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Assistive technology helps young children with disabilities to thrive

January 30, 2018

Participation in everyday activities is critical for children’s development and learning, yet disabilities prevent more than 1 million U.S. children from full engagement. The Let’s Participate! project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, helped infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities to participate more actively through the use of assistive technology (AT) — items that increase functional capabilities, such as tools for bringing toys closer, grips to better hold pencils, or communication devices, such as tablets.

Man with girl and tabletLet’s Participate! was a five-year model demonstration project that assisted early intervention and preschool programs in evaluating and implementing models that promote the effective use of AT. FHI 360 partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish three model demonstration sites in the greater Boston area.

The project addressed barriers, such as a lack of access to readily available AT resources and devices and the belief shared by service providers and teachers that they were unprepared to use AT. It also emphasized the importance of documenting AT use with children.

Project activities included:

  • Onsite and online training for early-intervention service providers, preschool teachers and aides, and families and caregivers
  • Lending libraries with a wide range of AT devices, enabling professionals to try out the devices with children and their families
  • Child-specific plans to document AT use and track progress
  •  In-state AT liaisons to provide coaching to service providers and teachers
  • Support for state and local AT policies
  • A website with information, tip sheets and an online catalog of AT items for participating service providers and teachers

An evaluation of the project, which was conducted from 2013 to 2017, revealed many positive results:

  • Nearly 300 infants and toddlers were provided with access to AT.
  • More than 76 percent of these children met their targeted outcomes by using AT; the remaining 24 percent were on track to meet their outcomes.
  • Service providers and teachers significantly increased their knowledge of and confidence with AT, most notably in selecting AT devices and helping families use AT. 
  • AT knowledge and use expanded across staff roles. For example, service providers and teachers directly used AT with children instead of relying on specialists.
  • Personnel used AT to help children with a broader range of needs. Instead of using AT primarily with those who had complex medical needs, the team also supported children with more common disabilities, such as sensory or behavioral issues.

Early-intervention service providers and preschool teachers noted how the project had helped with their work. One teacher commented, “Having an AT library to go to enhances my classroom teaching.”

FHI 360’s project partners plan to sustain and expand this work. As a first step, they asked FHI 360 to present preliminary project findings to a council of Massachusetts public and private child agencies. The final project report, to be completed in the next few months, will further help the partners advocate to continue the work. In addition, FHI 360 hopes to replicate the project at other sites.

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