Locate Free Assistive Technology in Five Easy Steps: A Guide for Parents

John Newman, Assistive Technology Specialist, PACER

From groceries to gadgets, just about anything can be found on the Internet including free assistive technology and learning resources for your child. The key to finding the right tools is knowing how to look.

Trish is a Minnesota parent whose son was struggling with learning geography. Unsure what to do, she contacted PACER’s Simon Technology Center, which works to make assistive technology more accessible to children and young adults with disabilities. “We recently found out about my son’s learning challenges, and at first it can be overwhelming,” said Trish, whose son was diagnosed with dyslexia. “The information from PACER opened a new door for us.”

PACER assistive technology specialist John Newman helped Trish locate a good website for her son’s needs (sheppardsoftware.com) and offered advice on how to locate other free web- and tablet-based tools. His suggestions are outlined here.

How to search for helpful assistive technology online

With so many free resources available, it helps to pinpoint what your child needs before you begin your online search. Jump-start your exploration by following these five steps!

Step 1: Have a positive discussion with your child

Children can be self-conscious about their disability or learning difference, so it’s important for you to stay positive and talk about their strengths. Acknowledge your child’s struggles but provide assurance that there are helpful tools available. Ask your child how he or she would like to use technology. Present the search for the right assistive technology as an opportunity to explore and make new discoveries together.

Step 2: Identify what your child needs the technology to do

Choose a challenging skill area that your child thinks is important. You can ask, “What would be one thing you’d like technology to do to make this task easier or more fun?” If they give a general answer such as ‘writing,’ ask for specifics. Is it coming up with ideas about what to write, learning how to spell, or something else? “My son’s main struggle was remembering the location of each country on a map, as well as the volume of material to be learned at one time,” Trish explained.

Step 3: Discuss how technology could make the task easier

Assistive technology can add helpful features and offer new ways of doing things. A traditional atlas wasn’t working for Trish’s son, and she wondered how technology could help. The answer was a website that added other features regular maps don’t have.

“The website we found shows each country in a different color, and when you click on a country the website speaks the country’s name,” she said. “This reinforces what he is learning.”

Once you have identified potential features to make the task easier, you are ready to begin searching for practical online tools.

Step 4: Choose the right keywords for your search

Simply typing the features you’ve identified in Step 3 into Google will often direct you to a useful tool. Does your child want text on the computer to be read aloud? Googling “free online tool to read text aloud” generates Free Natural Reader, a high-quality program that voices text you have highlighted on a computer. Common keywords to incorporate in your searches include “free online” or “free online tool.” When searching for apps, use “lite version.”

To locate quality resources, it is sometimes necessary to use technical language you may not be familiar with. The “Tip Sheet for Exploring Free Web- and Tablet-based Assistive Technologies” is a free online guide available at PACER.org/stc.

Step 5: Have your child try the technology

Once you have discovered a potential AT resource, have your child give it a try to see if it fits his or her learning style. If a tool seems beneficial, talk about how it can be used. Also identify other learning challenges your child has that could be made easier by assistive technology.

For Trish’s son, the search for AT has opened the door to new possibilities, and he’s excited to find out what other tools might make learning easier. “We are just starting to scratch the surface with assistive technologies,” Trish said. “My son’s stress level has lessened greatly. It’s good to know we can go to PACER’s Simon Technology Center if we need more help.”

Tech Matters: A Personal Note

Last year, I came to PACER as a new staff member in the Simon Technology Center with a degree in Scientific and Technical Communications, a zest for the subject of usability, and the gung ho attitude of a typical new college graduate. I also had a great deal of empathy for the children and families we serve. That’s because not long ago I was walking in their shoes.

As a child, I was diagnosed with ADHD and dysgraphia. My family always said I had potential, but I couldn’t sit still very long, my handwriting was barely legible, and my capabilities were not always obvious. People with dysgraphia struggle with spelling and handwriting and often have difficulty organizing letters, numbers, and words.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if not for PACER’s assistance in the 4th grade. I was able to “test drive” solutions and secure some simple yet vital accommodations electronic note-taking methods, extended time for tests, frequent use of word processors, and

Reprinted with permission from PACER Center, Minneapolis, MN,  (952) 838-9000. www.pacer.org. All rights reserved.

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