Assistive Technology as a Resource for Students with Mental Health Disabilities

Dawn Lemanis

Ontario Tech University


This chapter will review the use of assistive technology (AT) with students experiencing mental health disabilities. Students with disabilities require accommodation to achieve educational equity within higher education. Once we have provided the evidence that AT will also improve success rates for students in higher education, we will review two methods to increase its use. The two methods reviewed in this chapter will be self-determination and an AT passport. The goal of implementing the two methods is to increase the adoption of AT with students with disabilities thereby increasing their success.


accommodation, assistive technology, disability, mental health,


To begin with, the rate of students experiencing mental health issues has increased significantly since Covid-19 in 2020. Research indicates that at least 20% of the U.S. and Canadian university students have experienced a mental health problem (Ko & Penny, 2022). The statistical evidence signals the significance of providing supports to address the needs of students with mental health disabilities.

Students with mental health disabilities may require a number of supports to assist them in their successful higher education journey.  Supports include medical intervention, counseling, and accommodation. Assistive Technology (AT) is one method to increase educational equity for students with disabilities.  Scheurich et al. (2019) refer to educational equity as the achievement gap between students in a minority group.  In this case, we are referring to students with mental health disabilities as the minority group.

In this chapter, we will review recent research regarding mental health disabilities and AT accommodations. The importance of this issue can be illustrated by the survey results conducted by Gruttadro and Crudo for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in the United States (US). The research indicates 45% of the students surveyed dropped out of school because they did not receive the accommodations they required to be successful in their post-secondary education (Gitlow et al., 2019).  Reducing dropout rates will be one of the benefits of the successful implementation of AT accommodations.

Furthermore, research indicates the traditional use of AT accommodations for students with mental health disabilities are lagging unless the students have a concurrent physical or learning disability (Ko & Petty, 2022).  This indicates the importance of ensuring AT accommodations for this group does not continue to be underserved.

Next, Malcom and Roll (2019) assessed student performance and satisfaction ratings of common academic tasks at the beginning and end of one semester.  The research participants included 105 students with less apparent disabilities. Their results report students to rate their performance and satisfaction on academic tasks in the moderate range prior to initiation of AT services, compared to an increase to moderate-high level once AT services were introduced.  Although the sample size of the group was small, the results provide positive evidence to the implementation of AT services.

Background Information

To begin, we will provide Ko and Petty’s (2022) definition of assistive technology.  They describe AT as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities”. Important to note the definition above originates from The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 in the US, which applies to all educators at all levels (Gould et al., 2022). Canada lags behind in enacting assistive technology legislation, with The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005, and the government of Canada’s Roadmap to 2040 for Accessibility Standards Canada.

Additionally, further research from Gould et al. (2022) states AT is an instrumental part of achieving positive outcomes for students with disabilities. The importance of assistive technology is also noted by the increasing number of students with disabilities and the continued significantly lower retention rates than students without disabilities. The retention rate in higher education is described as the number of students graduating within their prescribed program. Students with disabilities attain post-secondary graduation rates of 35%, nearly 20% lower than students without disabilities (Malcolm & Roll, 2019).  AT is one method to increase the graduation rates of students with disabilities.

Next, students with disabilities indicate performing well academically is central to their self-identification as college students, yet they are more likely to struggle with coursework, have lower grades, drop out, and fail modules in comparison to non-disabled peers (Mc Nicholl et al., 2020). It is imperative to provide supports required to achieve the same levels of self-identification of that of their peers without disabilities.

Finally, important to note the number of factors affecting the use or non-use of AT. Individuals are influenced by personal factors, such as age, gender, mood, diagnosis, disease progression, acceptance of disability, and devices, such as quality. The degree of technological literacy and the ease of use, and the aesthetics of AT are also factors. Environmental factors included are a social support network and physical barriers.  Finally, intervention-related factors such as the users’ involvement and preferences in device selection, provision of training, and follow-up services (Mc Nicholl et al., 2020).  The next section will provide actionable methods to successfully adopt AT.

Increasing Access to Assistive Technology

Reviewing the success rates with assistive technology is not sufficient.  We must examine methods to increase the use of AT both with students with mental health disabilities and other students who would benefit from the technology. Next, we will examine two different methods to reduce the barriers to AT, self-determination and the use of an AT passport.

Self Determination

Self-determination suggests that fulfilling the human need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness leads to greater intrinsic motivation and effective functioning (Deci & Ryan, 2015). Self-determination relating to AT refers to the control students have regarding the use, acquisition, and support of technology. Higher education students with disabilities face difficulty exercising their right to self-determination using or acquiring AT are met with institutional barriers (Gould et al., 2022).  Institutional barriers can include the need to self-identify and self-advocate for student access to accommodations. Identifying this factor affecting the use of AT will aid students in their right to achieve educational equity.

Additionally, reviewing institutional barriers to accessing AT is relevant. In the research conducted by Smith et al., 2021, they stated the U.S. has an individualized accommodation approach similar to institutions in Canada, which meets legal obligations but does not necessarily result in equity or inclusion. Students with accessibility needs are under-informed or unprepared to initiate a request for accommodations (Smith et al., 2021).  This need may be best met with the implementation of an AT passport, as described in the next section.

Moreover, Recognizing the right to self-determination requires removing systemic barriers to inclusion, increasing or maintaining institutional supports, and equipping students with the resources and tools to navigate higher education settings and obtain necessary technology (Gould et al., 2022).

Next, Howard et al. (2020) describe the importance of identifying practices that align with the principles of self-determination. Personal investment through user engagement in choosing devices and services increases the likelihood that AT will be developed in the long term.

To conclude, the concept of self-determination in higher education would achieve a greater benefit if introduced earlier in the educational system. Self-determination is a skill set an individual can transfer to many different aspects of their life. Developing self-determination in students with disabilities is essential to increasing the rate of equity and AT adoption.

Assistive Technology Passport

The Passport’s purpose is to place the person at the center, articulating their AT requirements and facilitating access to information on assessment, funding, training, and maintenance of AT products. The idea of developing an AT passport was based on a recommendation from a joint Enable Ireland and the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) report (2016) on the future of Assistive Technology service provision in Ireland.

Subsequently, to benefit from access to AT, user engagement is imperative to ensure systems respond to the persons’ needs. The DFI report endeavored to remove barriers to AT, advocating for the development of an AT Passport as a user-centered resource to help people navigate the AT service provision system. The AT passport is a new approach to implementation. The research seeks to investigate the AT Passport idea, refine its conceptualization, and offer recommendations for its design, development, and implementation (Maalim & MacLachlan, 2022).

Finally, although this idea was developed in Ireland, the same barriers to the use of AT exist in Canada.  Using the recommendations generated from the research, Ontario and Canada provide the information to develop an approach to implement the system.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

As indicated in the research review, additional studies are required to provide insight into both increasing the use of AT with students with mental health disabilities and AT services.

As noted earlier in the chapter, AT is one tool used to increase equity to students with disabilities.  AT should be one of many methods to attain equity with individuals currently in the higher education system and those who have moved into the workforce.  Recommendations can be made to further develop the accommodation tools required to achieve educational equity, including increasing the use of AT, reducing the barriers to usage, and researching a systematic approach to addressing these issues.  Higher education students today will graduate to life-long learner status and will be able to transfer the AT accommodations used in the workplace into a successful career.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2023 Copyright © by Dawn Lemanis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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