Collect ample data when team considers shifting approach to assistive technology but parent disagrees

New developments in assistive technology may make some services in a student's IEP unnecessary, but changes need to be implemented carefully
By: | October 22, 2019

Just as new technology can render older tech obsolete, (VHS, anyone?) assistive technology may sometimes make a service in a student’s IEP no longer necessary. Think about the student who no longer needs a scribe because he uses dictation software or the student who no longer needs text read aloud because she has text-to-speech software.

Technology is not always a good fit for every student, but it may offer an extra degree of independence and inclusivity compared to other services.

If a team is considering shifting focus to AT, be sure to include the parent in the decision-making process and provide ample data to support the team’s decision, said Wayne T. Stewart, school attorney with Hammonds, Sills, Adkins, & Guice LLP. This is especially true in situations involving aided communication devices.

Take this example of a Texas district that ended interpreter services for a 9-year-old with multiple disabilities and limited oral communication skills in light of the student’s success using an augmentative and alternative communication device. The district was able to demonstrate that the student’s communication improved substantially with technology and that sign language was not effective. The 5th Circuit affirmed a District Court’s ruling that the district did not deny the student FAPE. See E.M. by S.M. and C.S. v. Lewisville Indep. Sch. Dist., 74 IDELR 61 (5th Cir. 2019, unpublished).

Share these steps when IEP teams consider shifting focus to AT:

  • Gather data. Any time a student has difficulty in the area of communication, staff need to collect data frequently, Stewart said. Look at the impact of the student’s communication academically, behaviorally, and socially, he said. Don’t limit your observations to one setting. “[The student] may be doing fine in the classroom, but outside for recess or lunch, she’s not effectively communicating with others. Those are important nonacademic areas where children grow and learn,” Stewart said.
  • If it’s not working, don’t keep doing it. “If something’s not effective, you don’t just use it because you or the parent wants to use it,” Stewart said. Based on evidence in the E.M. case, the student’s team determined that sign language was not an effective communication method for the student who did not have a hearing impairment. Teachers observed that the student had not increased her use of signs over a year and preferred to use her iPhone as her primary mode of communication. An evaluation also showed that the student was able to follow 100 percent of verbal directives from a variety of staff members without sign language. “That very much undermined the parent’s desire for sign language,” Stewart said.
  • Ensure parent participation. Teams must comply with procedural safeguards before amending IEPs, Stewart said. “The most important is the parent’s opportunity to participate in the decision-making process,” he said. Provide notice of the IEP team meeting, choose a mutually convenient time, and provide any required records for parents to review in advance, he said. “At the meeting, carefully consider the parent’s input as well as input from any private providers, whether provided in person or in writing,” he said.
  • Include those with proper expertise. “Coordination and collaboration are especially important in a situation like [E.M.], where it’s a complicated communication issue,” Stewart said. Gather input from the students’ teachers, any related service providers including speech language pathologists and assistive technology specialists, he said.
  • Be aware of potential ADA claims. Although not an issue raised in E.M., districts should be aware that situations involving students with communication disabilities can implicate the ADA’s Title II effective communication standard, Stewart said. Under Title II, districts must ensure that communications with students with disabilities are “as effective as” communications with students without disabilities. 28 CFR 35.160.
  • Consider broader impacts on LRE. The situation in E.M. may also serve as a reminder that technology may offer a less restrictive option in some cases, Stewart said. “LRE is multifaceted,” he said. “It’s not just the student ratio or the four walls of a classroom,” he said. In E.M., testimony that the student preferred to use her AAC device rather than an interpreter to communicate with peers on the playground and in general education settings disproved the parent’s claim that ending the interpreter services would violate LRE.

As technology changes, be aware of the potential impact to LRE in individual cases, Stewart said. “We’ve already seen how improvements in biomedical engineering have provided us with less restrictive options such as insulin pumps. I think we’ll continue to see technology have an impact on independence and as a result, LRE,” he said.

Jennifer Herseim is an editor for LRP Media Group and a program chair for Inclusion and Special Education at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference.

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