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Assistive Technology for Intellectual Disabilities

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Teachers can help students with intellectual disabilities have more access to appropriate education and develop independence through the use of assistive technology.

Intellectual Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects students with intellectual disabilities in the classroom. IDEA defines intellectual disabilities as 'significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child's education performance.' You will notice that students in your classroom with intellectual disabilities usually struggle with social skills, taking care of themselves, and communication. Their limitations in mental functioning usually result in slower learning. This means that they may learn to walk, talk, use the bathroom, eat, later than their non-disabled peers.

Students with intellectual disabilities that qualify for special education are put on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP team - which includes the student, his/her parents, the principal, and both the regular and special education teachers - work together to determine what services and supports this individual child needs to be successful. Often times, the use of assistive technology is necessary and will be written into the IEP. They also determine which classroom setting is most appropriate for each student.


Keeping students with disabilities in a regular classroom environment with their non-disabled peers is always the goal in special education. The widely accepted philosophy is that if a student with disabilities can progress and meet the IEP goals in his/her regular classroom, that is the most appropriate place for him/her. Students with intellectual disabilities may not perform at the same speed and level as their peers, but with assistance, they can access the general curriculum. Assistance can come in the form of individualized instruction, peer tutors, accommodations, and assistive technology.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology can be any object or device that provides a student with more access to the curriculum. Let's look at some of the ways Suzie, a student with an intellectual disability, struggles in the classroom and how assistive technology can help. Keep in mind, it would be unusual for one student to require all of these devices and supports. Also, each student is unique and requires their own individualized plan. The list here is extensive to give you a variety of ideas as you consider your own students and their needs.


  • Pictures: Suzie's speech is unclear, which makes it difficult for teachers and friends to understand what she is saying. With the help of an augmentative and alternative communication device, Suzie is able to express herself in a way others can understand. She uses picture cards and word strips to show others while she is talking.
  • Electronic devices: Certain devices, such as a tablet or ipad, use special text to speech software to act as a communication device. Suzie can select pictures or words and the device will say her message out loud. This device acts as her voice if and when she needs it.

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