So in case you didn’t know, I've had a job change.
And a coast change.
I went from working with my previous state's “Tech Act” project to working in services for students with disabilities at a university in my new state. It's been a wonderful transition. I've noticed that there is a definite difference in the assistive technology climate between the K-12, Kindergarten thru 12th grade, environment and that of higher education. I know, it seems like a given that there would be a big difference because of a lack of IDEA or similar legislation in higher education.
But it goes beyond that.
The nature of how services are delivered is fundamentally different between K-12, higher education, and the work world. That’s where so many students and parents seem to have difficulty. They think the system that they’ve been in for the better part of the student’s lifetime will be the same after high school. It most certainly is not.
Now for simplicity's sake, I'm not going to go into the differences involved in the work world. For this exercise, we'll just look at the differences between K-12 and higher education.
In The Beginning...
When students are in the K-12 world, AT Services and Devices are typically brought to the student. An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team looks at what's going on with the student and what the student needs to have equal access to the curriculum. During the IEP process, the team has to answer the very important question of “was assistive technology considered?” and hopefully it’s given a lot of thought and consideration. Also, when we provide students in K-12 with AT, we should be helping them understand _why_ they’re using what they’re using and _why_ it works.
Now, I’m not suggesting we fully engage the 7 year old in a high-level conversation regarding the pencil grips she uses or the 9 year old in a discussion of dysgraphia and how it pertains to her using a tablet/computer/AlphaSmart (there are still some out there!). If the child can fully understand that discussion, more power to them. What I’m looking at is the graduating high school student who uses AT, and who doesn’t understand why she’s using it or really what about it makes a difference.
Because of how we provide AT in the K-12 world, students often aren’t involved in the AT consideration process, especially as they get older. Similarly, a lot of parents often aren’t involved. I’ve been in IEP meetings and have seen parents overwhelmed and not understanding what was going on. I’ve also been in meetings where parents know what’s going on and, in essence, they drive the IEP bus. I can’t say I’ve been in many meetings that have been between those two extremes. I don’t have an easy solution for that. It’s going to take time, communication and education to bring all parents and educators to Understanding Land’s IEP Ride.
Reaching Common (Higher) Ground
In the college world, students often face a very different reality. Unlike in K-12, the student has to seek out help. There isn't an IEP team. In fact, many parents and students are surprised to learn that the IEP a student may have had for years is no longer applicable in the college setting (Do note that this can be different in a community college setting). Typically, students need to seek out the campus office that serves students with disabilities. Not all of these offices are equal, so it's important that you take the services available to you into consideration when you're choosing where you will go to school. Instead of an IEP team, the student will usually work with a counselor who helps them find the accommodations that will help them throughout college. The student and the counselor will discuss previous accommodations and possible new ones in order to find the right mix to help the student.
Now, just like finding the right AT in K-12 was important, the same is true in college. However, I pose that it's even more so because once the student leaves the educational realm entirely, she's much more likely to face difficulty in finding the right AT. If the school doesn't have any AT to try, then your local AT Resource Center (previously mentioned in my post on AT Resource and Loan Centers) can really help by giving you a means to test drive different AT. Your local Centers for Independent Living can also help.
Besides finding the right AT, college provides a great time to understand _why_ that AT is perfect. What is it about your text-to-speech software that makes it work better than another? Why does that particular switch interface work best? What about the switches plugged into it? Is your screen magnifier the one that works best for you? Why? Why does app X, program y, or operating system Z work best for you? If you know why your AT works best for you, then you’ll know exactly what properties/functions you’ll need to help improve or maintain your functionality. Sound familiar? Sounds a bit like the definition of an assistive technology device:
"Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Tech Act of 2008
"Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” IDEA of 2004
So What Does It Mean?
The best thing you can do, if you’re considering college, is be as prepared as you can. Most universities and colleges don’t offer free learning disability assessments. That being the case, see if you can get another assessment before you graduate. You may be able to use your health insurance to get an assessment. Certain medical professionals can actually conduct the necessary assessment. The fine folks at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Disability Resource Center have developed a resource that gives some great guidelines for understanding who can and can’t diagnose learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD. You can find it at http://drc.calpoly.edu/content/eligibility/whoCanDiagnose.
Also, get informed! Find out if your state has its own particular laws regarding AT and education. You can check with your state’s Tech Act group. I also recommend looking into registering with your local branch of the Dept. of Labor’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program. If you’re registered with them, they can help you purchase any assistive technology that will help you with your studies.
So whether you’re going to a local community college or an Ivy League university, you need to make sure you’re prepared. The level of support will not be the same as it may have been in elementary or high school, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the help you need to be as successful as you can.
For more information on IDEA and assistive technology, check this resource from the Family Center on Technology and Disability at http://www.fctd.info/resources/fig/Sec2.htm.