The primitive origins of assistive technology were tools such as casts, stretchers, sleds, splints, and the first forms of wheelchairs. They had one thing in common – helping differently-abled people live a somewhat normal life. Humankind later discovered ways to help with loss of senses, primarily touch, hearing, and sight, as well as motor skills, and difficulties in learning, reading, or comprehension. And while they weren’t advanced, these solutions undoubtedly inspired modern forms of assistive technologies. With that said, let’s define the term assistive technology before helping you recognize it at work.
What is assistive technology?
Because we don’t feel like one does it justice, here are two definitions of assistive technology:
- Assistive technology is any item, product system, or piece of equipment, obtained off the shelf e.g., commercially, customized, or modified, that improves, increases, or maintains the functionality of individuals with disabilities.
- Assistive technology represents items, equipment, product systems, or services developed to improve or maintain functioning in differently-abled people and allow them to perform activities that might otherwise be difficult or impossible.
Examples of assistive technology
Instead of the type of disability, we sorted assistive technology examples by their type:
The following are some examples of assistive devices:
Wheelchairs and scooters
Wheelchairs and mobility scooters aren’t vehicles according to law. They’re classified as adaptive equipment, e.g., devices that assist tasks related to daily living. With that said, wheelchairs used to be (and still are, to a degree) propelled by the user or another person. Nowadays, the dominant form, shared with scooters, is motorized wheelchairs. They use an electric motor, a battery with a large capacity and efficiency, and rely on laws of mechanics to generate additional power. They’re hands-free and controlled by a joystick, or, in some cases, by the occupant’s mouth (“sip-and-puff controller”). Researchers even produced mind-controlled wheelchairs, but they are yet to enter commercial space.
Hearing aids used to be the primary personal amplification devices but now we have affordable and minimally invasive Cochlear implants. Furthermore, hearing impaired persons can use vibrating alarm clocks, light-flashing doorbells, or devices for real-time closed captioning (CC) generation, in multiple languages. While present, the numbers of amplified telephones, TTYs e.g., text telephones for the deaf, and video communication devices that allow two-sided sign-language on-screen, are shrinking thanks to smart devices. Face-to-face communication devices, which can record and alter sound volume, clarity, tempo, and pitch, are another example.
A prosthesis or a prosthetic implant is an artificial device whose purpose is to replace a missing limb. They used to be quite basic and static in the past, acting as “placeholders”. The advancements in computer-aided design (CAD), electronics, mechanical linkage planning, and medical technology have made vast improvements since then. Nowadays, prostheses make users expend far less of their energy by using lightweight materials such as carbon fiber. Their functionality is also aided by microprocessors, electromotors, or hydraulics. Bionic limbs, which rely on interpreting signals from the individual’s muscles or electrical signals from nerves and the brain, are becoming more available too.
Computer software and hardware
Assistive computer software doesn’t necessarily need to run on specialized computer hardware nowadays. Today’s hardware manufacturers put a lot of effort into making their products disability-friendly. Now, let’s list a few examples:
Voice recognition, in its most common form, speech-to-text conversion, is heavily assisted by Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. It allows differently-abled people, particularly those who are sight or mobility impaired, to use a computer and home appliances. They can write notes, communicate with others, use the Internet search and social media, set up reminders, get traffic and weather information, and much more.
The most common example of text-to-speech technology is a screen reader, whether within dedicated devices and systems or as part of mainstream operating systems. They benefit speech-impaired people with physical problems with, for example, vocal cords or the larynx, or mental conditions such as stuttering. Moreover, machine learning and AI have brought features such as word prediction and real-time spell checking and editing. The software can also adjust results based on the intended use and required vocal effects.
Screen enlargement software, intended for those with low vision, allows the user to zoom the contents of the screen (text or graphics) relative to the rest of the screen, usually with a maximum of 36 to 60 times. The software is oftentimes combined with screen readers, display settings (color scheme, brightness, transparency, contrast, etc.), and use of speech-to-text or gesture functionality.
Assistive tools or adaptive tools are almost exclusively used by disabled people. Some notable examples that assist with motor coordination issues include book holders, automatic page-turners, pencil holders, self-balancing pans, utensils, and bookstands, and adaptive switches.
Application of assistive technology
Here are a few prominent uses of assistive technology:
Quality of life improvements
Before the widespread application of assistive technology, society often excluded or isolated individuals with disabilities and the elderly. They struggled with financial support, inescapable medical bills, deteriorating psychical state, and lack of education and employment opportunities. Assistive technology allows them to live and function independently or with a greatly reduced need for help. They can have an active social life, enjoy hobbies, get faster and better medical care, feel drastically less psychically distressed and enjoy a prolonged, happier life.
We have already analyzed ways technology helps differently-abled students, and you’ll find many of the examples above on the list. Like with able-bodied people’s lives, the application of modern technology in education has had a massive effect on both teachers and students who are differently-abled.
Breaking the employment barrier
According to groups polled in a 2006 study, disability was the primary barrier to their employment. Fast-forward to today, and differently-abled people can (some for the first time) voice their concerns and give their opinions. Specialized hardware and software are more widespread, and there are adjustments in office space, devices, tools, and services. Additionally, government grants and regulations, especially regarding occupational health, are more prominent and better applied. Combined, these elements led to the increased job recruitment, accommodation, and retention levels for the differently-abled.