Once the domain of SEN learning, assistive technology is now for everyone

Assistive technologies empower all learners. This article was originally published in Education Technology on 12th June 2021.

Assistive technology is quite an ambiguous term. The way modern technology has been applied across sectors is typically in a bid to assist the user – such as fintech-fuelled, one-click payments, or building-less neo-banks – in many ways.

Reverting to its origin, assistive technology in its very core form is technology designed to help people with specific needs in some way. An obvious use decades ago may have been support of certain disabilities with the likes of a mobility scooter or hearing aid.

Learning and communication disabilities, however, didn’t necessarily have a technological support system through which assistance could be provided 30+ years ago. Our CEO and founder Martin McKay discovered this first-hand in the early 80s when his father suffered a severe stroke. He was left unable to speak, read and write, which effectively gave him the inspiration to explore tech as a force for good from a young age.

Thankfully, society has since recognised the power of assistive technology in supporting learning and it has become highly regarded as a tool for special educational needs (SEN) learning within schools. Due to its enabling power, there’s room to explore its potential as the market, and user age of the user, grows.

Understanding for all

Coming from a Northern Irish business, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the local education system has been challenged in the SEN area. Roughly one in five students across the country has special educational needs and an independent review of how the Education Authority supports those pupils has been declared. It’s easy to see how this issue can be amplified countless times on a global scale.

Yet, this predicament grows further still. The past year has made the potential of assistive technology, which can help with the likes of literacy, speech and writing, abundantly clear through the mass adoption of remote learning and home-schooling.

Learning loss is a regular occurrence during school holidays, but extended school closures meant that students went without the typical face-to-face, communication-driven routine their days are structured around and transformed their education process. While many studies have observed teens, the Education Endowment Foundation has revealed that reception-age children have been negatively impacted, with many more needing additional language support. Tech can assist here with simple tools such as subtitles which link language and voice together.

“The past year has made the potential of assistive technology, which can help with the likes of literacy, speech and writing, abundantly clear through the mass adoption of remote learning and home-schooling.”

Lockdown learning has meant that assistive technology isn’t (and wasn’t) just something isolated for SEN pupils, but broader education technology at large is in effect an assistive technology. This presented another challenge to overcome, since remote learning conditions weren’t always evenly distributed because this depended greatly on the individual circumstances of a student’s household. We know from our research that poorer students in the UK were unhappier during lockdowns than their wealthier peers, which aligns with the former having less access to technology. In a scenario where a SEN student may be from a lower income household, the problem can quickly escalate.

In observing the space through this lens, I want to flag that at no point do learning disabilities just stop overnight. So this is a message not just for educational institutions to take note of, but workplaces too, recognising that these pupils will grow into adults with similar, if not the same, learning challenges.

Nine is the average reading age in the UK and corporations should be mindful of this fact, not just in supporting staff, but in customer communication. The opportunity here lies in recognising the place of assistive tech as a tool to support with language barriers and promoting accessibility as standard, in turn creating an inclusive culture where teams can thrive while still protecting the bottom line.

Everyone has the right to understand and be understood, so businesses have a duty of care to recognise their employees are supported accurately. If schools and companies can collaboratively connect these dots, we can collectively work towards solving learning throughout entire lives – not just younger years.

About the author

Rick Bell, Head of UK Education, Texthelp