What Factors impact on the QOL and Participation of Students with Disabilities using Assistive Technology

Gerald Craddock, PhD, H.Dip Soc Voc Rehab, B.Eng
Client Technical Services
Central Remedial Clinic
Dublin, Ireland

A key element in quality of life is the level of involvement and participation in day-to-day life activities. Participation in education is critical for success, (1) yet for many students with disabilities participation can be a constant struggle (2).  The findings of this study indicate that AT played a critical role in augmenting participation and QOL of the students at both a social and educational level.  This paper outlines the findings and discusses the factors found in this  study, which investigated both quantitatively and qualitatively the impact of Assistive Technology on QOL and participation of students with disabilities.   A mixed methods approach was used to gather data from forty-five in a pretest/posttest designed study over two years


Assistive technology, Quality of life, participation, students with disabilities


Quality of life indicators are now generally considered reliable measures to evaluate services, rather than merely questioning users as to their degree of satisfaction.  Traditionally the services received were considered as the standard for establishing social validity (3).  As a result, the paradigm of services’ provision is changing from diagnoses and prognoses to aspirations of a more satisfying life, from professional and agency-centred interventions to person and family-favoured options, from dependence to interdependence from segregation to inclusion and from services to supports (4).  ICT and AT can support the provision of a differentiated curriculum to support individual needs as it providesaccess to more varied media, tools, and methods. For example, students who have difficulty with a print focused curriculum may have greater opportunities for learning, in an environment with greater access to audio and image related resources.(5) The students of this study reported that AT increased their skills, their ability and their participation.  They were able to work better and faster and cover more of the curriculum.  They felt with the technology they had a chance to complete their education on an equal status with their peers.  Moreover, they had more time to spend with their peers and their families.

I could never have believed that reading and studying could be this enjoyable.”(Student’s quote on the impact of AT on education)

Without the technology, it would have isolated me from society.” (Student on the impact of AT on QOL)

AT levelled the playing field.” (Student quote on the impact of AT on participation)


A pretest-posttest design was chosen to facilitate comparison of the characteristics of the students and their subjective preferences/experiences at two points in time.  A period of two years was allowed while the students progressed from 2nd level to 3rd level education with their technology.  Letters were send to 500 secondary schools in Ireland inviting students with special needs to partake in the study.  Forty-five students representing  a range of disabilities, 20 had physical disabilities, 11 had hearing impairments, 7 had learning difficulties, 3 had visual impairments, and 4 had multiple impairments. Nineteen of the students had some prior use of some technology.  However in these cases, all students were upgraded to incorporate new technology.  At the posttest phase all 45 students had been introduced some new form of technology  with 26  using High-tech desktop computers, laptop computers, assistive technology software, screen readers, etc.)and 19  using low-tech (portable electronic word-processors, portable electronic dictionaries etc.)  The MPT instrument was chosen to test the students,  as it is based on the user and their environments. It was found that it assisted the assessment process as a collaborative decision-making tool designed to determine the most appropriate assistive technology solution for a given individual..


A frequently used option is the classification of cases into groups (here, increased and decreased QOL/participation). With this classification the independent variables are linearly combined to predict group membership, as defined by the classification or dependent variable.  An acceptable Discriminant function would have a significance of .05 or better.  In this study, there is a difference between increased and decreased QOL/participation across 7 predictor variables in a single discriminant function and this difference is significant (Eigenvalue=4.2; Wilks’ Lambda = .19, Chi-square=15.67; df=7; calculated significance=.03)).The variables distinguishing between students with increased (high scores on the variable) or decreased QOL/participation (low scores on the variables) are:

The following seven factors were found to impact on the QOL of the students

  • The Benefits of the Statement of Need and a collaborative approach
  • What type of technology was utilised whether high or low technology or a combination of both
  • What strategies or supports were used to access the curriculum, note taking or personal assistant, copies of notes
  • Whether the students received all or any of their technology
  • Work ethic of the student
  • Length of study
  • Availability of Transport to college

The research clearly showed that a collaborative/partnership approach between service provider and the student with a disability was a key factor in the successful selection, acquisition and long-term use of the specific AT.  The students’ quality of life was improved by reducing the length of time they had to spend studying.  The technology  made life easier by allowing them to concentrate on learning rather than struggling to read, write and understand what was said or written. This also provided time to do other things outside of education that had not been possible before. Both formal (Disability Liaison Officers, technology support) and informal (parents, friends) support networks were also critical to the successful and continued use of the AT.  The strategies learned and used by the students in accessing the curriculum were further was a further factors however a critical element to emerge in the change process was the importance of both time and timing, particularly in respect of the timing of the intervention in relation to the person’s life development, timing of receipt of AT within the educational continuum and the length of time that the students were using the technology and the duration of the evaluation process


Using the quantitative data gathered and the in-depth interviews, two discernable groups of students emerged from the study distinguishable by the type of technology they used, how successful they were using the technology and its impact on their quality of life,  how they used it, and how satisfied and comfortable they were with the technology. They are typified as the novice and power users with students progressing between the two stages characterized as transition users. The power users were using high-end technology, such as voice recognition, screen readers and other voice output systems. They exhibited more than just a pragmatic adaptation to the technology; they displayed an emotional attachment evidenced by how the students defined themselves in relation to their technology. A key factor in becoming a power user was the length of time they were using technology. Twenty-one of the  participants had experience of assistive  technology. These students who had their technology prior to the final secondary schools exams were able to make great strides upon entering post second level.

The novice users report many reasons for non-use, including a desire to “fit-in” that may be threatened by AT use, for example being less inclined to use communication devices even though it would improve communication.   Assistive devices may effectively improve mobility, communication or accessibility, but if the device has a negative connotation because it brings unwanted attention and threatens the sense of “fitting in.  This sense of “fitting in” may be more important to the user than independence and/or sense of control. In the same sense, becoming a high-end technology user involves taking on a very different social identity for which this group of students were ready to assimilate.

For the power users, it was further apparent that technology was a catalyst for change in their perception of themselves as learners and participants in their own education. Achievements in their education lead to the student’s own development in other activities, “For the first time in my life I'm interested and excited about reading and I'm realising how restricted I was. As it would have made my life so much easier, I could never have believed that reading and studying could be this enjoyable. My only regret is that I didn't have this for my Leaving Cert”. (Student’s comment about AT and how it impacts on their means of studying) This also was seen by the parents who were in constant search for solutions to increase their children’s participation in education. “Before last year she had the attitude “well I can’t do it, so why bother” but all that changed when she discovered there was a means of communication through the voice recognition system.” (Mother’s comments about her daughter after a trial of a voice recognition system)

The students’ quality of life was improved by reducing the length of time they had to spend studying. The technology made life easier by allowing them to concentrate on learning rather than struggling to read, write and understand what was said or written. This also provided time to do other things outside of education that had not been possible before. “I come out and do a bit of exercise, have my dinner, revise, and then relax. Whereas in third year it was just come home at 4.30, do homework until 9.00, a bit of exercise and then bed. Now it’s more relaxing… I’ve got more time to myself. That is a big plus for me. ”

A further important factor to emerge was the provision of a supportive or unsupportive environment “I feel I could do better educationally if I had better supports,” (Student that did not have a DLO on campus and felt a lack of support from others, e.g., library staff and lecturers). In many cases, it was the support of individual teachers that materialised as a critical factor in a complex unstructured network.  On an informal basis, for the power users,  parents and friends provided an important informal structure, mothers in particular were cited as central for their success

What distinguishes the students of this study and many other students with disabilities is the amount of work, a work ethic and the interminable obstacles they had to go through to achieve what they had already achieved  However this  study has demonstrated that technology can be a catalyst for positive change in the quality of life for students with disabilities.  It provided the students with a new approach to learning, from an individual experience to one of collaboration, partnership and participation. 


  1. Lynch, K (2001) Equality Framework for Change National Economic and Social Forum, Plenary Meeting, January 30th
  2. Daly T (2001) Pedagogy and Disability: Insights form Action Research in Irish Educational Studies, Vol 2, 2001 p107-124
  3. Gardiner, James F (1997) Challenging Tradition: Measuring Quality Through Personal Outcomes, the Council on Quality and Leadership, MD, USA
  4. Craddock, G & K O’Callaghan (2005) Multiple Levels of Technology in an Educational Context: the Inclusive Learning through Technology”, in “Assistive Technology: from Virtuality to Reality, Assistive Technology Research Series 16, p700-704
  5. Craddock, G (2002) “Matching Person and Technology –assessment process” Journal of Technology and Disability, Vol. 14, no 3, IOS Press


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