Exploring the Role of Assistive Technologist within a Special Education Setting

Christopher Norrie, Annalu Waller, Beth Hannah

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Background: High tech augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aids remain underutilised and frequently abandoned within special education (SE) schools. Yet there is compelling evidence of both the benefits of early intervention and of the significant contribution these technologies can make towards improving outcomes for emerging communicators with communication disabilities. This study builds upon earlier ethnographic research that identified the crossdisciplinary role of the Assistive Technologist (ATist) as a solution to issues of technical support for pedagogy and co-ordination encountered in the field – a trained professional who might mitigate some of the problems described above by innovating novel solutions, boosting evidence-based practice, and enhancing cooperation between practitioners within the classroom environment. To date there had been no formal attempt to understand or define the ATist role in the SE classroom and this study’s primary aim was to explore the role as a precursor towards developing a definitive framework.

Method: Approval was granted from the University Ethics Committee and an ethnographic study was undertaken in a SE school, with the principle investigator (PI) – an experienced AAC practitioner – embedded for five months within a class of primary school age children identified as having profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). An exploratory mixed methods approach was adopted: A qualitative case study (exploratory single-subject design); supplemented by end of study semi-structured interviews with adult stakeholder participants and allied health professionals (n = 6) comprising teachers, speech language therapists, classroom assistants and one parent/carer. During the study, the PI worked as part of the team, adopting the role of the ATist, and acting responsively as a mediator between the teacher, focal AAC user and their assistive technology device. Content analysis was then undertaken of the collected data (field notes, transcripts).

Key results: The embedded approach facilitated familiarisation and relationship building. Data yielded support for insights attained in the earlier study, and – importantly – key empirical evidence was acquired, documenting the positive influence of the ATist role as a significant protagonist in coordinating, supporting and meeting pedagogical goals for high tech AAC users. These results represent a major contribution toward the framework currently under development – a definitive description of the ATist’s role within a SE context.

Conclusion: The presence of an ATist enabled dynamic personalisation (eg. programming novel vocabulary “just in time”) of the focal user’s AAC device, which – coupled with frequent, contextual aided language stimulation – created a richer and more responsive learning environment for the focal participant, and concomitantly for staff and for other children in the classroom. The ATist also supported educators in developing tailored online learning activities, and addressing technical issues as and when they arose – both minimising disruption, and supporting a more holistic learning experience for the pupils. For future work, it is intended to complete and evaluate the nascent framework defining the ATist’s role in a forthcoming study by eliciting feedback from subject matter experts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAAATE 2019 Conference
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal Challenges in Assistive Technology: Research, Policy & Practice
EditorsLorenzo Desideri, Luc de Witte, Rabih Chattat, Evert-Jan Hoogerwerf
Place of PublicationHolland
PublisherIOS Press
Number of pages1
EditionSupp 1
ISBN (Electronic)1878-643X
ISBN (Print)1878-643X, 1055-4181
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2019
EventAAATE 2019 Conference: Global Challenges in Assistive Technology: Research, Policy & Practice - University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
Duration: 27 Aug 201930 Aug 2019
Conference number: 15


ConferenceAAATE 2019 Conference
Abbreviated titleAAATE 2019
Internet address


  • Assistive Technology
  • augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)
  • Early intervention
  • Special education


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