Assistive Technology That Supports Students With Disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed. and Tina Spencer, M.S.

Providing assistive technology (AT) to students with disabilities to support them in the general education setting requires careful consideration of students’ needs and identification of the means by which these needs will be addressed.  It does not necessarily require the use of high-cost technologies.  The Assistive Technology Act defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” ((29 U.S.C. Sec 2202(2)).  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) adopts the same definition for the term “assistive technology device,” with the exception of the last phrase, “… functional capabilities of a child with a disability” (34 CFR §300.5).

Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams are responsible for determining the assistive technology that students need to be able to access and progress in general education classes and other education-related, extracurricular, and nonacademic settings. When determining assistive technologies for students, consider the variety of inexpensive electronic technologies, applications, and software that are available.  To get you started, below is a list of examples of free assistive technology online tools (Earnhart, 2011).

Free Assistive Technology Online Tools




Reading/Learning Resources

Tarheel Reader

A collection of free, accessible books on a wide range of topics. The books may be downloaded as slide shows in PowerPoint, Impress, or Flash formats. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using touch screens, the IntelliKeys with custom overlays, and one to three switches.



An index of over 15,000 online educational videos for children in a directory of over 3,000 categories. The videos are available without any registration or fees to teachers in the classroom and to students at home 24/7. Search the directory by subject and age level.


Free audiobooks from the public domain. Several options for listening are available.

Writing/Presentation Resources

Make Beliefs Comix

A program to create up to a six-panel comic strip by choosing characters and their emotions, add thought or talk balloons, and add objects and prompts.



An online tool for generating "word clouds" from text. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.


Tagxedo turns words, such as famous speeches, news articles, slogans, and themes into a visually stunning tag cloud. Words are individually sized to highlight the frequencies of occurrence within the body of text.



A free website for uploading a picture, recording voice, and have the mouth move in sync with speech. This may be used to record information about a topic or biography and present it in an entertaining way.

Google Scribe


A text-completion service. Using information from what has already been typed into a document, Google Scribe provides related word- or phrase-completion suggestions. In addition to saving keystrokes, Google Scribe's suggestions indicate correct or popular phrases to use.



Free tools for creating and sharing animated cartoons. Characters, backgrounds, props, voices, motions, and actions are available at the site. Students learn how to apply special effects such as zoom and pan, and are able to create original characters. Finished products may be posted to other sites and emailed.

Study Skills Resources

Merriam-Webster Online Visual Dictionary


A dictionary of 20,000 terms with contextual definitions and 6,000 full-color images of a wide variety of objects from all aspects of life. Illustrations are labeled with accurate terminology in up to six languages.

Snappy Words Visual English Dictionary and Thesaurus

An online, interactive English dictionary and thesaurus that allows users to find the meanings of words and draw connections to associated words.



Offers videos that give an active demonstration of vocabulary words with audio of the pronunciation, definition, various uses, and synonyms. Flashcards give a written definition and visual representation of the word.

Additional Resources


Brainstorming and mind-mapping software.


A collection of free online interactive tutorials on a variety of topics, including computers, math, reading, and daily living.



Free online games and learning activities (many are switch accessible) in categories such as: early years, games, stories, creative, and “find out.” A section just for parents contains resources and technology tips related to computer switch access.

Software programs, browsers, and other technologies offer accessibility features that are frequently overlooked by users (Berkeley & Lindstrom, 2011).  Below is a list of free accessibility options available through Microsoft and Firefox.

Free Accessibility Options




Microsoft Word

Readability Statistics Tool

Calculates readability for text.


Highlights important concepts in reading.

Microsoft Exchange

Keyboard Shortcuts

Helps quickly accomplish common tasks.

Outlook Voice Access

Retrieves e-mail messages from Exchange 2010 mailbox by using an analog, digital, or mobile telephone. Lets users interact with Microsoft Outlook calendar, access personal contacts, and manage personal options.

Microsoft Windows


Visual notifications for sound

Replaces system sounds with visual cues, such as a flash on the screen, so that the system alerts are noticeable even when not heard.

Text captions for spoken dialogue

Displays text captions in place of sounds to indicate that activity is happening on your computer (e.g., when a document starts or finishes printing).

Speech recognition

Allows control of computer by voice (e.g., use voice to start programs, open menus, click buttons and other objects on the screen, dictate text into documents, and  write and send e-mails).

High-contrast theme

Sets a color scheme that heightens the color contrast of some text and images on the computer screen, making those items more distinct and easier to identify.


Reads aloud on-screen text and describes events (such as error messages appearing) that happen while using the computer.

Audio Description

Describes what is happening in videos.

Resize text and icons

Makes text and other items on the screen appear larger so that they are easier to see.


Enlarges the part of the screen where the mouse is pointing and may be useful in viewing objects that are difficult to see.

Remove background images

Turns off all unimportant, overlapped content and background images.

Change color and size of mouse pointer

Make the mouse pointer larger or change the color to make it easier to see.

Mouse Keys

Moves the pointer using arrow keys or numeric keypad.

Sticky Keys

Allows users to press one key instead of three keys at once (such as when you log on to Windows).

Filter Keys

Ignores keystrokes that unintentionally occur in rapid succession or keystrokes that are held down for several seconds.

Firefox Internet Browser



Removes extraneous elements on a page.

Dorina Daisy Reader

A DAISY 3.0 digital book reader that functions as a Firefox add-on.

Im Translator

Provides access to the online translation for more than 50 languages. Translator includes online translator, dictionary, text-to-speech, virtual keyboard, spell checker, Russian decoder, back translation, and e-mail service.

When considering assistive technologies for students, strategically select those that most appropriately address specific needs as indicated by valid, current assessment data.  Listed below are resources that IEP teams may use when identifying students’ assistive technology needs.

Additional free resources related to assistive technology for educators include: 

  • Assistive Technology: A Framework for Consideration and Assessment – This document, from TTAC Online, is intended to be used by school divisions as a framework for the development of assistive technology operating guidelines tailored to local resources and service delivery models, and should be used in conjunction with federal and state regulations.  The document does not replace any federal or state regulations.  The information is provided to assist IEP teams in planning and implementing AT services for students with disabilities.
  • Accessible Instructional Materials Center of Virginia (AIM-VA) – The Virginia Accessible Instructional Materials Center (AIM-VA), part of the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities at George Mason University, produces and delivers accessible instructional materials for local educational agencies (LEAs) in Virginia that have students with an IEP or 504 plan indicating a need for alternate formats of printed materials. AIM-VA also provides training and technical assistance to LEAs that order and use these accessible instructional materials. Further, AIM-VA assists the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) in implementing the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards (NIMAS) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

As mentioned in the first Link Lines article for this series, The Role of Technology in the Education of Students with Disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment, “mainstream technologies become assistive when they are modified or customized for use by students with disabilities.”  The accessibility options provided through Microsoft and Firefox are available as mainstream technologies and make access more convenient for the general population.  The free online resources may be used by students with and without disabilities and provide a fun, interact way for students to learn.  For students with disabilities, these resources may be the assistive technology that they require in order to participate fully in general education environments. 

The next issue of Link Lines will provide a student’s story related to effective use of assistive technology in education and its significant impact on the student’s progress and success. 

References and Resources

Accessible Instructional Materials Center of Virginia:

Accessible Instructional Materials Navigator:

Assistive Technology: A Framework for Consideration and Assessment:

Berkeley, S., & Lindstrom, J. H. (2011).  Technology for the struggling reader: Free and easily accessible resources. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(4), 48-55.

Earnhart, J. (2011, April). The ten best free assistive technology tools. Retrieved from (Link no longer available)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:

Microsoft Accessibility Options:

National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials:

Pennell, D. (2011, September/October).  The role of technology in the education of students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. Retrieved from

The Assistive Technology Act:

T/TAC Online:

Virginia Assistive Technology Guide:

Virginia Assistive Technology Resource Guide: