Free Assistive Tech Tools Make Learning Accessible to All by Lisa Nielsen

Technology provides a terrific way to remove the obstacles to learning. Fortunately, many of the tools available are free, but what are they? I reached out to my PLN through Facebook, Twitter, Classroom 2.0 and Google+ to find out. Here are the fabulous resources shared by my PLN.

Assistive Tech Starter Kit
The following accessibility tools are recommended to get started with assistive technology.

  • Accessibility in your browser
    FireFox with Accessibility A collection of free accessibility add-ons available from Firefox. FoxVox and CLiCk-Speak are great.
  • Accessibility on the PCs with MS Office
    WordTalk, Balaboka, or Windows Speech Recognition
  • Accessibility with mobiles
    VLingo (Android - free, BlackBerry - cheap) Dragon (iOS - free) on handhelds or tablets.

These are all free (or cheap) and provide both effective Text-To-Speech (thus access to content) and those with Word-by-Word highlighting help build sight-word recognition. One of the best uses of text to speech is to support writing with "read back" editing.

Resource courtesy of Ira Socol

Reading Collections

  • Bookshare - Accessible Book Collection
    Bookshare® is free for all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities, thanks to an award from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. Bookshare offers a searchable online library with approximately 90,000 digital books, textbooks, teacher-recommended reading, periodicals and assistive technology tools.
  • Project Gutenberg
    36,000 free ebooks to download
  • KidsClick
    Sort materials by reading level.
  • Tar Heel Reader
    This is a collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics. The books may be downloaded as slide shows in PowerPoint, Impress, or Flash format. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces, including touch screens, the IntelliKeys with custom overlays, and 1 to 3 switches.

Audio and Video Collections

  • LibroVox
    Extensive collection of free audio books read by volunteers
  • dotSub
    Video collection with sub-titles in multiple languages

Resource courtesy of Ira Socol, Lisa Nielsen, Jeff VanDrimmelen

UDL Toolkit

This fabulous toolkit will get you started and keep you going when it comes to learning about the best UDL tools.

  • Here are some of the items you’ll find.
    About UDLAppsAudioBooksFree text to speechGraphic organizersMultimedia and digital storytellingStudy skills toolsLiteracy toolsWriting toolsCollaborative toolsResearch toolsMath toolsTools That Compensate for Handwriting Issues

Site Administrators: Joyce Valenza, Karen Janowski

Resource courtesy of Lisa Parisi

Mobile Learning for Special Needs Wiki

This wiki has a lot of information on using mobile tech with students who have special needs. Here are some of the resources you will discover on this site.

  • Apps Lists - iPod touch and iPad applications ("apps") to use with students with disabilities.
  • Accessories - Includes a list of stands, cases, input devices, and speakers for use with students with special needs.
  • Video Case Studies - See what it looks like to use mobile apps.

Resource courtesy of Lisa Nielsen

Advice and Recommendations from an Expert
Assistive technology has to be targeted, so it's not one particular product, but the right product for a specific need in a specific kid (and sometimes for a specific point in time).

  • CAST is a great organizational resource
  • Eileen Marzola has a good handle on this and has written and spoken on the topic.
  • Voice Recognition
    In my own work, I like voice-recognition software for adolescents and adults. Any product that reads the word for kids who can't do so themselves is a good thing -- some better than others.
    Dragon Naturally speaking is pretty goodGinger is a Software I did a few pilots with (a writing revision tool for kids with challenges in writing) which worked reasonably well and they are often updating it to make it betterKurzweil is worth the money for someone who really needs it, but there are other programs that will read text and each one has its own functionalityRead, Write and Gold was recommended to me by a Canadian colleague and I hope to check it out soon
  • iPad
    My jury is still out on that, so I have to defer to those who have used it with students. I would consider, is it more of a motivational tool or truly an assistive tool?

Courtesy of Esther Klein Friedman

Connect with others using assistive tech

Join others interested in using assistive technology. Here are two groups to get started.

Resource courtesy of Sharon Duffy Eilts

Get the latest Scoop on Assistive Tech with Scoop.It!

Scoop.It allows you to curate a beautiful collection of information about your favorite topic. Here is one that focuses on assistive Tech.

  • Special Ed and Tech Scoop.It - A collection of articles, videos, links about the latest UDL and assistive tech news. Featured headlines include the following:
    Read2Go just released yesterday!Assistive Technology on iOS – Blog – 148Apps – iPhone App and Game Reviews and News Helping People With Disabilities Get Assistive Technology Equipment SpeakIt! - Free Text to Speech Add On for Google Chrome Using the Livescribe Pen to Develop eLearning Assets

Resource courtesy of Heather Peretz

Diigo Assistive Technology Links

A collection of assistive tech resources that includes the following gems:

  • Let Your Fingers Learn - LIve binder of special education apps
  • Apps - Good listing of assistive technology apps
  • Assistive Tech Freeware - The following is what I believe to be good AT and useful software weeded out from all the freeware that's available.

Resource courtesy of Mitch Weisburgh

Assistive Tech Collection from Cybraryman

The internet catalog for students, teachers, administrators & parents with relevant links personally selected by an educator/author with over 30 years of experience.

Resource courtesy of Jerry Blumengarten

Examples of Using Assistive Tech for Learning

  • Google Docs as Assistive Tech
    Special education teacher Karen Chichester uses Google docs to get her students motivated about writing. She wrote the following piece to explain how she uses this technology with her special education students.
    Ideas for Using Google Docs to Get Special Education Students Involved in Writing

Resource written by and courtesy of Karen Chichester

This article will tell you how to make any book interactive using QR codes.

Resource courtesy of Scott Newcomb

Not so free products

If you really want to purchase software, here are suggestions, but I recommend you start with free tools. This has the benefit of empowering students to use tools on their own at no cost and if necessary, you can move to a paid for tool later.

  • WYNN or Read-and-Write
    Literacy software tool designed to enhance success for individuals with reading challenges and writing difficulties.
  • Kurzweil3000
    Several innovative educators recommend steering clear of this overpriced option.
  • IntellikeysThis is a tool that teachers love because they have the ability to customize the input device to meet each student's needs. Some educators who use iPads, say that iPads can do what Intellikeys do more affordably and effectively.
    -Video about custom overlays:
    -Their Facebook page is here.

Resource courtesy of Paul Doliner, Ira Socol

Cross posted at The Innovative Educator blog

Lisa Nielsen is best known as creator of The Innovative Educator blog ( and Transforming Education for the 21st Century ( learning network. Lisa is an outspoken and passionate advocate of innovative education. She is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on "Thinking Outside the Ban" and determining ways to harness the power of technology for instruction and providing a voice to educators and students. Based in New York City, Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities helping schools and districts to educate in innovative ways that will prepare students for 21st century success. Her first book, Teaching Generation Text, is set for a fall 2011 release. You can follow her on Twitter @InnovativeEdu.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.