#294 – Assistive Technology, with Christine Fox

Unpacking Education June 5, 2024 29 min

In this episode, we are joined by Christine Fox, Vice President of Operations at CAST, to discuss assistive technology use in K–12 education. Assistive technology is any technology that helps people overcome barriers to interacting with digital tools by breaking down those barriers and making the use of the technology accessible. CAST’s vision statement reads: “We envision a world where all learning experiences in school, the workplace, and life are intentionally designed to elevate strengths and eliminate barriers so everyone has the opportunity to grow and thrive.”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Accessible educational materials and technologies are essential to the independence, participation, and progress of these general education students who function in highly varied ways—physical, sensory, and learning.

CAST, regarding the participation of students with disabilities in general education classes


The following resources are available from AVID and on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:

No Limits

CAST’s tagline is: “Until learning has no limits.” This phrase also sums up the major goal of assistive technology. Assistive technology, or AT for short, is technology assistance that allows people with learning differences to access otherwise inaccessible information and technology. Examples of AT include using a screen reader to read online text or using a specialized keyboard to input information into a computer program.

These assistive tools are essential to some students and are potentially helpful to many others. Assistive technology levels the playing field, providing all students with an equal opportunity to learn and thrive. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Christine Fox is the Vice President of Operations at CAST and Co-Project Director for the Center on Inclusive Technology and Education Systems (CITES). She is currently working on a federal grant supporting students with disabilities and their classmates with inclusive technology. Among other things, Christine was previously a second language teacher and a reading coach and has spent most of her career working with educational technology.
  • Description of AT: Assistive technology is technology that assists a learner in accessing information and operating a computing device. Christine explains that improved access becomes assistive technology when it’s required for the user to access the content. She says, “Assistive technologies are part of a system where an individual with a disability truly needs that tool or device to be successful. There can be low tech all the way to high tech.” Low tech might be using a sticky note, while high tech might include a voice-to-text app or an input switch.
  • Assistive vs. Accessible Technology: Christine shares, “The real distinction between assistive technologies and accessible technologies . . . is that accessible technologies are things that we all use . . . but when they are deemed a need in an IEP [individualized education program], they are considered assistive technologies, AT.”
  • Examples: Throughout the episode, Christine provides multiple examples of AT, including tools to change font size, adjust color contrast, highlight words, read screens, and alternate methods of input, like an adapted keyboard or switch.
  • Enabling Opportunities: It’s important that everyone knows what AT tools are available and how to use those options. This includes being aware of AT embedded in students’ IEPs. Christine emphasizes that using AT is not cheating. “It’s really about enabling . . . opportunities.”
  • Barriers: The biggest barrier to successful implementation of AT is often information and communication breakdowns. Students and teachers need to know about AT in order to access it. Christine shares that, oftentimes, schools function in silos, and necessary information doesn’t get to those who need it. Systems also need to be aware of state and federal assistance programs that are available to them.
  • CITES: CITES is short for the Center on Inclusive Technology and Education Systems. It is hosted by CAST and is available at cites.cast.org. The center “aims to empower school districts to build and maintain technology systems that include every student, particularly children and youth with disabilities who require assistive technology and accessible materials.”
  • National Educational Technology Plan (NETP): The new U.S. National Educational Technology Plan, which was released January 22, 2024, is heavily infused with references to assistive technology. In fact, the plan was created in close collaboration with the Office of Special Education Programs to ensure universal access to learning through technology. Christine reiterates, “Inclusion, accessibility, [and] Universal Design for Learning were embedded throughout.”
  • Myths and Facts About AT: To coincide with the release of the NETP, the Office of Special Education Programs released their own companion information regarding AT Myths and Facts.
  • AT and UDL: CAST is the creator of Universal Design for Learning, and AT is at the heart of it. Christine says, “We really consider assistive technology and accessibility the baseline, especially with digital.” She adds, “If you are participating in digital learning—which most schools and students are in some way, shape, or form—then it has to be accessible before you can really even talk about learner variability and choice, and how to set students up for success.”
  • Awareness First: The first step to empowering students and educators is raising awareness. Christine says, “There are opportunities that maybe folks aren’t aware of, and I think when teachers don’t feel alone and they know that there are a variety of resources available out there, they will feel more empowered and more excited to try to drive change and try new things.”
  • Ask Questions: When adopting new technology, it’s important to ask about AT. Important questions include: What accessibility features does this tool have? What privacy safeguards are in place?
  • Corgi: Corgi is a free resource that offers digital graphic organizers for building higher-order thinking skills. These resources are universally designed for STEM education.
  • The AEM Center: This is the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning, hosted by CAST. It provides technical assistance, coaching, and resources to increase the availability and use of accessible educational materials and technologies.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is assistive technology?
  • What is the difference between assistive and accessible technology?
  • What are some examples of assistive technology?
  • What types of assistive technology would be helpful to your students?
  • What resources were shared that you hope to explore more fully?
  • How can you empower your teachers and students in the use of assistive technology?
  • What are your next steps in providing greater access and empowerment through assistive technology?

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