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Assistive Technologists in Higher Education

ATHEN E-Journal Issue #4 (2009)

Michael James “Jayme” Johnson
High Tech Center Training Unit
Cupertino, California USA


This paper reviews the literature concerning assistive technology (AT) in higher education and a survey of current AT professionals working in various higher education contexts. Several themes are discovered that relate to AT in general and in the specific context of higher education. Issues related to the definition of AT and related standards, legal requirements to provide AT, Universal Design for Learning, and the relationship between AT and instructional technology (IT) are explored.


This research into assistive technology (AT) in higher education centers around a qualitative literature review and brief survey of current AT professionals, seeking to understand the nature of AT in the context of higher education environments. A broad spectrum of literature was initially reviewed to try and define the scope of the questions pertaining to AT in higher education, such as: Who deals with AT? How is AT defined? What is the history of AT in higher education? What differentiates AT in higher education from AT in other educational contexts and from AT in general? And of course there is always attention being paid to any future concerns, innovations, or other developments that may warrant further research. In looking at the literature, several common themes emerged to help further the review. Some of the more common themes relate to the difficulty of finding a succinct definition of AT, a desire or need to increase awareness of AT in educational settings, a lack of professional standards for AT specialists, and a widespread need for training in AT. Another common theme is the rapid growth of technological innovation and how it has outpaced the ability of generalists to stay abreast of the latest technologies. These themes relate to the real and significant issues faced by educators and students trying to use AT in conjunction with earning an advanced degree or certification. Data from the survey further reinforces these themes, which form the basis of this paper.

There are many variables to consider when dealing with AT in conjunction with the level of instruction typically occurring at higher education institutions. Many of the variables have more to do with technological capabilities and personal skills and abilities of the student and teacher than the subject matter being taught, resulting in multiple needs for education, from operating the AT to mastering the regular curriculum. Interestingly, many instructional technologies (IT) also function as AT, depending on the individual student’s abilities. This blurring of purpose between AT and IT is an exciting and interesting concept to consider as part of the ongoing efforts to increase awareness of AT. After considering the varied needs and implementations of AT in higher education, it appears that there are many rich areas for further research in regards to how AT is used and taught in higher education contexts (Desoff, 2008; Kamei-Hannan, 2008; Lahm, 2003; Long & Perry, 2008; National Disability Policy: A Progress Report, 2008; Parette & Peterson-Karlan, 2007). The benefits of this research are significant in many regards, and can help influence future legal standards and legislative updates, establish best practices for AT delivery and training, help define the professional standards for AT specialists, and ultimately result in a better source of information for practitioners and consumers of AT.


AT is defined in several different pieces of legislation, and the one overriding characteristic is that of great vagueness. A vague definition is a necessity for AT in general, as quite literally, any sort of technology that assists you with a task can be defined as AT. Often referred to as “supports” or “aids”, these AT-based accommodations can be as basic as modified cutlery or as advanced as computerized respiration and life-support devices that literally assist an individual to stay alive (Lahm, 2003). In the most general sense, AT covers a spectrum of supports that ranges from life-critical supports like respiration systems to less critical supports like large print calculators. In general, AT in higher education does not deal with the life-critical supports. While such systems certainly are present in higher education institutions, the maintenance and configuration of such systems is typically left to medical personnel. AT in higher education contexts is generally focused around issues of communication and cognition, and because of this, AT in higher education can easily cross into the realm of IT (Parette, 2007).


In an attempt to learn more about the people actually working in the field of AT, a brief survey was created and announced electronically via different email lists for the California Community College System and the professional organization Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN). After several weeks with a couple of gentle requests to complete the survey, 64 responses were gathered, with 63 genuine and one respondent who skipped every question. While the responses verify some suspicions and assumptions, some surprises were discovered as well.

When you consider the fact that one of the primary means of announcing the survey was the California Community College system listserv, it is no surprise that a majority of the responses come from California. Table 1 shows a simple breakdown of the responses according to the type of higher educational system.

Figure 1: Survey Response

Figure 1: Survey responses are organized according to higher education system, with 27 from the community college system (42.9%), 33 from public universities and colleges (52.4%), and 3 from private colleges and universities (4.8%),

Table 1: Summary of Data for Figure 1


Community College

Public College or University

Private College or University

Percentage (%)




Response Count




Survey responses came from 18 states within the US, plus one from Ontario, Canada. There is an expected stark contrast between the number of responses from California as compared to the number of responses from any other single state. California respondents numbered 37, with the next highest number of respondents being New York with three (3). The remaining sixteen states had only one or two respondents each. Out of 37 responses from California, 27 were from the Community College system. While it is not surprising that California is heavily represented, it is interesting to note that not a single community college was represented from any other state.

Survey respondents report a wide range of educational backgrounds, from high school graduates to graduate degrees. Figure 2 shows the highest level of education for the different respondents.

Figure 2: Highest Education

Figure 2: Survey response to highest level of education achieved shows a wide range from high school diploma to graduate degrees in special education.

Table 2: Summary of Data for Figure 2


Graduate degree in Special Ed

Graduate degree in technical field

Other graduate degree

Undergraduate degree in technical field

Undergraduate degree

Associate’s degree

High School diploma / equivalency









Percentage (%)








It may be surprising to some to see that a majority of respondents have a graduate degree, and that only 4 out of 63 respondents have not completed any college degree. It is also notable that the largest number of respondents (24) have some sort of a graduate degree that is not in a technical field or in special education. This diversity of educational backgrounds poses an interesting challenge for determining basic levels of knowledge and educational requirements for professional standards.

Respondents were required to answer the question of how they see their primary role. With all of the varying job descriptions and backgrounds, it can be challenging to come up with concise yet accurate position titles. Figure 3 shows how respondents chose to label themselves from the provided options of how they perceive their primary role.

Figure 3: Primary Role

Figure 3: The primary roles of survey respondents, with Assistive Technology Technicians claiming the largest number at 20 (31.7 %) followed by Alternate Media Production Specialist at 15 (23.8 %) and Educator/Trainer at 14 (22.2 %).

Table 3: Summary of Data for Figure 3



Alternate Media / Production Specialist

Assistive Technology Technician


Educator / Trainer


Rehabilitation Specialist

Web Accessibility Specialist










Percentage (%)









It is important to note that not one of the respondents chose Rehabilitation Specialist, a title one might expect to associate with assistive technology in general. The title Assistive Technology Technician was the most popular with respondents outside of California, followed by Alternate Media / Production Specialist, mirroring the breakdown of responses from within California and indicating a general trend.

Answering the remainder of the survey was not required, and while the number of responses for each question varied, typically at least 22 people responded to further questions. Approximately half of the respondents were from California. Many people had a lot to share, and there were some questions that revealed greater commonality and potential themes than others. Out of 26 responses to the question “If someone were to ask you what the field of access technology is, what would you say?” only six defined AT as something that encompasses more than information and computer access. Quite a lot of specifics were listed to the question “What do you do on a daily basis to help increase access for students?”, but out of 25 responses, the top three categories were 1) Researching & Learning, 2) Teaching & Advocacy, and 3) Production and Service. While most respondents acknowledge the critical role of institutional support, they also state that they need more professional development opportunities for training, networking, and attending conferences. Another common theme related to institutional support is a desire to be more involved in the process of determining official policy and procedures for the institution.

When asked what their greatest success has been, a majority cited an example involving student success, further emphasizing a very strong theme throughout the survey responses. When asked what their greatest challenges have been, the answers center around funding, time, staff, adequate resources and tools, and issues of ignorance and administrative support.

Respondents were asked if they perceive a future or career in assistive technology, and out of 22 responses, only two did not answer with some form of an enthusiastic “YES”. When asked what advice they would give to people who are just starting a career in assistive technology, learning and continued learning emerge as clear and dominant themes. Themes related to hopes for the future and professional growth are the desire to further their education, increase their network of knowledgeable colleagues, and raise awareness about the issues surrounding access to information in higher education contexts. As for what changes and innovations they would like to see in the field of AT, lower pricing for AT products was one of the most common responses, followed by a greater understanding of universal design principles and a greater integration of accessibility in information, computer systems, and general media. Finally, when asked about professional organizations they belong to, respondents most commonly listed AHEAD, ATHEN, and RESNA. While other organizations were listed, in those cases none were listed more than once.

While these responses help provide some understanding of the individuals who work with AT, it is clear that more data is needed to better answer the need for national standards, curriculum development, and certification. Based on the number of people who provided in-depth responses, it is clear that more aggressive means of data gathering need to be employed to determine a more comprehensive understanding of how AT is currently being dealt with in higher education contexts.

Literature Review

There are several limitations in conducting a literature review about AT in higher education, primarily the lack of detailed studies into the subject. While it is a national requirement that AT be provided in our educational systems, there remains little data available in terms of how the AT is actually delivered. Certainly there is some record of the expenditures being made for AT, and there must be some record of students requesting or needing AT in the classroom, but based on the available literature, gathering and compiling this information seems to be secondary to the task of delivering AT. A secondary limitation is the rapid pace of development of AT products. As the computer capabilities of the average personal computer continue to grow, so too does the capability of computerized AT to deliver supports for learning and access. Keeping abreast of the latest available tools can be a full time job, and providing training for students to use these tools is scarce, resulting in growing numbers of agencies devoted to providing training and recommendations for AT purchases (Stodden, 2006).

Recognizing the wide range of AT and the limitations in comprehensive and detailed studies about how AT is delivered in higher education, I decided to further explore the history of AT over the past decade and look for examples that help clarify the distinction between AT in general and AT in higher education contexts.

As has been the case with AT in general, AT in higher education received a boost in priority due to some specialized legislation that required a certain level of service to be delivered. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Federal Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are three of the major pieces of legislation commonly referred to in studying the delivery of AT in higher education (Block, Loewen, & Kroeger, 2007; Campbell, 2004; Lahm, 2003; Sopko, 2008; Sunrich & Green, 2006).

Interestingly, while there is an official mandate in multiple forms of legislation, there remains no official licensure or identification of professional standards for those who would deliver the mandated services. While these various pieces of legislation by necessity must include general and inclusive terminology for defining AT, it is often too vague for educators to feel comfortable with. Generally speaking in academia, the term AT is narrowed to reflect the range of typical AT found in higher education settings. While the need for training in AT has been well documented (Lahm, 2003), there remains little or no prescriptive standard for minimum professional standards of an AT specialist, much less an AT specialist in higher education. However scarce the training materials or national standards for proficiency, there remains good growth in the marketing of AT products, and the rise in professional agencies trying to support the AT industry (Block et al, 2007; Bryant, 2004; Donlon, 2007; Silver-Paculia, 2007; Williams, 2006).

Newspaper and magazine articles are great beginnings for educating people about different AT products, and it is likewise good to see the various conferences and professional organizations devoted to AT. However, there is reason to wonder if everyone is on the same page regarding AT skills, and if there is much duplication of effort happening around the nation because of this lack of connectivity (Block, 2007; Long & Perry, 2008; National Survey of Educational Support Provisions to Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education Settings. A Technical Report, June 2000; National Disability Policy: A Progress Report, 2008; Stodden, 2006; Tomita, 2008). It appears this fear is representative of a more widespread concern, and belies a constant problem with delivering AT in higher education: the lack of communication between AT specialists and the lack of a trusted and useful clearinghouse of information. The implementation of these communication and knowledge systems are evidenced in various system-specific situations, but as of yet there have been no successful national efforts to coordinate and organize the various sources of information related to AT in general, much less the unique nature of AT in higher education.

Obviously there is AT in higher education, and while there may be a unique interpretation or understanding of what is currently defined as AT, there are some special characteristics that seem to help define the niche of AT specialists in higher education. Assuming that most of the AT issues related to higher education primarily center around communication issues and not the more critical issues of life support, there are a whole range of AT products and training that need not be of concern to an AT specialist in higher education (Dessoff, 2008; Engstrom, 2005; Lahm, 2003; Parette & Peterson-Karlan, 2007).

Recognizing that at the most basic level IT is anything that affects the interaction between learner and instructor, an interesting fact arises from the literature regarding the type of AT most commonly used in higher education. Despite the incredibly sophisticated tools that are available for addressing specific learning modalities, sensory input systems, and cognitive supports, the most common type of AT used in higher education is specialized seating. This seems surprising at first, but when you consider the nature of AT as it relates to IT, there is a dynamic measure that demarks a given technology on a spectrum between AT to IT. Ironically, sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective, and often the most complex solutions are dramatically reduced to a specific subset of features for each student. Consider a study-skills program like Kurzweil 3000, which allows for students to interact with electronic information, creating bookmarks, notes, highlighting keywords, and a variety of other instructional aids and assessment tools. There are many features that are excellent examples of instructional technology that can teach a student different ways of studying and learning from the materials. Some of these features are also proven accommodations for different types of learning disabilities. While an entire class can benefit from many of the tools of Kurzweil 3000 to learn reading and studying skills, they are usually able to then transfer that ability to other contexts and technologies, while for the student with a learning disability, Kurzweil 3000 may be the only method by which they can accomplish these skills. For the majority of the class Kurzweil serves as IT, but for the student with a learning disability, Kurzweil becomes AT that helps overcome a deficit in functional ability (Dessoff, 2008). There are many examples of this relationship between AT and IT in education in general, and doubtless there is much to be gained from AT specialists exploring IT and learning about the range of learning tools that could also be serving as AT, and vice versa.

The commonality between AT and IT becomes more obvious as more people embrace the concept of Universal Design for Learning (Block et al, 2007; Campbell, 2004; Parette et al, 2007). While originally intended for architectural design, the concepts of universal design have been advocated as a means of increasing access for people with disabilities. It becomes somewhat more difficult to make information that is truly useable by all, the end result being that information is designed in logical pre-defined structures that lend themselves to various forms of AT. Universal design in informational contexts is actually an issue of universal compatibility with various technologies that might be used to “read” the information, be it a screen reader, an MP3 player, or a refreshable Braille display. Again, the interplay between AT and IT is apparent, as the various learning theories and methodologies for instructional design and IT are typically composites of the discreet methodologies used by AT specialists to engage a specific and discreet sensory or learning modality. (Kamei-Hannan, 2008; Parette et al, 2007; Wald, 2008).

While there is much more research to be done into the nature of AT in higher education, studies have demonstrated that there is significant overlap between the fields of AT and IT. There are many general descriptions of AT, and even more attempts to narrow the definition to unique contexts. There is also the idea that AT should be intermeshed with all students’ basic computer skills, as part of a core set of professional computer use skills, as opposed to the more common recreational computer use that most students already excel in when they enter higher education (Tomita, 2008). There is much documentation as to the need for more training in AT; however there is little discussion about what constitutes an accepted core curriculum for the subject, though a recent entry into the textbook arena could be changing that (Bookwatch, 2008).


While the original question of defining AT specialists remains difficult to answer succinctly, the good news is that current AT specialists in higher education are poised to effectively and accurately provide clarification. With the widespread desire for formal standards and training in AT, there is opportunity for postsecondary institutions to begin researching and defining the curriculum. From the basic aspects of learner analysis to the specific content of individual types of AT, there is much that can be learned and organized under the topic of AT in higher education, and chances are pretty good that there is already a subject matter expert at most campuses, as the business of delivering AT has been occurring for some time now, despite the lack of organized standards or professional certification (Lahm, 2003). In addition to providing some needed standards for the field of AT, there are great potential benefits from exploring the continuum of AT and IT in regards to providing even more powerful opportunities for learning for all students. Through these further explorations and research new connections are made between practitioners and specialists, forming and reinforcing the vital networks of expertise and knowledge that can help further the best practices of the field and ultimately lead to greater student success. While the educational levels and professional backgrounds of AT specialists may span a vast range, there is a common focus on providing equal access to education that unifies and characterizes these individuals. Researchers, teachers, practitioners, and innovators, this unlikely collection of people are actively shaping the field of AT every day, as they take on the challenges of an ever-changing and formally undefined profession.


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