The term Assistive Technology is a widely used in the literature but has a level of “definitional ambiguity”, as it can mean different things to different people (Golden, 1998). So what do we mean when we say assistive technology?

The term is defined broadly within U.S. federal law as “ any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Hasselbring & Glaser, 2000; Thorkildsen, 1994, p. 4). Blackhurst and Lahm (2000) are more specific when they define assistive technologies to include "mechanical, electronic, and microprocessor-based equipment, non-mechanical and non-electronic aids, specialized instructional materials, services, and strategies that people with disabilities can use either to (a) assist them in learning, (b) make the environment more accessible, (c) enable them to compete in the workplace, (d) enhance their independence, or (e) otherwise improve their quality of life. These may include commercially available or "home made" devices that are specially designed to meet the idiosyncratic needs of a particular individual" (p. 7)

According to Lewis (1998) assistive technology has two major purposes.“First, it can augment an individual's strengths so that his or her abilities counterbalance the effects of any disabilities. Second, technology can provide an alternate mode of performing a task so that disabilities are compensated for or bypassed entirely” (p. 17).

Assistive technology is indeed a broad term that can mean different things to different people depending on their perspective and individual need. If it is used in the area of rehabilitation, the term would refer to technologies such as mobility devices, environmental controls and adapted equipment. Professionals working in the areas of physiotherapy and occupational therapy would be interested in technologies that support access and quality of life issues (Dell, Newton, & Petroff, 2008). The terms adaptive technology or rehabilitation technology are sometimes also used.

If it is used in the area of teaching, the term assistive technology refers to the accommodations and adjustments provided for a student’s learning program. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) defines assistive technology with this perspective as “the software and technology which helps people with disabilities and special needs to overcome the additional challenges they face in communication and learning” (2003). Others terms are also used such as special education technology, instructional technology or information technology.

The nomenclature is dynamic and changing. The term ‘inclusive technology’, for example, is becoming more evident in the commercial world (see www.spectronicsinoz.comand Abbott (2007) in his report, E-inclusion: Learning Difficulties and Digital Technologies, argues that e-inclusion as a term is more appropriate. He suggests that the term assistive technology prioritises technology over learning, where technology is a solution that is applied to a problem. He argues that within the context of the current debates around social inclusion and social justice, the term e-inclusion emphasises the use of technologies to enable learning and inclusive practices for people with disabilities and learning difficulties. As a result e-inclusive practices is a term which "emphasises the interaction between digital tools, contexts and people, and focuses attention on the activity of the use of digital technologies by or with people with learning difficulties. It is this wider understanding of the interaction between digital technologies, contexts and people which is now often, and more accurately, described as e-inclusion" (p. 6).

So what is assistive technology? To a physiotherapist it may mean a wheelchair, while to a teacher in an Year 8 class it may mean a software program that provides text to speech. This ambiguity can lead to confusion between professionals in the consideration, allocation and implementation of assistive technology. We need to make sure we are all on the 'same page' in our discussion and collaboration. For those interested in the learning praxis, Dell, Newton and Petroff in their book, Assistive Technology in the Classroom: Enhancing the School Experiences of Students with Disabilities (2008), provide an succinct overview of this confusion in their introductory chapter. In this book, intended as an undergraduate or postgraduate text for those interested in the integration of assistive teaching into the curriculum, the authors state that they are concerned with teaching and learning so therefore the "use of assistive technology refers primarily to technology that meets the learning and communication needs of children and youth with disabilities in schools" (p.7). They extend this discussion on what is assistive technology by combining this perspective with Roblyer's (2003) definition of educational technology to come up with a working definition: "Assistive technology is a combination of the processes and tools involved in addressing educational needs and problems of students with disabilities with an emphasis on applying the most current tools: computers and their related technologies" (p. 8). For me, a 'mashup'(1) between this and Abbott's e-inclusion perspective is getting close to what assistive technology should look like in a teaching and learning setting.


Abbott, C. (2007). E-inclusion: Learning Difficulties and Digital Technologies. Retrieved 3/6/07, from
Becta. (2003). What the research says about ICT supporting special educational needs (SEN) and inclusion. Coventry: Becta. Retrieved from
Blackhurst, A., & Lahm, A. (2000). Foundations of technology and exceptionality. In J. Lindsey (Ed.), Technology and Exceptional Individuals (3rd ed., pp. 3-45). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
Dell, A. G., Newton, D. A., & Petroff, J. G. (2008). Assistive Technology in the Classroom: Enhancing the School Experience of Students with Disabilities. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Golden, D. (1998). Assistive Technology in Special Education: Policy & Practice. Reston, VA: CASE/TAM.
Hasselbring, T. S., & Glaser, C. H. W. (2000). The use of computer technology to help students with special needs. Future of Children, 10(2), 102-122.
Lewis, R. (1998). Assistive technology and learning disabilities: Today's realities and tomorrow's promises. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(1), 16.
Roblyer, M. D. (2003). Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching (3rd ed.). Upper saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Thorkildsen, R. (1994). Research Synthesis on Quality and Availability of Assistive Technology Devices. Technical Report No. 7 produced for the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, University Oregon.

Greg O'Connor

Links to Definitions of Assistive Technology

Global Assistive Technology Encyclopedia Wiki (created by AbilityNet) is Assistive Technology