“Use It or Lose It: Upcycling AT”, Part Two

repetition peggy Marco pixabay

“Use It or Lose It: Upcycling AT,” Part Two

by Molly Shannon, OTR/L, ATP,

on the ATandOT Blog





In the first part of this blog post, “Use It or Lose It: Upcycling AT,” we defined the concept of upcycling with assistive technology and the similarities and differences among the AT recycling choices. The practice of upcycling of AT refers to a more localized method of reuse of AT equipment on a smaller level in a school, hospital, community, or rehab setting. Upcycling AT is environmentally and fiscally sound and encourages collaborative use of older and newer technologies. Now we will explore some ways to upcycle AT in your setting.


Ideas to Upcycle Different Types of AT and Resources:

  1. Neo Portable Word Processors (or other brands): While there are many brands of portable word processors available, the Neo or older Alphasmarts were a great and reliable AT solution for many students and adults with written language difficulties.  Sadly, the Neo is no longer being manufactured, much to the dismay of many therapists and teachers.  However, what is important to note is that because these were often used on a cart for teaching keyboarding in regular education classrooms, there are many older Neo and even older Alphasmarts roaming around the school halls and storage rooms.  If you are lucky, you may be able to connect with your IT or inventory staff and ask about the status of these devices and get them reassigned to Special Education or into the AT or OT department. You can locate used Neos for about $35 on eBay as well.  Why should you use a Neo (or other brand of portable word processor) when you could use an iPad or Chromebook for writing support for those with handwriting/writing disabilities or Dysgraphia?  Because all a student can do on the portable word processors is write by typing since there is no internet or other distractions. These inexpensive devices remain a tool for some students in special education.  We have even pulled the use of Chromebooks or iPads from some higher functioning students with autism and provided them with Neos because they were surfing the internet and playing games with the more advanced technology.
  1. Older smartphones (especially iPhones) iPads, iPods, tablets, laptops: These types of devices are a great source of technology that can be re-used and upcycled as AT for a wide variety of uses.  Many parents are giving their older phones to their children to use with educational or recreational apps and music.  But perhaps they would be willing to donate it to their child’s school or a local non-profit if they knew the potential benefits.  It is amazing how many functions remain available on an iPhone or smartphone that is no longer functioning as a phone, such as music, camera, or notes.  Do some research to discover the version of operating systems that your favorite apps or software require to help you determine if the older IOS devices, tablets, or laptops will work for your client or student.
  1. Mobile Technologies:
  • For those with reading challenges, a student could use text-to-speech IOS apps to read their worksheets with older devices. Examples include iSpeech (IOS 6.0
    Text-to-Speech by iSpeech
    Text-to-Speech by iSpeech

    and newer, free), Speak It! (IOS 4.3 and newer, $1.99), or Natural Reader Text to Speech (IOS 7.0 or newer, free version or $9.99 full version).



  • More Accessibility Options/Functions in Apps, Websites, or Smartphones:  More and more products are coming with built-in text-to-speech functions which is an illustration of the principles of Universal Design at work.  Siri, which is the voice recognition component on the IOS products, is quite well known and can be a powerful tool for anyone, but especially for those with print disabilities due to motor or physical disabilities.  I have had many clients with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, cerebral palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy using Siri for communicating quickly with their friends via texting, emails, and social media in addition to performing other note-taking tasks.  As Siri has been available since 2011 and the iPhone 4S onward, there are many phones that may be sitting around homes not being used that could be donated for use by those with disabilities.  An intriguing and perhaps somewhat controversial use of Siri was highlighted in the NY Times article “To Siri With Love”  about a young boy with autism’s use of Siri to help with his conversation and language skills.  Read and Write for Google Docs has free text-to-speech options for as well.  System requirements for this include Windows XP SP3 or above, Android 4.1 and up, iPad IOS 8, and Mac OS 10.7, or above.
  • Read Aloud Options: Again, more and more options for read aloud are becoming mainstream in technology.  Since the iPhone 4, there is an accessibility option called Speech Select which can read print.  Similar options are available for the Android products.  Read and Write for Google Docs is a free app for Google Chrome and can read text from websites or PDF documents out loud.  (See system requirements above.)  With so many older tablets and iPads being updated to newer versions, many of these advanced AT features could be used with a somewhat older device for those with print and/or learning disabilities.
  • Speech Recognition: Google Docs has a newer Voice Typing tool which comes with the program and is working with fairly good accuracy for speech-to-text or voice recognition.   This is a good option for those using Chromebooks or Android products.  Dragon Dictate is a free app for IOS devices and works well from IOS 4.0 or later.  Therefore, this would be another great way to use older iPhones for those with disabilities who require assistance in writing due to physical or learning disabilities.
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) ideas:  For those with speech disabilities, previously downloaded augmentative communication apps remain functional.  There are many free AAC apps that could be stored on older smartphones for class or student-specific use as needed.  Also, simple note-taking apps can also be helpful for those who can communicate via text through Notes.  E-triloquist is a free PC-based talking communication aid that works in Windows XP and newer versions.  A great free onscreen keyboard called Click’n Type has been available for many years and could easily be used with older tablets and laptops for those needing augmented verbal and written communication.  It is compatible from Windows 95 and up and can be obtained from Lake Folks.  Due to the high cost of dedicated AAC devices, this is a very “hot” topic if you can upcycle these devices and get them into the hands of those clients who cannot afford them on an individual basis.  A teacher also could certainly use an older communication device during circle time activities with large or small groups of students during calendar or reading tasks for example.  I have seen older $8, 000 dollar AAC devices sitting unused on a shelf in a therapy office of a local chapter of a national non-profit treatment center.  This is a poor use of resources for facilities that are struggling to provide AAC access to their clients.
  • Lucky to be in First Blog
    Lucky to be in First Blog

    iPods:  iPods with headphones can be used by students with autism who experience sound hypersensitivity in order to block out sound if they have documented accommodations on an IEP or 504 plan.   Another idea from social media sources is to use donated iPods during “Daily 5” literacy tasks.   The “Lucky to Be in First” blog discusses a teacher’s story about how she has helped all of her students read classroom books she has converted from cassettes to MP3 format.  This is fun for students without disabilities but a must-have for many students with reading challenges.  Teachers or parents do have to take the time to use a tape converter (a variety are available from Amazon for $20) to adapt the books on tape to MP3 or to download options from the internet.  Students with disabilities up to age 26 also have access via Bookshare for MP3 copies of books.  Many older tablets and IOS devices could support this use of AT upcycling.

  • Low Vision:  Use of magnifier apps (free or paid) remain functional on older devices. Research and look for those that work with older operating systems for portable devices.  Examples include: Big Magnify (magnifier, mirror, and flashlight) are free for IOS 7.0 and up. Visor is available for IOS 8.0 and up ($1.99) or Android 4.0 and up (free).
  • Note-taking:  Taking pictures of a peer’s notes or taking or of assignments written on the board is quite common for those with handwriting challenges. I’ve even been one of those in presentations taking pictures of the presenter’s PowerPoint for key points or items I didn’t want to forget.
  • Recording of lectures:  Using  LiveScribe (website livescribe.com ) pens are becoming more popular on college campuses as an accommodation for recording lectures with audio and video for those with disabilities.  These couldbe used with motivated middle or high school students who have learning disabilities as well.  While many may use these with computers, there is a free app called LiveScribe+ for iPhone and iPad and can be used in conjunction with the LiveScribe 3 pen.  The pen is compatible with iPhone 4s or newer, iPad 3rd generation or new, iPad mini or newer, and iPod 5th generation or newer.  So there are many older IOS products that are compatible with the LiveScribe pens.
  • Storage:  Use older smartphones as storage devices for additional photos, music, or books.  I also have many handouts and presentations that I store within iBooks, DropBox, and Google docs, for example.  These remain available via Wi-Fi connections for phones no longer functioning as “phones.”  Many of us have older smartphones that had less available storage.   In this case,  you could remove apps no longer needed and add the photos, books, and music to the older phone or device.  As a result, parents and teachers could store a number of social stories or books for students with autism or other special needs on older technology devices.  Here is a link to my blog on Go-To-For-OT regarding the use of social stories:
5 Unique Ways OTs Support Social Stories
5 Unique Ways OTs Support Social Stories


  • Memory Tools:  There are many features in smartphones that remain working when the phone is not used as a phone any longer, such as alarms, calendar alerts, notes, pictures, videos, and apps.  Persons with cognitive and memory limitations resulting from a wide variety of disabilities can benefit from the use of these memory tools.  In that light, the use of older devices could help accommodate these weaknesses.
  • Environmental control:  Many home automation apps and products that are available to use with smartphones can be vitally important for those with significant physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries.  In the disability marketplace, they are labeled “environmental controls” and these products can cost up to $12, 000 dollars or more depending upon the system.  However, an older iPhone or iPad could be dedicated to controlling the client’s environment using home automation to operate lights, thermostats, Bluetooth devices, electronic curtains, or electronic doors.   A recent Apple App store search found 1,005 results for home automation.  Therefore, one must research which apps can work with older operating systems and could be housed on older IOS products or tablets and laptops.


  1. low tech shannonLow tech devices: There are many older ability switches and other devices (i.e., Big Macs, All Turn it Spinners, Low Tech AAC voice output devices, Powerlinks) that remain functional and are stored in a variety of spots within departments or schools.  Many are available for reduced prices from Ebay, as well.  These low-tech devices are fairly sturdy products that typically last through the years.  But if one stops working and you are lucky enough to have tech support and repair in your program, by all means send it to them to get it repaired. I have had many low-tech AT devices repaired to full working order this way.  Try to think of novel or new ways to begin to use or REUSE these lower tech devices to encourage AT upcycling and active participation by students and persons with significant disabilities.  Check out my handout entitled “Updated:  50 Switch or Low Tech Ideas.”  Another resource is from my Go-To-For-OT blog is “10 Fun Ways to Upcycle Those Powerlinks.”
  1. Upcycle Older Resources:  An unusual category for more experienced professionals is the need to upcycle older AT resource materials and handouts for use in social media.  Have you been frustrated when you can’t find your favorite older handout that you would like to provide to teachers, other therapists, or families on the internet or on Pinterest for example? I  know I have and I encourage others to update their educational resources for social media sites.


There are obviously similarities and differences with the concepts of recycling and upcycling of AT products; but the bottom line is that to use, reuse, and upcycle assistive technology is for the greater good and important for all persons with disabilities.  So get busy locating, cleaning, and refreshing your skills in using some of those classic AT products in new and novel ways while remaining fiscally and environmentally responsible.  Get out there and use the AT and don’t lose it.



Molly Shannon, OTR/L, ATPMolly Shannon, OTR/L, AT , is an occupational Therapist with 33 years’ experience and  currently working in the public schools as a school-based Occupational Therapist in NC. She has specialized in the provision of Assistive Technology for 29 of those years and is RESNA certified as an Assistive Technology Professional. In addition, Molly is an Adjunct Professor of Occupational Therapy at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences in the Master’s Program teaching Therapeutic Adaptations/Assistive Technology in OT. She loves to present and train others in Assistive Technology and has been a national-level conference presenter since 1989.  She has worked with clients of all ages and with a wide range of disabilities in public/private school settings, non-profit educational/therapeutic agencies, outpatient/inpatient rehabilitation, and with the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program.  You can connect with Molly on Twitter sitePinterest Boards, or her ATandOT Facebook page.

Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.  

Photos titled “Unique Social Stories” and “Updated:  50 Simple Switch or Low Tech Activities” are the property of the author and should not be used without her expressed permission.  Photos that include a link to an originating site are the property of that site and their use should include the link provided.

“Use It or Lose It: Upcycling AT”, Part Two

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