On January 22, 2024, the United States Department of Education (“USDOE”) issued a Dear Colleague Letter regarding supporting students with disabilities who require assistive technology (“AT”) in order to receive meaningful access to their education. In conjunction with the Dear Colleague Letter, the USDOE also released a guidance document, Myths and Facts Surrounding Assistive Technology Devices and Services.

In the Dear Colleague Letter, the USDOE emphasizes the importance of assistive technology in transforming education and reducing barriers in equity and accessibility. The guidance document provides more in-depth information with the aim of increasing understanding of the IDEA’s requirements regarding AT devices and services and dispels common misconceptions regarding AT devices. It is a helpful resource that discusses how AT devices allow children with disabilities to improve confidence, develop communication skills, participate in activities, access and understand course content, and more fully engage in the educational process, while simultaneously providing an important overview of the responsibilities assigned to schools by the IDEA related to AT devices. As the guidance document notes, AT devices should be included in all aspects of the students’ education programming and planning, including transition planning, state assessments, and across academic as well as non-academic environments.

As a reminder, IEP teams are required to consider whether a child eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act needs AT devices and services each time the IEP team develops, reviews, or revises the child’s IEP. While an AT evaluation is not necessarily required, it may be needed, depending on the student’s needs and the device in question, when it comes to determining the appropriate device to meet the student’s needs. AT devices and services must be available, accessible, and appropriate for students and their families. Part of this availability is schools having staff who understand how to procure, implement, and evaluate AT devices and services for students with disabilities. If IEP team members lack knowledge about AT options to support the student’s needs, they must engage other individuals who are knowledgeable about AT options in the decision-making process.

It is also the responsibility of the school to ensure that the student, their parents, and their educators know how the AT device works through the provision of AT services. For example, if an IEP team determines a student needs a pencil grip as an AT device, the AT services should include testing out multiple pencil grips, selecting the appropriate pencil grip, training the parents and teachers in the correct way to use the grip, and developing strategies to support the student using the grip. If the IEP team determines an AT device and AT services are necessary to meet the student’s educational needs, the school is responsible for providing full funding. This does not equate to funding any device the family wants. Rather, the IEP team should, if appropriate, test out multiple devices and provide funding only for the device the IEP team determines best suits the student’s needs and for the services the IEP team decides the student, the family, and educators require for the student to access a free appropriate public education. If the school and the parent cannot come to an agreement on a device and/or the parent demands that the school use the student’s own device, please consult with your legal counsel. It is critical to remember, at all times, that the school must make an appropriate AT device available for the student.

Many different items can be AT devices. AT devices can include, but are not limited to, text-to-speech software to listen to digital materials, captioning software to access videos, word prediction devices to assist with writing and communication, augmentative and alternative communication devices to assist children with disabilities to communicate, and visual schedules and visual timers to better understand daily routines and time passage. Some AT devices are not readily available and may need to be customized, which can delay the time it takes to provide the student with their AT device. If there is a delay in acquiring the student’s AT device, the IEP team should consider other strategies to support the student until the appropriate AT device is delivered and determine whether compensatory services are necessary to mitigate the impact of delays in providing the device and services.

Navigating the legal requirements related to AT devices and services, as well as the disagreements that can arise with litigious parents related to AT devices and services, can be complex and stressful. If you have any questions regarding AT device eligibility or services or anything mentioned in this article, please contact one of the authors of this alert or any Franczek attorney.