What is Assistive Technology? How Is It Funded?


ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY:  What is it?   What do you need to know?

This section is designed to help you get started learning about assistive technology and the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA). It may not answer all of your questions, but will hopefully point you in the right direction.


(1) What is Assistive Technology?
Assistive technology (often abbreviated as AT) is any item, piece of equipment, software or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.
  • AT can be low tech like communication boards made of cardboard or fuzzy felt.
  • AT can be high tech such as special purpose computers.
  • AT can be hardware such as prosthetics, attachment devices (mounting systems), and positioning devices.
  • AT can be computer hardware, like special switches, keyboards, and pointing devices.
  • AT can be computer software such as screen-readers or communication software.
  • AT can be inclusive or specialized learning materials and curriculum aids.
  • AT can be specialized curricular software.
  • AT can be much more, including electronic devices, wheel chairs, walkers, braces, educational software, power lifts, pencil holders, eye-gaze, and head trackers.
Different disabilities require different assistive technologies.
Assistive technology includes products and services to help people who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, etc.
For general information, you can look up “assistive technology” at Wikipedia. You can find more about specific assistive technologies by looking at the websites of ATIA members and ATIA Alliance partners. Professional organizations in the field also provide helpful websites (see below).  For additional links see the ATIA resources page
(2) How do you choose the right Assistive Technology?
Choosing AT is most often a decision that you make, together with a team of professionals and consultants.
The team is trained to match particular assistive technologies to specific needs so the person can function more independently. An AT team may include family doctors, regular and special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, rehabilitation engineers, occupational therapists, and other specialists including consulting representatives from companies that manufacture assistive technology.
You can find out more about how various professionals can help you at the websites of their professional organizations including:
AOTA (American Occupational Therapy Association)
ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association)
CEC (Council for Exceptional Children)
LDA (Learning Disability Association of America)
RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology  Society of North America) 
Parent and other service organizations, along with manufacturers, offer important information as well. See for example the list of ATIA Alliance Partners.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law whose purpose is to ensure that a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is available to all students with disabilities.  Anyone with children with disabilities (birth through 21) should become familiar with IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a number of websites to keep you informed about IDEA, including http://idea.ed.gov, and it funds other websites to keep you informed, including http://www.nichcy.org/.  NICHCY stands for the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.
For children with disabilities (Age 3 through 21) the local public school system is required by law to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to address each child’s specific needs, including assistive technology. Make sure any appropriate assistive technology is discussed during IEP meetings and is defined clearly for the IEP plan. AT is an item that is often skipped, ignored, or disregarded in the IEP process. Developing an IEP is a team effort. To find out more about IEP, you can look IEP up in Wikipedia, or the U.S. Department of Education
For younger children with disabilities (Birth to age 3) the law mandates that an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) be developed. The administration of these programs varies by state. A local doctor, therapist, clinician, or other child services professional should be able to guide you to the proper resource.
Remember, choosing assistive technology is usually a team effort, however, your input is important, and you have certain rights and remedies concerning the decision. Parents can find out more about a child’s rights at one of the Parent Training and Information centers funded by the federal government. For more information about these centers, visit the Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers.
(3) Who pays for assistive technology?
There is no one answer to this question. It will depend upon the particular technology, its user, and its use. First, however, and most importantly, you have to find out what assistive technology you need. Many kinds of assistive technology may cost you little or nothing – and that is true even for some very expensive items. Here are some examples:
  • Schools systems pay for general special education learning materials as well as technology specified in an IEP.
  • Government programs (whether Social Security, Veteran’s benefits, or state Medicaid agencies) pay for certain assistive technology if it is prescribed by a doctor as a necessary medical device.
  • Private health insurance pays for certain assistive technology if it is prescribed by a doctor as a necessary medical device or used for rehabilitation.
  • Rehabilitation and job training programs, whether funded by government or private agencies, may pay for assistive technology and training to help people get a job.
  • Employers may pay for assistive technology that is determined to be a reasonable accommodation, so an employee can perform essential job tasks.
There may be other sources of funds in your state or community, including private foundations, charities and civic organizations.  ATIA has developed a Funding Resources Guide to provide you with sources and resources that you can investigate and explore as prospective funding options.

In addition, almost all companies that sell assistive technology can give you more specific answers about funding opportunities for their products and may help you find financial support from these or other funding sources.
Sometimes people have to use their own money for the assistive technology they think is important. But remember that persistence pays. Funding availability has changed over the years, and some technology that was not covered only a few years ago is now funded. Find the technology you need first – then look for the money.
(4) What is the Assistive Technology Industry Association, and how can it help you find out about Assistive Technology?

The Assistive Technology Industry Association (often abbreviated as ATIA) is a not-for profit membership organization of manufacturers, sellers and providers of technology-based assistive devices and/or services.

ATIA members are active in providing assistive technology in a variety of fields including:
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • blindness and low vision
  • deafness and hard of hearing
  • computer access
  • communication disorders
  • mobility impairment
  • mounting systems
  • learning disabilities
  • cognitive disabilities
  • web accessibility
  • augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC)
However, though ATIA members provide many different types of assistive technologies, they are not primarily focused on architectural products (such as specialized elevators, lifts, ramps or grab bars), transport products (such as wheel chairs and motor vehicle adaptations), prosthetic devices (such as artificial limbs and eyes), and hearing aids – though all of these are instances of assistive technology.
You can find out more about the specific assistive technology products and services provided by ATIA members by looking at their websites listed in the ATIA membership directory.

ATIA members possess an exceptional storehouse of experience and knowledge – valuable to the unique needs of those requiring assistive technology. Each person with disabilities has his or her own special needs and many people with disabilities have a need to combine products from several different manufacturers or providers. Consequently ATIA members have broad experience both adapting their products to individual situations and helping local practitioners find one-of-a-kind solutions for consumers with disabilities. Many circumstances that appear particularly unusual to a local professional will have been encountered previously – and solved – by an ATIA member who is working with consumers and professionals in communities across the nation.

Not surprisingly, many people who are ATIA members, or who work for ATIA member companies, are themselves trained certified professionals in fields related to education and assistive technology. In addition, ATIA as an organization sponsors various working groups where its members labor to advance industry standards as technology changes, and to find new ways to disseminate information about those advances to professionals and the public.

ATIA conferences, held annually since 1999, provide both a showcase of assistive technology products and a forum for professional practitioners serving those with disabilities. ATIA also holds forums, workshops and seminars for industry, government, and education to expand their accessibility efforts.

ATIA and its members have more recently been developing Internet-based on-line seminars (often called webinars) that provide continuing education about assistive technology for professional practitioners and interested members of the public.

(5) Can you attend an ATIA conference and what will you learn?
You are invited to attend an ATIA conference where you will be exposed to the same broad range of learning opportunities that practicing therapists, teachers, and other industry professionals receive.
Every year since 1999, ATIA has held large national conferences attracting participants from around the world. These conferences have thousands of attendees who choose from hundreds of educational sessions. You will be able to get hands-on experience by exploring over a thousand products from more than a hundred exhibitors. Attendees include educators, industry insiders, therapists, people who use or might benefit from assistive technology, and members of their support networks. Seminars and panel discussions are led by a mix of researchers, expert consultants, manufacturers, and educators. For a general idea, take a peek at upcoming conferences.
At an ATIA conference, you can learn how to choose from among the best existing technologies, or get a first look at new technologies and cutting edge academic research. Teachers learn proven ways to use assistive technology in the classroom. Hands-on workshops teach more advanced ways to use specific products. Community forums (Town Hall Meetings) allow practitioners, people who use assistive technology, and their families to discuss issues with manufacturers and professionals.
For some, the most exciting part of the conference is the exhibition hall. Unlike looking at a catalogue or a visiting a resource center, in the exhibit hall you can try a full range of products, including new and developing technology. Instead of talking to someone who knows only a bit about each one of a small selection of products, at an ATIA conference you can meet exhibitors and ATIA members who can thoroughly demonstrate all the features of all of their products. Many find it particularly enlightening to see all the products, listen to them, hold them, try them, use them -- and then compare them. 
For others, the best part of the conference is meeting other people facing the same difficulties, sharing stories and helping each other.
(6) Can you attend an online Assistive Technology webinar?
ATIA members and Alliance Partners provide a wealth of valuable information, including webinars.
ATIA itself holds live on-line assistive technology seminars (webinars), where the audience can interact with the presenter. ATIA also records and archives webinars so people who are unable to attend a live webinar can have access to the information. The webinars are primarily geared towards teachers and practitioners, who may be able to use them for continuing education credits. However, the webinars may also be helpful to users, parents or other members of the public who have already learned the basics of assistive technology, and want to learn more.
You can explore a list of upcoming webinars as well as archives of previously recorded webinars on the ATIA website.