Assistive Technologies


Dawn Rose

Dawn Rose (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)


The 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability indicated the prevalence of learning disabilities at 2.3% with 98% of those people indicating their disability had a negative impact on their education (Statistics Canada, 2012). As diversity and learner variability increase in schools, the prevalence of students with disabilities may similarly increase leading to the necessity for more students being accommodated or employing Assistive Technology (AT). According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (2015), “Living with a learning disability can have an ongoing impact on friendships, school, work, self-esteem and daily life”. This chapter will examine the relationship between AT and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for removing barriers to instruction and learning for people with reading-related disabilities. It provides a literature review, the results of which indicate enhanced accessibility and inclusivity through the use of AT and UDL increase student performance. It examines the available features of a specific educational and assistive technology by Freedom Scientific (2018), Jobs Access With Speech (JAWS®) screen reader technology, and the requirements for integrating this technology into the curriculum. Ultimately it recommends AT in tandem with UDL to support diversity and inclusion, and to fulfil the goal of UDL to enhance learning for all students” (Quaglia, 2015, p. 1), which, by extension, may reduce the negative impact of disability on students’ lives.

Keywords: Accessibility, Assistive Technology, barrier, curriculum, diversity, education, inclusion, JAWSÂŽ, learning disability, screen reader, student performance, technology, Universal Design for Learning


In 2012 Statistics Canada conducted the Canadian Survey on Disability and determined that of the Canadian population fifteen years of age or older, 13.7% reported having a disability that limited their daily activities. This study indicated the prevalence of learning disabilities was 2.3%, affecting approximately 622,300 people, 98% of whom said their disability had a direct negative impact on their education. People with learning disabilities are 20% less likely than those without a disability to have completed high school, and 26% less likely to have completed trade school or college (Statistics Canada, 2012). The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (2002) has defined Learning Disabilities as “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information”. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (2015), “Living with a learning disability can have an ongoing impact on friendships, school, work, self-esteem and daily life”. Ensuring equal access to opportunities for persons with disabilities can have a positive impact on their lives.

This chapter will examine the relationship between Assistive Technologies (AT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for removing barriers to instruction and learning, and the implications to curriculum design when incorporating AT to support students with reading-related learning disabilities.


The 2016 Census indicates 21.9% of Canada’s population was born outside of Canada (Statistics Canada, 2017). With the increasing number of people entering Canada through the immigration process and the diversity of our population increasing, diversity in classrooms similarly increases as does learner variability, including the number of students with disabilities. These factors put increasing pressure on schools and educators due to the differing needs of diverse populations. The goal of UDL is to “enhance learning for all students” (Quaglia, 2015, p. 1). AT and UDL compliment each other such that advances in one leads to advances in the other (Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, & Zabala, 2005).

Section 1 of the Ontario Human Rights Code (2012) guarantees the “right to equal treatment with respect to services, without discrimination because of disability”. Under the Human Rights Code, the definition of disability includes a learning disability. Employing AT is one way to prevent discrimination in education.

A review of existing AT interventions conducted by Perlmutter, McGregor, and Gordon (2017), determined AT supports can result in positive outcomes for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities, but supports must be customized for each individual. While AT focuses on the individual, UDL focuses on the curriculum and reducing barriers.

In a learning context, AT is defined as “technology that increases, improves, or maintains the functional capabilities of students with disabilities” (Rose et al., 2005, p. 508). Rogers-Shaw, Char-Chellman, and Choi (2017) describe UDL as “a framework for the teaching-learning transaction that conceptualized knowledge through learner-centered foci emphasizing accessibility, collaboration and community” (p. 20).


Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning: Two Sides of the Same Coin. Technology continues to evolve and transform learning and education for students with disabilities. In their article discussing the similarities and differences between AT and UDL, Rose et al., (2005) conclude universal designs benefit disabled and able-bodied persons alike, and that “Assistive technologies make universal designs more effective” (p. 510).

Assistive Technology: Empowering Students with Learning Disabilities. Some learning disabilities interfere with reading comprehension because the students have difficulty decoding words. The review by Forgrave (2002) concluded speech synthesis technology, when used to read unfamiliar text to students, can dramatically improve students’ reading speed and comprehension. This improvement may motivate students to read independently and therefore improve their reading success.

Implementing Assistive Technologies: A Study on Co-Learning in the Canadian Elementary School Context. A study by White and Robertson (2014) indicates text-to-speech technologies could benefit students by decreasing their dependence on others to read text to them. The authors further indicate if teachers are to routinely use AT in their classrooms, they require training in the use of the AT. As a result of their study the authors found, “All of the students in this study had difficulties with reading, but with assistive technologies which compensated, they were able to work at grade level” (p. 1274). Furthermore, the use of text-to-speech provided students with disabilities the opportunity to read the same books as their peers and to send emails to their friends, resulting in improvements in both motivation to read and reading comprehension.

Supported eText: Effects of Text-to-Speech on Access and Achievement for High School Students with Disabilities. In the absence of individual accommodations, learning disabilities can be a barrier to students accessing the general curriculum. Authors Izzo, Yurick, and McArrell (2009) investigated the use of eText to support high school students and found “learned helplessness is prevalent among special education students” (p. 3), who, when taking quizzes randomly clicked answers knowing they were going to fail the quiz. However, when using text-to-speech AT, all students’ unit quiz scores improved, and most students’ reading comprehension improved.

Universal Design for Learning. Rogers-Shaw et al., (2017) believe that leveraging technology in universal design could lead to greater inclusivity, however, they caution the simple application of technology is insufficient to achieve this greater inclusivity if educators do not adopt the principles of UDL to more effectively meet the needs of all learners.

Universal Design for Learning: Enhancing Achievement and Employment of STEM Students with Disabilities. Advances in computer technology have increased, and now students have multiple means of accessing course content when course design is in keeping with the principles of UDL, and these “universally designed devices can reduce the need for formal accommodations for STEM students with disabilities” (Izzo & Bauer, 2013, p. 19). Izzo and Bauer (2013) indicate “when accessible technology and instruction are provided using UDL principles…many students benefit with increased achievement. Learning through universally designed and accessible technology is essential for students with disabilities who, without access, would not gain the skills needed to complete their degrees” (p. 17).


AT can form part of formal accommodations for persons with disabilities to increase accessibility, ensure equal access to educational opportunities, and support inclusive classrooms; however, AT, when employed by disabled students only, can make the disability more conspicuous, which could discourage use of the AT by disabled students and therefore be a barrier to learning.

A similarity between AT and UDL is they both rely on technology to enhance learning for students with disabilities. The main difference is that AT is designed to help individual students compensate for barriers in the curriculum, whereas UDL is about leveraging technology in curriculum design to prevent or reduce barriers. AT increases the efficacy of universal designs. Universal designs are “not unique or personal, but universal and inclusive, accommodating diversity” (Rose et al., 2005, p. 509). Because the designs are universal they benefit a wider range of students.

UDL requires the curriculum and the basic components of pedagogy and classroom processes to be accessible. According to Rose and Meyer (2002), the UDL framework’s principles emphasize three aspects of pedagogy, the means of representing information, expression of knowledge, and engagement in learning. Students with reading-related disabilities may have difficulty with all three aspects, particularly engaging in learning.


Students with reading disabilities encounter barriers because the majority of content is text-based and the majority of assessments require writing. Looking at this from a UDL perspective reveals the problem is not the individual but rather the text-reliant curriculum. From an AT perspective, the screen reader technology JAWSÂŽ can enhance the functional abilities of students with reading disabilities.

JAWSÂŽ features include but are not limited to: Optical character recognition software to work with a scanner; supports PEARL Camera (Freedom Scientific, 2018) scanning and reading system; built-in DAISY Player (Daisy Consortium, 2018) for people with print disabilities; compatible with several screen magnifiers; supports MathML (Wolfram, 2018); a text analyzer; JAWSÂŽ Tandem (Freedom Scientific, 2018) to access another computer running JAWSÂŽ; drivers for popular Braille displays, voiceover in 30 languages; it is supported by Blackboard (Blackboard Inc., 2018) learning management system and by Zoom (Zoom Video Communications, Inc., 2018) conferencing software (Freedom Scientific, 2018). JAWSÂŽ screen reading software could support students with visual impairments or dyslexia, comprehension issues, and some physical disabilities. To incorporate JAWSÂŽ into the curriculum, all content and classroom tasks must be available on the Windows operating system. Staff and students would require training, and unless students were going to share computers each student would require their own workstation. Additionally, students may need a version of JAWSÂŽ for use at home to complete homework and projects outside of school hours.

If the curriculum design included “universally designed media that offer diverse options for viewing and manipulating content and expressing knowledge…fewer students face barriers” (Rose et al., 2005, p. 510). A curriculum so designed could provide text-to-speech technology to support students with dyslexia, video or images to increase comprehension in students with language-based disabilities, descriptive video or captions for students who are blind or deaf, keyboard alternatives to support students with physical disabilities, and could enhance learning for many students (Rose & Meyer, 2002).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

There are many dimensions of diversity represented in school settings. People are different and may require different supports to have equal access to educational opportunities. Ensuring equitable treatment means ensuring students get the supports they need to succeed, and research demonstrates the efficacy of AT, the provision of which is a means of providing these supports. However, supports or accommodations may not be required if the barrier, the cause of the inequity, is addressed, and UDL aims to do that through universally designed curricula.

While the JAWSÂŽ screen reader technology does provide support to students with learning disabilities related to reading, which according to research reviewed in this chapter will enhance achievement for the majority of students who use it, the use of AT does not address the source of the inequity, the inflexible curricula. Furthermore, because the Windows Professional Edition of JAWSÂŽ is $1095, the cost may be a limiting factor in the use of the software as schools may be constrained in how many versions they can purchase; and, it is unlikely JAWSÂŽ will be available for use by all students, thereby singling out students with reading-related disabilities.

Computer-based AT can support equal access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities, and UDL relies on technology to “enhance learning for all students” (Quaglia, 2015, p. 1). In order for UDL to be effective, AT is required. If, however, technologies were employed as instructional technologies in support of UDL rather than assistive technologies to ameliorate for barriers, they would become tools available to all students and therefore promote an inclusive learning environment (White & Robertson, 2015). As UDL becomes more pervasive and learning becomes more inclusive, the number of people living in Canada whose disability negative impacts their education should be inversely correlated to the increase in inclusive curriculum design.


Blackboard Inc. (2018). Blackboard Learn. [Learning Management System]. Retrieved from

DAISY Consortium. (2018). DAISY Digital Talking Book. [Web page] Retrieved from

Forgrave, K. E. (2002). Assistive technology: Empowering students with learning disabilities. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 75(3), 122-126. doi:10.1080/00098650209599250

Freedom Scientific. (2018). Blindness solutions: JAWSÂŽ. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Freedom Scientific. (2018). JAWS Tandem Quick Start Guide. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Freedom Scientific. (2018). PEARL Portable Reading Camera. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Freedom Scientific, Inc. (2018). JAWS Headquarters. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19. (2012). Retrieved from

Izzo, M. V., & Bauer, W. M. (2013). Universal design for learning: Enhancing achievement and employment of STEM students with disabilities. Universal Access in the Information Society, 14(1), 17-27. doi:10.1007/s10209-013-0332-1

Izzo, M. V., Yurick, A., & Mcarrell, B. (2009). Supported eText: Effects of text-to-speech on access and achievement for high school students with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(3), 9-20. doi:10.1177/016264340902400302

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. (2002). Official Definition of Learning Disabilities. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. (2015). Working description of learning disabilities. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Perelmutter, B., Mcgregor, K. K., & Gordon, K. R. (2017). Assistive technology interventions for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 114, 139-163. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2017.06.005

Quaglia, B. W. (2015). Planning for student variability: Universal design for learning in the music theory classroom and curriculum. Music Theory Online, 21(1), 1-21. doi:10.30535/mto.21.1.6

Rogers-Shaw, C., Carr-Chellman, D. J., & Choi, J. (2017). Universal design for learning: Guidelines for accessible online instruction. Adult Learning, 29(1), 20-31. doi:10.1177/1045159517735530

Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rose, D. H., Hasselbring, T. S., Stahl, S., & Zabala, J. (2005). Assistive technology and universal design for learning: Two sides of the same coin. Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2012). Canadian Survey on Disability, 2012. {Web page}. Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2017). Immigration and ethnocultural diversity: Key results from the 2016 Census. {Web page}. Retrieved from

White, D. H., & Robertson, L. (2015). Implementing assistive technologies: A study on co-learning in the Canadian elementary school context. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 1268-1275. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.003

Wolfram. (2018). Working with MathML-Wolfram Language Documentation. {Web page]. Retrieved from

Zoom Video Communications, Inc. (2018). Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing, Webinars, Screen Sharing. [Web page]. Retrieved from


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Dawn Rose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book