7 Old-School Assistive Technology Devices — And How They Changed Learning for Students with Disabilities

According to songwriter Peter Allen (and later, the rock band Barenaked Ladies), “Everything old is new again.”

Original ideas have always been recycled.

It’s easy to spot in fashion and music — skinny ties, bell bottoms, ’80s pop, and vinyl records have all enjoyed second lives years after they were originally introduced (and abandoned).

When it comes to technology, we tend to move past innovative ideas every time the next big thing hits the market. But today’s state-of-the-art hardware and software solutions owe a debt of gratitude to the technology of the past. In particular, the modern devices, apps, and websites we call assistive technology (AT) simply would not exist without the products that we would now consider “old school.”

The following is a selection of classic AT that helped students and adults with learning disabilities and differences well before Steve Jobs dreamed of the iPad or Google engineers created the Chrome platform. Accompanying each entry is a discussion about how the brilliant minds of the past have influenced the latest AT.

Victor Reader (2003)

Victor Reader

Thirty years ago, books on cassette tape were a big deal for people who needed technological interventions to help them access literature. At the start of the digital age, however, audio recordings began to appear in a new format: compact disc (CD). Eventually, organizations like Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) produced audiobooks on specialty CDs that required players with advanced navigation features. The Victor Reader was one such player. In order to listen to an RFB&D audiobook, a user first had to enter a PIN. Then, the user could navigate to a specific unit, chapter, or page — or place digital bookmarks on the CDs for easy reference.

CD players like the Victor Reader set the stage for more advanced audiobook technology. Today, RFB&D is known as Learning Ally, and its members can access audiobooks using desktop software (Learning Ally Link), a Chrome app (Learning Ally Link), and mobile apps (Learning Ally Audio for iOS and Android), all of which feature the navigation tools first introduced by the Victor Reader. Learning Ally has also begun to sync its audio recordings to electronic text in a new technology called VOICEtext, which provides users with a more immersive reading experience.

Sony Microcassette Recorder (1992)

Sony Microcassette Recorder

Descendants of cassette tapes from the 1980s, microcassettes provided users with a two-inch storage device, effectively one of the first mobile technologies making things easier for people with learning disabilities. Instead of laboring over written notes, users could dictate their thoughts into a recorder that they could easily carry in their pockets. They could then refer back to their audio notes later, or have someone transcribe those into writing.

Today, of course, there are many audio recording apps available for smartphones (most of which are about the same size as microcassette recorders). These include Voice Recorder for iOS and Easy Voice Recorder for Android.

Audio recording technology has also been incorporated into more powerful note-taking tools like Notability, Inspiration Maps, and the Livescribe Smartpens. Most importantly, the microcassette recorder was also the precursor to today’s dictation technology. Full-featured speech-to-text software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, as well as the dictation features built into iOS and Android devices, combine voice recording and transcription to provide indispensible tools to those who have difficulty writing.

Franklin Talking Dictionary (1997)

Franklin Talking Dictionary

The Franklin Talking Dictionary had a lot of great technology packed into a pocket-sized device. Its main function was to help students spell words correctly while they were writing by hand. After a student did her best to enter a word through the keyboard, the device identified it as being spelled correctly or incorrectly. For an incorrect word, the device offered suggestions for the correct spelling, and it provided text-to-speech support for students who had difficulty reading. For each suggested word, a definition was available to help identify the correct choice.

The text-to-speech technology was primitive and obviously synthesized (unlike today’s more human-sounding computer voices), but the Franklin Talking Dictionary did a fantastic job of recognizing phonetic misspellings. In addition, the device showed the user how to write words in cursive and in print through on-screen animation, and it featured games to help students learn how to spell new vocabulary words.

Today’s more advanced word-prediction technology is a descendent of Franklin’s line of electronic dictionaries. Assistive technology tools like Co:Writer, WordQ, and Ghotit provide spelling help for users of desktop computers, Chromebooks, and mobile devices. The Franklin dictionaries also predated a variety of spelling-related apps and online services, such as Easy Spelling Aid and Spelling City, which students and teachers use widely today.

Intel Reader (2009)

Intel Reader

The Intel Reader was the brainchild of Ben Foss, who later became influential by writing the popular book The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan. It was the first portable reading solution that utilized optical character recognition (OCR) to help people with vision and print disabilities. It was essentially a hand-held camera that took photos of writing, converted the images to electronic text, and used text-to-speech technology to read the words aloud. It also doubled as an audiobook player for e-books that were available in various file formats, such as DAISY, MP3, and WAV.

While the Intel Reader was a useful device, it was ultimately pushed out of the market by the less expensive (and even more portable) OCR apps that are available for today’s smartphones and tablets. Foss’s invention paved the way for the excellent Claro ScanPen, ClaroPDF, Prizmo, KNFB Reader, OCR Instantly Pro, and several other tools that provide help with reading words on paper.

AlphaSmart 2000 (1997)

AlphaSmart 2000

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the AlphaSmart series of keyboard devices provided an inexpensive solution for people who needed portable word processors. They functioned like electronic typewriters, but the devices’ saved documents could be transferred to computers for further editing and formatting. In addition, AlphaSmarts could be plugged into computers and utilized as additional keyboards, allowing users to work collaboratively on documents.

Even though AlphaSmarts were discontinued in 2013, we can see their influence on today’s schools and businesses. For schools looking to adopt an inexpensive computing platform, Chromebooks are the new AlphaSmarts. By limiting functionality and focusing on productivity, Chromebooks can maintain simplicity and keep consumer costs down. Google also built upon the AlphaSmart’s ability to provide collaborative input to documents. One of the key features of Google Docs is that students and professionals can share access to and control of group projects and files.

Texas Instruments Electronic Calculator (1977)

Texas Instruments Electronic Calculator

Yes, it’s true that handheld electronic calculators are still in use today. First introduced in the 1970s by Texas Instruments, Canon, and others, these mathematics devices have helped students and professionals perform difficult calculations for many years. Not just time savers, pocket calculators have also been indispensable to people with learning disabilities such as dyscalculia and dysgraphia. This may be one reason why they still hold a place on desks around the world.

Even still, many of today’s calculators have taken the technology to new heights, looking and functioning quite differently from the original models. In the age of mobile devices, there are several unique apps that help solve math problems in clever ways.

MyScript Calculator recognizes handwriting so that users only have to write equations (using a finger or stylus) as they would appear on paper before the app converts these to numerals and symbols — and produces an answer. PhotoMath allows users to take a picture of an equation, and then it provides the solution, along with a step-by-step explanation. Finally, Calcbot combines a traditional calculator with unit conversion and onboard memory functionalities. It also allows users to “favorite” particular calculations for easy access later.

Palm V Organizer with Portable Keyboard (1999)

Palm V Organizer

The Palm series of personal digital assistants (PDAs) had a major influence on today’s smartphones and tablets. Before the world turned to iOS and Android to stay organized, it relied on Palm to provide electronic calendars, address books, and to-do lists all in one package that was the size of your average wallet. The devices could also be synced with Palm desktop software to transfer important information to and from a computer. Palm also offered an external keyboard for those who preferred not to enter large amounts of data using the onscreen keyboard or stylus. For students and adults with executive functioning difficulties, the Palm PDAs were the go-to assistive technology to stayed organized and on schedule.

Today, of course, Palm devices look somewhat primitive next to smartphones and tablets, which users can customize with an almost endless variety of apps, including several that help to organize and manage time. For younger kids, Choiceworks and Choiceworks Calendar provide easy ways to make daily and monthly schedules that are both visual and fun to use. For older children, teenagers, and adults, apps that help with organization include Aida Reminder, Todoist, myHomework, and Google Keep.

For some, looking back on older assistive technology devices can induce nostalgia. For others, it is an educational experience we could liken to a museum visit. In either case, comparing today’s technology to that of the recent past is an important exercise. Seeing how far we’ve come in such a short period of time makes us appreciate the relative good fortune of people living with learning disabilities in 2015. It also invites us to dream about the AT of the future.

Find — and ask questions about — great schools near you, and learn more about assistive technology from Jamie Martin and other Noodle Experts.