Ideas on Building Assistive Technology Capacity

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This document shares ideas on what it means to build capacity in AT services. There are many strategies for building capacity, but what they have in common is a focus on developing educators’ independence to implement AT processes, thereby increasing their ownership of the ways in which they help students use assistive technology.

Multiple individuals have contributed to this list of ideas about building capacity to enhance AT services and supports. If you have an idea that you would like to share, please contact the NATE Network at  .



What Does “Building Capacity” Mean?

“Building capacity in AT Services” refers to developing a sustainable way to deliver AT services to meet the needs of a changing population of students at a time when we have the capacity to personalize instruction for a wide range and large number of learners using more readily accessible technology.  It refers to building administrative support and new ways of delivering and documenting AT. And it refers to multiple ways of providing professional development, building on-demand resources, and reaching out to other stakeholders within the educational organization. For example, do AT service providers have a seat at the table when instructional technology issues and district software subscriptions are discussed, or when new digital curriculums are being designed?  No longer can AT providers keep to themselves. Outreach across the organization to other departments is critical to proactively advocate for the needs of learners who need accessible learning tools. 

 A capacity-building approach does not negate the importance of AT experts who may serve on a district level AT team.  While school based teams will likely be able to assess reading and writing issues for most students, they are unlikely to be familiar with or able to address  augmentative communication needs. Classroom teachers often have access to AT tools they know little about, and may have students whose need for AT goes beyond what is universal or readily available. District level staff can be important resources in these instances.  The most important element for AT teams is to have a clearly defined mission that matches the identified needs of students and staff within the educational organization. Knowing who you serve within your district and analyzing the degree to which you provide equitable services across your organization are critical to re-visioning strategies for the delivery of AT.   (Contributed by: Denise DeCoste, MA, and Gayl Bowser, OR)


Expert vs. Capacity Building Models of Service Delivery

The expert model of AT service delivery is the Holy Grail for AT.  It works when you have sufficient AT resources and AT providers to deliver equitable services across disability, racial and socioeconomic lines. In a perfect world, we would all have the personnel ratios to accomplish this.  But in the absence of this, a typical recourse for AT teams is to limit AT services to the learners most impacted by disabilities (typically students with low incidence disabilities). Or AT services default to “concierge” type services, responding to requests in ways that do not ensure equity, and are not in keeping with current educational paradigms to provide support to a broad range of students who can benefit from AT.  But it does not have to be an either/or choice. AT teams can differentiate services to serve as experts and consultants when needed, but also work to collaborate with and coach school based teams to build their capacity to address the AT needs of their students.  (Contributed by Denise DeCoste, MA)


Building Capacity to Support Students with Significant Disabilities

When AT services lean more toward students with significant disabilities, there are still strategies that can be applied to build the capacity of staff serving this population of learners. Even if you are heavily involved in assessment, trial periods and consideration for students who need devices to meet complex needs, such as augmentative communication devices, a capacity building approach is still really important when it comes to implementing AT. A few of the teams I have worked with have really targeted their capacity building efforts at the implementation stage of AT services when it comes to kids with significant disabilities. (Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR)



Shifting to a Capacity Building Model

As a member of an AT Team, when making the transition to a capacity building model of AT services, you will need to be careful about how you convey this shift to school teams.  You want to emphasize that you will still be an active resource anytime they need help, and implement changes gradually. For example, in response to requests for AT support, initially you can model the SETT process.  The next time, act as a participant observer, and then gradually act as a coach to help the school team feel confident to take on AT consideration as a whole. If you make a big deal out of announcing a “new process”, you will get push back.  Most people resist change if it is unexplained. Your website and documents are a good place to clarify your role and the role of the school team. Here is an example of how the HIAT Team of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland describes their capacity building role.

HIAT is a collaborative team that applies the principles of universal design for learning to support school teams to meet the needs of all students. Our mission is to provide training and consultation to build the capacity of classroom environments to incorporate technology options for all students. 

 Retrieved from:

(Contributed by: Denise DeCoste, MA) 


Shifting Away from an Expert Model

When history dictates that an agency uses an expert as the only model, it’s really a hard switch to make. Student teams believe that they need an expert because that’s what they have been told for years and so they are resistant to the change to a capacity building model. And the experts ALSO believe that teams need an expert, so you can end up being squeezed from both sides.

 My suggestion when this happens is to develop a “pre-referral “ process for AT. Administrators have to approve contracts with outside experts, so they can set some conditions for that approval. What would a director of special education want a team to do before she approved spending district dollars on an expert consultant? Would it be to do the SET part of a SETT meeting and provide it to the experts? Would it be to try specific AT solutions (like text to speech and calculators) that are already in the classroom and collect data about how they worked? If a district process for outside referral includes actions that the classroom team has to take, then it sends the message that that team is actually a part of the assessment process and it also helps build capacity. If I were implementing a system like this, I’d be sure that I knew where my teams were in terms of skills and then make a referral system that raised the bar just a little at a time.

(Contributed by Gayl Bowser, OR)


Being the Face of AT

My guess is that everyone that goes into education and AT wants to be actively engaged in the process of AT implementation.  But Gayl and I have found that there is also a curious mindset in AT services (not pointing the finger at ANYONE!). This mindset is “AT provider as savior!”  Who doesn’t love going into a situation and helping to find a solution that works for a student. Isn’t that why we went into public service?  

Being the face of AT is important.  But everyone has to really walk a fine line between savior and enabler. There are three critical issues here: 1.) Time management: What can you do to maximize your time? Could you have provided the support via video conference saving driving time?  Or could you have provided a link to a video quick guide or a handout that could have provided the information needed? 2.) Task management: Can you train more than one person at a time, by recording your trainings and sharing them? Are you using your available time in such a way that it allows you to get to more students. Are you providing services equitably? 3.) Shared responsibility: Are you communicating AT as a service that is owned by everyone that works with that student?  Is each person’s role documented for all to see? 

Everyone’s journey to capacity building is different, so every team has to ponder these questions on their own. Everyone has to do the hard thinking about priorities and differentiated service delivery. (Contributed by: Denise DeCoste, MA and Gayl Bowser, OR)


Building Capacity with Paraprofessionals 

I remember when I really wanted more time with paraprofessionals working with kids with high impact disabilities. But getting funding for 1:1 time with paraprofessionals is a funding policy issue we could not win. Most AT teams express a need for more opportunities to train paras without students present to build background knowledge and build a basic understanding of technology–  how to use it and the benefits of it. One suggestion I have is to look for ways to video your work with paraprofessionals (using your cell phone) and post them. When you have a good training session with a paraprofessional, take a few extra minutes and re-enact what was done. I’m talking about sharing 1-3 minute videos of important concepts– developing a space to post videos that would benefit more paraprofessionals who work directly with our students. (Contributed by Aaron Marsters,  DODEA-Germany)   


Changing the Culture to Build AT Awareness

My role is to change the culture of AT awareness throughout the district. I find myself even explaining processes to special education coordinators and assistant principals. To streamline building capacity, I recommend the following:

  •     Make welcome packets
  •     Put an AT bin in each building with resources
  •     Make videos and shared on YouTube
  •     Send out monthly newsletters with new products/tools
  •     Offer professional development
  •     Train all paraprofessionals in the District
  •     Model UDL tools for students in classrooms
  •     Make implementation plans
  •     Get approval for Building Liaisons

(Contributed by Riley Pec, IL)




AT Team Toolbox

To remain a vital service and build AT capacity, today’s AT specialists need a tool bag that increases the efficiency of providing AT services. There are many online tools available to make documentation easier to market and deliver professional development, to share AT resources, as well as to share AT success stories. Check out the list of tools under Building AT Capacity Resources.  (Denise DeCoste, MA)


AT Team Communication Tools

For communication within our own AT team, we have been using Teams in Office 365 and have been LOVING it. We can attach a planner tool, one note notebooks, keep on-going conversations all centered around a particular topic, upload files, etc. Since this is our agency’s tool, we are not able to include outside people in our Teams as easily so we are trying to find a tool might simulate this for everyone.

Contributed by Teresa Clevidence, OH)


Your AT Storefront

In one of the webinars, Gayl and Denise mentioned that our online presence is like a window to our AT services. We discussed this within my organization’s AT Team, and decided to think of our online presence as a storefront, where we want to entice clients to come in to browse and shop.

All of the materials produced by our organization must be accessible to students who are low vision, blind, deaf or hard of hearing. This means that resources must be accessible to low vision and screen readers, which includes screen display options, alt-text and integrated described video. Closed captioning must also be included.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I hope that we can make our “store front” interesting and user friendly, so that local districts will be interested in accessing our available resources. As well, I hope that we can share our expertise by helping to support those teams within the province to develop their own fully accessible materials.

(Contributed by Lynne Seymour-Lalonde, Nova Scotia)