How Technology Saved My Life

By Debbie Grosser, M.Ed.

February/March 2012

Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams are responsible for determining the assistive technology that students need to be able to access and make progress in general education settings. When considering assistive technologies, teams must select those that most effectively address individual student needs.

Zach Highland shares his story to illustrate how effective matching of students’ areas of difficulty with assistive technology can make a significant impact on academic success. Zach is a 21-year-old young man with dysgraphia and a learning disability in reading.  He is currently a senior at Longwood University where he is majoring in pre-pharmacy with a minor in biology.

Zach shared his school journey and identified when he began using assistive technology to support his learning.  He stated, “I remember in grade school, I read slower and I would have to reread stuff.  I would get behind because I had to reread everything.  I found out that I did better when teachers read to me.  I am auditory in my learning style.  It helped my reading scores because hearing it over and over helped.  Writing was hard because I had to write slowly, and it became sloppier as I wrote faster.” His IEP team decided on the technology that would best meet his needs Awhen he was in the fourth grade, his first year with an IEP.  “I began using the AlphaSmart in fourth grade, and it made a huge difference.”  The AlphaSmart, a mobile device provided a keyboard for Zach to record his notes, thus helping to address his writing difficulties due to dysgraphia.

In high school, Zach was more actively involved in working with the “IEP supervisors in the school district.”  Zach mentioned that the schoold division had assistive technology available and that he collaborated with school personnel to identify what would work best for him. In high school, Zach replaced the AlphaSmart with a Dana, an advanced version of the AlphaSmart.  Zach also began to use Read: OutLoud and a mind-mapping software called Inspiration.  The Read: OutLoud program provided Zach with text-to-speech software, allowing him an audio version of electronic text. Mind-mapping software helped him to organize his thoughts in a visual manner for improved learning and in preparation for writing assignments. 

lDuring his senior year of high school, Zach presented at a technology event in Richmond.  That is where he met Joann Ervin from Virginia Assistive Technology Systems (VATS). Zach stated, “She introduced me to the Live Scribe Pen. I tried it there and then got it as a Christmas gift that year.”  The Live Scribe Pen records lectures while notes are taken.  Users may then listen to a lecture by tapping the pen on the handwritten notes. 

Zach used this device during his last semester of high school and continues to use it in college.  He finds it to be a valuable tool, “especially as a science major. I’m taking biochemistry.  [The instructor] talks a mile a minute and you don’t catch it all the first time.  I record the lecture and take notes at the same time. I go back and listen to the lecture again.  Hearing it over and over makes me learn it.” Although Zach’s dysgraphia impacts his handwriting, he is able to read his own notes. Zach can access the teacher notes online, review his own, and hear the lecture.  He noted, “all of these combined helps me to learn the material.”

nZach also has a Nook.  This portable technology allows him to highlight his reading and carry his collection of books with him.  Zach experiments with a number of technologies and uses what works for him.  The organization Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (now known as Learning Ally) provides his texts on CD.  “This is time consuming to use, so I only use it when I need it,” Zach explained. 

Zach’s 12th-grade English teacher taught him how to skim texts for the most important information. He uses this strategy to tackle his college reading assignments. Zach continues to keep in touch with this teacher, commenting, “A lot of my English teachers in high school were amazing.”  He was in advanced level English classes “because of how I learned to progress.  I’m not going to let it hold me back. It shouldn’t hold anyone else back either.”

When Zach was asked what advice he had for other students who may need technologies to support their learning, he queried, “How do you deal with the stigma of using a device?  There are people that don’t want to use it because they think they look bad and it sets them apart. I make it cool. I’m an extrovert, and I’ll say, ‘you have to write your notes, I can record mine.’  You have to be a self-advocate.  No one is going to ask [to help you.]  That is a huge thing, especially in college. The hand holding stops. You have to be able to ask questions.  This is my nature.  I want to know how stuff works.”  Zach adds, “Don’t let anything hold you back. Shoot for the stars. Even if you are not going to college, you will need these [technologies] for work, too.”

Zach closed this part of his story by saying, “I was the first one in my high school from disability services to go to college.  I wanted to go to college and get a Ph.D.  I didn’t want anything to hold me back. I have a lot of fun in everything I do. Technology is fun; you have to have fun with it.”

Zach’s story illustrates how assistive technology can support students with disabilities in achieving success.  It also illustrates how technologies change and improve, how students’ needs change, and why it is important that IEP teams continue to work with students on an individual basis to determine the tools and software that will work best for them.  When a match is made between individual student needs and the most effective technologies to address those needs, students will better be able to access and make progress in the general education setting. 


AlphaSmart – The AlphaSmart is a keyboarding device that is strictly for word processing, as it functions essentially like a simple digital typewriter. The text may be transferred into a computer's word processing document for further editing or printing.

Dana – The Dana is similar to the AlphaSmart and manufactured by the same company.  This device can also run Palm OS applications. Since the AlphaSmart and Dana are specialized for limited purposes, they are generally much cheaper than a standard laptop computer.

Live Scribe Pen – Smartpens are used to record an audio version of lectures or meetings while notes are taken.  These tools record everything that is written and heard. Lectures may be replayed by tapping the pen on the handwritten notes.

Mind-mapping software – Mind mapping is a visual form of note taking that offers an overview of a topic and its complex information. Through the use of colors, images, and words, mind-mapping begins with a central idea and expands outward to more in-depth subtopics. Mind maps help students brainstorm on any topic and think creatively.

Nook – A Nook is a portable device that stores books in electronic format.

Read: OutLoud – Read:OutLoud is software that provides accessibility supports like text-to-speech and study tools to help students read with comprehension.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic – Now known as Learning Ally, this organization serves K-12, college and graduate students, veterans, and lifelong learners who have difficulty reading standard print due to blindness, visual impairment, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities. Learning Ally’s collection of more than 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles are downloadable and accessible on mainstream as well as specialized assistive technology devices. Learning Ally is a nonprofit organization and is funded by grants, state and local education programs, and the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations.

Virginia Assistive Technology Systems (VATS) – VATS has three Assistive Technology Regional Sites that provide community contact points throughout Virginia for assistive technology information and resources across designated regions. These regional sites provide training, public awareness, and general technical assistance for consumers who can benefit from the use of assistive technology.




Live Scribe Pen:



Read: OutLoud:

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic/Learning Ally:

Virginia Assistive Technology Systems: