Is the Biggest Barrier to Learning the School Itself?

Posted in Development and Learning  |  Tagged

by Yakelin Aparicio, Jacquelyn Coyne, Cameron Bresnahan, Kennedy Watson, Gianna Mammone, Samhita Vellala (GU)

Frequently, Individualized Education Programs (IEP) indicate that a child needs assistive technology (AT) devices and services to access educational content, participate in class, or demonstrate their knowledge. If this is the case, school districts are responsible for providing AT devices and services to the child. It is important to note that school districts cannot require parents to use their private or public insurance to pay for necessary AT devices and services. By law, they also cannot claim they do not have the funds to pay for AT devices, or claim the devices or services are not available. This sounds great, right? Students with disabilities can obtain access to these technologies with ease, as required by law. However, that is often not the reality.

In a 2014 lawsuit against Montgomery County Public Schools, parents of a 2nd grader with visual impairments sued for the wrongful denial of an AT evaluation by the school. Despite the child previously showing great improvement with the use of various tablet devices, the school district denied approval of evaluation and requested proof of the appropriateness of the specific AT requested. Ultimately, the district refused to provide this tablet, which, according to the family, significantly hindered the student’s ability to access the curriculum (Martin and Lindsay, 2017).

These type of situations are not uncommon, occurring throughout the education system through to college. The brother of one of our blog writers was also denied an AT evaluation despite his experience with using a speech-generating device at a previous school. Unaware that they had the option to dispute this decision until a few months after his enrollment, the student was unable to receive the support he needed during such a tumultuous transition between schools.

These examples demonstrate the tendency of school districts to resist providing devices and services required by the IDEA and Section 504, often due to cost. Assistive devices can be expensive.  Although most AT is low tech costing very little and often free some devices like  highly sophisticated computer activated technology can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Schools often claimed (erroneously) that devices are too expensive to provide. In schools with high minority enrollment or poverty concentrations, the provision of AT can be even more limited. A survey demonstrated that only 47% of high minority enrollment schools and 52% of schools with high poverty concentrations made special hardware available to students with learning disabilities, compared to 61% of low minority enrollment schools and 71% of affluent schools (How Many Schools Provide Assistive or Adaptive Technology for Students with Disabilities?, 2001). Despite legislation requiring the availability of AT, financial conditions often restrict access, ultimately hindering the academic, and sometimes social, development of students with disabilities. 

When AT devices or services are denied, parents can dispute the denial with the Office for Civil Rights, placing the responsibility on students with disabilities and their families to advocate to ensure the students’ academic success. Even if schools provide AT to students with disabilities, many other barriers exist aside from obtaining the technology itself. When AT becomes an integral part of students’ academic progress, students often need to take those devices home to complete assignments or study. If IEP determines that the student is in need of AT, schools are legally required to provide it and allow them to take it home under IDEA and Section 504 (Musgrove, 2019). However, schools often resist this because they are afraid that a student will lose or damage the device (Fox, 2005).

As noted, AT devices can range in difficulty from low to high-tech. Teachers often fail to properly incorporate the harder to use high-tech devices into the classroom setting. This can be due to technical issues, lack of support, lack of proper training, or lack of time in the classroom to incorporate these ATs (Sharpe, 2010). To better incorporate AT, it is essential that the IEP plan include the training required for both teachers and students to ensure the device is properly and effectively used.

Ultimately, despite the implementation of legislation protecting the rights of students with disabilities to access AT, many other aspects of the process through which schools incorporate AT need significant improvement. School districts need to work with AT, not against it, to ensure that what is outlined in the legislation translates to the classroom, and that students’ wellbeing and success is prioritized.


Fox, C. (2005, October 17). Assistive Technology Is Worth Fighting For. Special Education Law Blog.

How many schools provide assistive or adaptive technology for students with disabilities? (2001). AccessComputing.

Martin, J., & Lindsay, R. (2017). Current legal issues involving assistive technology.

Michael Edward Sharpe. (2010). Assistive Technology Attrition: Identifying Why Teachers Abandon Assistive Technologies. Doctoral dissertation. Nova Southeastern University. Retrieved from NSUWorks, Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences. (301)

Musgrove, M. (2019, October 16). Who Pays for Assistive Technology. Understood.