How does Assistive Technology help students with disabilities?

Learn how note taking tech benefits students with disabilities, institutions and support staff.


Having mobile access to the internet means the majority of us are carrying a limitless encyclopedia around with us wherever we go. Within a few seconds, if we needed to know that the capital of Papua New Guinea is Port Moresby, we’d have that information – no reference book needed.


A New Normal

If someone were to promise us this capability 20 years ago, we’d bite their hand off to have it. Now, it’s just another tool we use when a question comes up we need an answer to.

Given that our relationship with technology is getting closer in almost every walk of life, it’s important to think about how we can utilize new tools to help students learn.


Why keep our classrooms analogue when the rest of the world is becoming digital?

This is especially important when we consider how to make our classrooms more accessible.

Assistive technology (AT) available on the market now can help foster independence, confidence and attainment for students with disabilities.

Yet it seems that institutions are slow to adopt new tools.

When we consider how accommodations are intended to create a level playing field for all students, we have to ask whether the equipment for success is really being provided.


Peer Note Taking

Take peer note taking, for instance. This is often the default note taking accommodation Disability Services departments reach for. In fact, it’s an option 77% of higher ed institutions in the US use as a primary classroom accommodation for students with disabilities.

Peer note takers are hired to ensure that a student needing accommodation can emerge from a lecture with a reliable set of notes. On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable solution for all – there are no fundamental alterations to teaching, and the student can focus on listening to the lecture material.

But let’s think about the real implications of this system.


An Inherent Problem

With peer note taking, what we’re asking students to do is to be present at lectures whilst delegating the task that helps aid recall of lecture material to somebody else.

We do this for students dealing with any kind of condition which affects note taking ability – whether it’s ASD, dyslexia, a physical impairment or learning difficulty requiring classroom accommodation.  

Then we hope that the notes they will receive will be adequate and helpful for review.

There are too many variables here for peer note taking to be the best solution for students – especially when used as a one-size-fits-all approach to accommodating disability. There’s no guarantee that notes will be of sufficient quality, that they’ll be received on time, or that the information recorded will match the student’s experience of the lecture.

There’s also the additional problems of dependency and disengagement that this accommodation provokes. If a peer notetaker is responsible for recording impressions, quotes and important points from a lecture, it’s natural to suppose that many students will lean on this resource rather than focus on listening and absorbing the information.


Active Listening

The secret to a great set of classroom notes is ‘information assimilation’, or how readily the material presented is absorbed by the listener. This can be hard to achieve if a student is frantically attempting to write everything down. And it’s just as hard when the student is disengaged or depending on someone else to write their notes for them.

Institutions should be looking at ways to use accommodations that encourage active listening within lectures. And it’s hard to think of a better way to do this than by utilizing technology specifically designed for the purpose.

By demonstrating how these tools can increase student engagement, you could help to offset common faculty concerns about the misuse of technology in the classroom.


Here’s how assistive technology could help create greater independence for students with common disabilities:

ASD: Problems autistic students encounter, such as sensory overload or cognitive rigidity, can be offset by scaffolding information through Assistive Tech. Using software that allows students to break the note taking process down step-by-step can reduce stress and help build life-long skills.

Dyslexia: Two of the primary symptoms of dyslexia are problems with word recognition and organization. Smart pens, for example, can help students with this through syncing notes with a chosen device, with the additional option of converting hand-written material into text.

ADHD: AT that captures audio in an interactive way could help mitigate the effect of distractions in the classroom. By having a recording to review and annotate afterwards, students have reassurance that a loss in concentration doesn’t mean a loss in content.

Anxiety/Depression/PTSD: For students suffering from mental illnesses like anxiety, depression or PTSD, classroom engagement can be a significant issue. Utilising AT can help reduce stress and build academic confidence, reducing dependence on peer note takers.

Physical Disabilities: Physical impairments create practical impediments, one of which could be writing. Software that enables student input without the need for writing can improve engagement and reduce the risk of alienation.

Creating Independence Through Assistive Tech

In a wide-ranging survey conducted in 2016, we discovered that only 29% of students thought their written notes were useful to study from (June 2016 Sonocent User Survey of 929 students and 90 educational professionals with Sonocent software licences). This lack of confidence in the primary substance of lectures should be alarming for educators and support staff alike.

But with assistive technology, you could help students come out of a lecture with comprehensive notes, a greater level of independence and more confidence in what they emerge with.

And you could save admin time and cost, too.

Assistive technology helps students with disabilities, in particular, take charge of their own notes by building note taking skills from the ground up.

And by equipping students with the skills they need to process information properly, you could help improve student attainment and smooth the transition to employment,

Note taking makes simultaneous demands on the mind. It requires the student to listen, absorb information, discern what material is most significant and neatly summarize, all at the same time. And it’s easy to see how vital these skills are in the world of work.

Take a Closer Look

We believe Assistive Tech could tick the boxes for both students and admin staff. And the industry is providing solutions for all learner-types.

At Sonocent, we think it’s time to look at these options afresh. Soon, it might be hard to imagine a classroom without them.


Looking for more insight?

Read our case study on Oregon State University and how they have successfully moved away from peer notetakers in favour of AT.

Overcoming barriers to learning: Oregon State University successfully implements AT. Read the blog.

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