On this page

Back to top

Assistive Technology in College: Tools for Student Success

Assistive technology can be a huge help for students with a variety of disabilities. This guide breaks down who might need this technology, what it is, how it’s used, and why it might be needed for both in-person classes and online.

A smiling woman with short dark hair, holding a red and transparent umbrella, is photographed outside with green blurred background.
Author: Ellery Weil
A headshot of a smiling woman with shoulder-length wavy blonde hair, wearing a black top, standing indoors with a blurred background.

April Hays

April Hays is the student affairs associate director for the College of Engineering at University of Michigan. As an educational professional with a background in student affairs and DEI, Hays has seen firsthand some of the realities of disability access on campus.

Close-up of hands using an adaptive video game controller with large buttons and joysticks on a wooden table, demonstrating assistive technology.

As social conversations increasingly focus on the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion, one positive outcome is that higher education is becoming far more accessible for students with disabilities. And, according to the National Policy Institute, roughly 19% of American college students are disabled — meaning in any given college classroom, on average, nearly one out of every five students has a disability.

So how are colleges addressing the needs of this growing student population? Through use of assistive technology — often shortened to assistive tech. Broadly, assistive tech includes any item, equipment, or program that helps students with disabilities overcome barriers to learning.

And while disability can take many different forms, so can assistive tech. Braille textbooks and audio transcripts of slide presentations may be the right assistive tech to help a blind or low-sighted student complete an art history course, whereas an accessible classroom building with elevators and curb ramps may be what’s needed for a student with mobility challenges to thrive in a math class.The following guide provides a comprehensive look at assistive technology resources available to college students today, items making higher education — both on campus and online — more accessible and inclusive.

Types of Assistive Tech and Who Needs It

The diversity of assistive technology available to students mirrors the wide variety of disabilities students may have. Some tools are digital, including software programs and apps with assistive functions. Others are physical, taking the form of mobility aids, architecture designed with accessibility in mind, or specialized equipment, among other possibilities.

Whether physical or digital, one thing all assistive tech has in common is that it helps create a more accessible, equitable environment. Here are a few examples of assistive tech and how they remove barriers for students with disabilities:

Students Who are Blind or Experience Low/Limited Vision

  • Screen Magnifiers: For students who do not entirely lack sight, but who have low or limited vision, screen magnifiers can make reading printed materials like textbooks feasible. A screen magnifier is an apparatus placed over a piece of text that projects a magnified version that users can manipulate for size, clarity, and position as they read.
  • Audio Transcripts: Blind and low-vision students may struggle with college material delivered visually, such as pictures in a slideshow, or a video containing important images. This is why audio transcripts are a vital resource to help students with visual disabilities. Audio transcripts are descriptions — which can be brief or quite lengthy — of an image, series of images, or piece of video content. These can be incorporated into slideshows and other image-heavy educational materials to make them accessible to all students, regardless of their levels of vision.

Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • Closed-Captioned Recorded Lectures: For college courses that rely on spoken lectures from professors and other instructors, following along with the material can be a particular challenge for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, closed captioning on recorded lectures, similar to what many TV shows and movies have available, can help bridge the gap. Most college lectures are recorded as they’re given — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic — and providing closed captions is a simple accommodation that makes a big difference. For large lectures, supertitles — captions projected on a screen, like those used in opera houses — may also help students with hearing challenges.
  • ASL Translation Apps: The primary language for many students who are deaf and hard of hearing is American Sign Language, often known as ASL. ASL translation apps can translate spoken text into ASL for ease of understanding and may be particularly helpful in a college lecture setting. ASL translation apps also can help facilitate communication between students who are and aren’t fluent in ASL in classroom contexts like group assignments as well as in social settings, making it easier for students who are deaf and hard of hearing to get involved with student communities.
    Identifying the specific cause of your burnout is a useful first step to overcoming it. The next is recognizing its causes and symptoms followed by discovering strategies for reducing and even eliminating it.

Students with Learning or Cognition Disabilities

  • Picture-Based Software: Some students, such as those with dyslexia or autism, may feel more comfortable working with pictures than with words. This can be particularly notable when studying and attempting to memorize important facts. Picture-based software, including apps that can allow students to create and study with image-based flashcards, can be a major help in creating a study plan and review strategy that works for students’ needs and gives them the time and format they need to process class material.
  • Writing and Literacy Aids: Another tool for students with learning disabilities is the suite of technology — both mobile apps and software — available to help with not only reading and comprehension, but also writing. This kind of tech includes spelling and grammar software and editing apps. This resource can be crucial for dyslexic students, among others, when writing essays and other assignments in their college courses.

Students with Speech & Communication Disabilities

  • Text-to-Speech Apps: For students with speech or communication disabilities, text-to-speech apps can allow them to communicate orally, whether or not they can physically verbalize their thoughts at a given moment. These programs — which are available through diverse platforms and are offered by multiple companies — allow the user to input text, which the app will then speak out through your device’s speaker system. This technology can be particularly helpful in informal educational situations, like asking and answering questions in class.
  • Predictive Text AIs: Students who experience communication processing issues like aphasia may benefit from the use of predictive text AIs. When a student is struggling for a word — either in an essay or other formal assignment — or even when sending a simple email to a professor or classmate, using a predictive text AI can help them find the word or short phrase they’re seeking. This tech is similar to many phone-text programs, making it easy for students to adapt.

Assistive Tech for Students with Mobility Disabilities

  • Accessible Architecture: For students experiencing physical disabilities, an accessible landscape makes navigating a college campus that much simpler. This is tech that the school itself will need to keep in mind, rather than the student. Accessible architecture can include ramps and stair-free access to public spaces, easily available elevators large enough to fit mobility aids like wheelchairs in school buildings, and student dorms designed to be used and lived in by students experiencing mobility challenges.
  • Stair Lifts: Stair lifts can be useful in older buildings that were designed without consideration for students or others with limited or impaired mobility. These metal attachments can be fastened to stair rails and used to convey students up or down a short-to-medium flight of stairs, such as the steps up to a school building. Stair lifts are generally designed to be large and sturdy enough to hold a wheelchair or other mobility aid along with the student in question.

Assistive & Adaptive Tech in Healthcare Education

In addition to more general education settings, healthcare education — from medical school to undergraduate-level nursing school and beyond — has its own unique assistive tech tools that help create accessible classrooms for disabled students. Some of these are specially adapted for healthcare settings, while others can be useful for students with disabilities taking any sort of practical/hands-on courses — which have different requirements than traditional classroom lectures.

Here are a few examples of assistive and adaptive tools and technology that students who are disabled may find useful while undertaking a health education program:

  • Amplifying Stethoscope: These are ideal for healthcare professionals who are experiencing hearing loss, including nurses, doctors, physician assistants, etc. For deaf or hearing-impaired medical students and healthcare professionals, it is crucial to be able to listen to patients’ vital signs through a stethoscope. Amplifying stethoscopes work in much the same way as a traditional stethoscope, they’re just adapted to be louder.
  • Screen Magnifiers: Students who are experiencing visual difficulties and use screens frequently — like those studying nursing or any medical specialty — may benefit from this type of assistive tech, which increases text size on their screens. Screen magnifiers can be used for both printed and digital text. Given the sheer number of written materials consumed by doctors, nurses, researchers, laboratory technicians, and others in healthcare settings, enlarged text can be essential for thriving in these environments. Screen magnifiers are also a popular assistive tech for students and professionals in a wide variety of fields outside of healthcare.
  • Alternative Mice (ex. vertical): This technology is essential for anyone who has trouble operating a traditional mouse. Students and professionals working in healthcare, health administration, or related fields like pharmacy may benefit from the use of an alternative mouse when using a computer. Some alternative mice, like vertical mice, are easier to grip for students and professionals with conditions like cerebral palsy or arthritis. Because operating a computer and mouse can be such an important part of jobs both inside and outside of healthcare, an alternative mouse can be useful for people in all fields.
  • Assistive Keyboards: Many people experience difficulties using a traditional keyboard. Students studying health administration may find these particularly useful, but they can be used by students and professionals across a wide variety of fields. While there are many types of keyboard alternatives available, notable examples of an assistive keyboard include those designed with raised letters, higher contrast or braille keys, which are often used for those who are blind or low sighted.
  • Orthotics: These braces to support joints and limbs can be especially useful for nursing students and professionals who need extra physical support when moving around or working in a hospital or other clinical setting. Orthotics can be important mobility aids for people experiencing a wide variety of disabilities and across several different diagnoses, from arthritis to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), which can require orthotics on the fingers. Examples include writing orthotic devices that can relieve pain and pressure in hands, and orthotic insoles, which can assist with walking.
  • Prosthetics – Considered broadly, a prosthetic is any artificial device attached to the body as an aid. A prosthesis (the name for the artificial body part itself) can help students with disabilities in healthcare settings, including nurses and allied health professionals, to perform certain physical tasks. Prosthetic limbs are one of the most important forms of assistive technology for anyone who has either lost a limb or was born without one. For doctors and nurses who need to perform physical tasks, like lifting a patient into bed, prosthetic limbs are essential aids

Accommodations & the Law

It’s important for students who are disabled and enrolled in undergraduate study, graduate school, or working in the professional world to know their rights. In the United States, persons with disabilities are a protected class, and a variety of legislation makes it illegal for schools and workplaces to discriminate against you based on disability status. This also means that schools cannot refuse students access or use of assistive tech.

Several landmark rulings and laws are important as they relate to disabilities. Here are three critical pieces of legislation you should know:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is considered the landmark piece of legislation regarding the rights of Americans who are disabled. Passed in 1990, the ADA puts disability status in the same grouping of protected civil rights classes as race, gender, and sexual orientation. One of the primary impacts of the ADA is that it is illegal to discriminate in an employment or professional context based on whether or not a candidate or employee is disabled.

In the context of education, the ADA means that not only must your school (particularly if it is a state school) provide reasonable accommodations and accessibility measures for students who are disabled, they also may not discriminate in contexts like admissions based on disability.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is considered the landmark piece of legislation regarding the rights of Americans who are disabled. Passed in 1990, the ADA puts disability status in the same grouping of protected civil rights classes as race, gender, and sexual orientation. One of the primary impacts of the ADA is that it is illegal to discriminate in an employment or professional context based on whether or not a candidate or employee is disabled.

In the context of education, the ADA means that not only must your school (particularly if it is a state school) provide reasonable accommodations and accessibility measures for students who are disabled, they also may not discriminate in contexts like admissions based on disability.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in its current form dates to 1998, when it was amended to acknowledge the increasingly large role of the internet and electronic communications. Given that online resources are more important now than ever, Section 508 — which requires federal agencies to make their electronic communications and information technology accessible to people with disabilities — is an essential piece of legislation. For disabled college students, Section 508 may be especially relevant when conducting research on federally-funded sites and archives, or in any communications with the Department of Education.

Resources & Marketplaces for Assistive Tech

If you’re a current or aspiring college student who thinks they might be helped by assistive tech, but aren’t quite sure where to get started, don’t feel overwhelmed. Many resources are available online to help you learn about and shop for assistive tech items while comparing prices and user reviews, and you can narrow them down to what suits your needs. Here is a list of a few places to get you started:

  • AccessNote: For students with low or limited vision, AccessNote — a magnification app for enlarging written material — can be a vital resource when it comes to reading course materials, exchanging emails, and more.
  • ADA Solution: Named for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ADA Solution is an educational software that offers real-time engagement and accessibility tools for students who experience challenges with reading, verbalization, and more.
  • Amazon: You probably know Amazon already for buying textbooks, but did you know the online retailer also sells assistive tech? From screen magnifiers to alternative mice, Amazon offers many options, with helpful reviews included.
  • Ava: For students with hearing disabilities, Ava, a speech-to-text app, can help with listening to lectures and other classroom activities. Further, Ava’s real-time features mean it can be used for social conversations.
  • Avaz AAC: Avaz is an AAC – augmented alternative communication — app. Its combination of predictive text, vocabulary aids, and other tools can be helpful for nonverbal students, or those with communication issues.
  • Be My Eyes: For students who are blind or have low/limited vision, Be My Eyes is an interactive app from Denmark that connects users with volunteers for on-the-spot, as-needed video assistance and support.
  • BlindSquare: Another app for students with vision disabilities, BlindSquare prides itself on being the world’s most widely used GPS app for the blind. For students navigating around campus, this can be a great resource.
  • Dragon Dictation: A speech-to-text software program, Dragon is especially useful for students whose disabilities impact writing ability. Dragon’s dictation program also provides assistance with spelling and grammar.
  • Emergency Chat: This app can be used in any situation where speech is impossible, but communication is still necessary. It is designed for those who have periodic, but not necessarily consistent, struggles with speech. The default screen includes text explaining that you can’t use speech and want to use this app to communicate.
  • Enabling Devices: This website provides a one-stop shop for many assistive tech and related products. Enabling Devices stocks items for a wide range of disabilities, plus sensory-friendly design advice.
  • Flashcards Deluxe: A multi-sensory study tool, Flashcards Deluxe allows users to create and utilize a variety of study aids. Helpful features include speech-to-text for those experiencing difficulties with writing.
  • Hand Talk Translator: An AI-based translation app available on Google Play, this tool translates text into American Sign Language (ASL) for improved communication with students who are deaf or experiencing hearing difficulties.
  • Keeble: Need a customized keyboard? Keeble, a keyboard app compatible with a wide range of phones and tablets, provides specialized and customizable keyboards to meet a wide variety of needs.
  • KNFB Reader: Endorsed by the National Federation for the Blind, KNFB Reader is an award-winning text-to-speech app suitable for any blind, low-vision, or any student who prefers spoken material.
  • Kurzweil 3000: Another resource for students and others experiencing learning disabilities, Kurzweil 3000 is an educational software program with a wide variety of accommodations to help with reading.
  • Learning Ally Audio: Learning Ally Audio is a resource for a wide array of audiobooks. While audiobooks are not specifically geared to people with disabilities, blind, low-vision, dyslexic, and other students with disabilities may find them helpful.
  • Live Transcribe: For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, Live Transcribe can facilitate two-way communication, chat groups, and more. Using speech-to-text and real-time notifications, it’s a great resource to keep in touch.
  • OCR Instantly Pro: For those experiencing writing difficulties, OCR Instantly Pro can help provide you with written material. This image-to-text converter allows you to take pictures that the tool then converts to written text.
  • Otter Voice: Another transcription service — this one with an AI assistant feature — Otter not only transcribes lectures and spoken material, but can also take notes and facilitate question-and-answer features.
  • Penfriend XL: A communication software program, Penfriend XL, which specializes in predictive text and other forms of written communication assistance, can be helpful for students experiencing vision disabilities, learning disabilities and more.
  • Pictello: A communication app designed to help individuals with disabilities to tell their stories, Pictello features easy-to-use narration features, video compilation, and more to create picture-based narratives.
  • Seeing AI: This is a visual narration app for the blind and people with vision disabilities. Seeing AI features a camera and narration, in a wide range of languages, about what the camera is seeing — which comes in handy for students navigating a college campus, for example.
  • Talking Scientific Calculator: An app designed to be a disability-friendly version of a traditional scientific calculator, Talking Scientific Calculator uses voice features and is easy to read for students with low or limited vision.
  • TextHear: One of the most advanced speech-to-text platforms available, TextHear can eliminate the need for an interpreter in some real-life conversations. Students who are deaf and hard of hearing can use it to translate phone conversations as well.
  • Web Captioner: Another tool for students with hearing disabilities, Web Captioner provides a web-based, download-free way to get your lectures and other verbal material captioned to text in real time.

Interview with an Accessibility Expert

To offer further insight into how colleges are working to improve access to students with disabilities, we spoke with April Hays, student affairs associate director for the College of Engineering at University of Michigan. As an educational professional with a background in student affairs and DEI, Hays has seen firsthand some of the realities of disability access on campus. Here are her thoughts:

1. As a college administrator, what’s the most important thing students with disabilities should do to prepare for the transition to college?

I think the expected standard answer for this question is to research and know your available resources. I agree that this advice can be valuable, but it’s not an answer that is sufficient for every student’s unique situation. In my opinion, it’s not solely the student’s responsibility to prepare for the college transition. It’s our job as faculty and staff to create spaces for student advocacy and success. For students, I think it’s crucial to identify your own advocate network. If you aren’t confident in self-advocacy early on in this transition, it’s okay to lean on others for help in finding resources to meet your needs. Think about how you might find those networks (or ask others to help you find them), and have a plan to tap into them if you find you need to. This is a huge transition, and it’s not up to you to figure it out alone.

2. If a current student has recently become or been diagnosed as disabled, what steps would you recommend they first take?

Connect with your school’s resources as soon as you can. Sometimes an advisor, faculty member, or staff member in student services is a good place to start if you aren’t sure where to go. In the case of large Tier-1 Research Institutions, there are dedicated offices and staff whose sole job is to help students secure accommodations and navigate disability resources in higher education. But not every school has this clear support network. Your support is important, and there are people at your school that will make sure your voice is heard and your needs are communicated.

3. Have you seen any particular impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (and remote learning, etc.) on how colleges relate to disability?

A3: Burnout is more common in nurses than in nursing students because of the long working hours. For nursing students, oftentimes they feel overwhelmed by school but not burnt out from nursing itself.

Q4: What is the most underrated advice when it comes to nursing burnout?

While I haven’t directly been involved in the classroom side of the transition to remote learning during COVID, I can say that the massive shift to remote learning has demonstrated the ability of higher education as a whole to completely reimagine learning to meet the needs of the students. If such time, financial resources, and leadership support has gone into this massive undertaking of making education accessible to students during a global pandemic, then it seems possible to pour this same effort into making education accessible for those with disabilities. Online learning offers some incredible opportunities when it comes to disabilities. The technology alone has been huge in accessibility for our students. Sometimes there are barriers to accessible technology. However, the concept of getting students technology to access classes during the last two years is, in theory, the same. I think that hybrid learning is here to stay. It will be truly interesting to see how accessible technology is implemented and available for disabled students.

4. Do you think disability is well represented in DEI initiatives?

Yes and no. I think the visibility of students with disabilities is becoming more prominent, as is the training and education for faculty and staff who support them. However, disabled students are not an identity group that has historically been the focus of many leaders in higher education — for a myriad of reasons. The education offered for supporting other identity groups seems much more extensive and developed, whereas disability awareness in higher education seems to be far behind these other groups. I know personally in my work, we are looking at our programming, academic awards, etc. to really understand how they impact students with disabilities and/or accommodations on campus. We really need to take time to unpack the true purpose of receiving accommodations, especially in context of how it might inadvertently or deliberately exclude this population of students from the same opportunities. The goal is to look at student support holistically. My hope is that as this awareness grows, we continue to have disability represented in DEI work, as well as begin to look at inclusivity of those who may not need accommodations but do identify as disabled.

5. What advice, if any, would you give educators wanting to work better with their disabled students?

I think the biggest advice is to know that you don’t have to be perfect when it comes to supporting students with disabilities. There are numerous resources/trainings/literature to help you shape your interactions and education of students. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask questions, learn, but also leave room for flexibility. You don’t always need to make large changes like completely reimagining your syllabus or pedagogy. Sometimes it’s as simple as creating opportunities for success. You might change the format of a PowerPoint presentation or a lecture. Every student is unique, and it takes time to understand how you can support them. Embrace advocacy as a whole.