following their programme of study, one can set goals for the use of AT that take this issue into account. By utilising realistic goals, the student should be able to build on success and is therefore more likely to successfully adopt and continue with their use of AT.
In some instances, these goals may appear minimal or indeed (from an external perspective) redundant, if one has teaching assistants or carers in place. But if a person is able to do something for themselves, independently – no matter how apparently insignificant that action may appear – this is widely accepted as having a substantial and positive impact on their psychosocial wellbeing and also, in many cases, on the wellbeing of their loved ones.
Good person-centred practice in the context of an EHC plan could be utilised if a student has an aspiration to live independently. It would make sense to identify the effective use of home-based AT – for example how to use alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) or environmental controls effectively at home – as part of their goal setting within a bespoke academic programme. The setting of personalised goals based on an individual’s current and future aspirations and capabilities should be considered an important aspect of an AT intervention.
Therefore, when employing AT in learning one should also consider the wider use of AT, including that outside the classroom, and how it may support a student to make an effective transition to independent living. EHC plans are an ideal vehicle to support this method of working collaboratively and to help facilitate relationships between home and school/college. However, it is essential that someone is in a position to ensure such an approach is followed through. With the current economic climate putting increasing pressure on the resources of statutory services, it would be further good practice to recommend that an appropriate professional be provided with both the authority and the financial resources to coordinate and monitor such an approach.
By fully supporting the use of AT in all aspects of its use and adopting a truly holistic approach to the use of AT – as enshrined in the philosophy underpinning EHC plans – the chances of the user deciding AT is not for them and losing an opportunity for greater independence will be significantly reduced in the classroom and ideally across all aspects of their lives.
Paul Doyle is Access Centre Manager at Hereward College, a national further education college for young people with disabilities and additional needs.