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What is assistive technology exactly?

Assistive technology “means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Assistive Technology Act of 1998. 2004, October 24). (United States)

History

There are a number of timelines depicting the journey of assistive technology. Noone is exactly sure who’s account is accurate and who’s not however, it is safe to say that there was most certainly awareness around disabilities and equally solutions to accomodate people in overcoming challenges. For the sake of time, I will quote some examples though.

“3500 BCE The Rig-Veda, an ancient sacred poem of India, is said to be the first written record of prosthesis. A warrior, Queen Vishpla, who loses her leg in battle, is fitted with an iron prosthesis and returns to the fight” (Grant, L. (Ed.). (2013, March 1).

In “Assistive Technology From Ancient to Modern Times!” it states that the first evidence of AT is in “950 B.C. The Cairo Toe. Made of wood and leather, this artificial toe was found on a mummy in an Egyptian tomb at Luxor. Researchers believe this to be the oldest known prosthesis. It is displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo” (Assistive Technology from Ancient to Modern Times. (n.d.)).

Basics

AT is any device, software, or equipment that helps people work around challenges so they can learn, communicate, and function better. A wheelchair is an example of AT. So is software that reads aloud text from a computer. Or a keyboard for someone struggling with handwriting.

These tools can help people work around their challenges, while also playing to their strengths. This is especially important for kids who struggle with learning—whether in reading, writing, math, or another subject. AT can help these kids thrive in school and in life. And that can help grow their confidence and independence.

Despite the word “technology,” not all AT tools are high-tech. AT includes many simple adaptive tools, like highlighters and organizers. A great example of low-tech AT is a pencil grip.

Many AT tools are high-tech, though. And because of advances in technology, tools are now available on a variety of platforms:

Desktop and laptop computers

  • Mobile devices (includes smartphones and tablets)
  • Chromebooks (and the Chrome browser used on any device)

Examples of high-tech AT tools include text-to-speech (TTS), dictation (speech-to-text), and word prediction.

The current landscape of assistive technology

The smartphone is no longer a phone. It’s a phone, wallet, camera, diary, music player, computer, book, GPS and more all in one.

With so many tools at your fingertips, it’s fantastic to see the majority of smartphones and tablets now come with a range of features to improve accessibility for users with a disability including screen readers, assistive touch, and voice search.

Before the iPad/iphone, assistive technology and communication devices were bulky, expensive and served only one purpose. This meant some users had to juggle several devices day-to-day. The introduction of apps on smartphones and tablets shrinks these bulky devices down to a lot fewer devices.

Going back to Apple’s mantra of, ‘There’s an app for that’, there really is a huge range of apps which can assist people with disabilities.

For example, for someone who has a visual impairment or difficulty reading, the challenge of being presented with a menu at a restaurant can be overcome with the ability to take a quick picture of the menu with your phone and have it read aloud or magnified.

GPS and location apps can be a personal guide, others will work together with assistive technology such as hearing aids, braille displays and braille keyboards, and others can be set up to control lights, heating, and functions in your home.

To assist with communication, there are simple picture board apps, text-to-speech tools, all the way up to those which allow sentences to be constructed and spoken.

Digital assistance like Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri has also taken the world by storm, allowing people with various disabilities to access various sources of information from checking prayer times to finding out what the weather is, creating alarms and reminders and listening to audio books and ebooks, etc.

The future

Recent years have seen leaps in the development of technology for people with disabilities, and the good news is it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon!

Research and development around assistive technology is continuing to capture our attention and imagination.

Seemingly straight out of the comic book Ironman, robotic exoskeletons which allow people with paraplegia to stand and walk are fast becoming a reality. These wearable suits are powered by motors which drive each leg forward as the user shifts their weight from side to side, or even in response to signals sent from a wearer’s brain.

Sitting on your nose like a pair of traditional glasses, a wherable device is able to take pictures, search, play music, make a call, send a message, provide directions, and much more. Google had one such device but, the research and development has been put on hold at this time.

There is also a whereable prototype that uses voice recognition to translate spoken conversations into text. Just like subtitles, as someone speaks, text will appear on the lens above the right eye. For those with a hearing impairment, this development could be invaluable.

Another prototype allows users with a visual impairment to identify items in front of them. For example, if you were to ask the device at a supermarket ‘what’s this?’, the device would take a photo of the item and tell you whether the can you are holding is pumpkin soup, baked beans or stewed apples.

In theory, people who have difficulty sensing emotions such as those with autism, could use facial recognition software to tell how a person they are talking to is feeling such as happy, sad or upset.

As technology advances, this functionality is just the tip of the iceberg for what we could see developed around wearable technology.

Gesture controlled devices using technology similar to a Nintendo wii or Xbox Kinect are also being developed, as well as those which you can control just by thinking. Instead of flicking a switch to turn off a light, one day someone using this technology may be able to turn it off with a thought.

Other ideas currently being developed include wheelchairs that can go up and down stairs, navigate difficult terrain, and even self-drive. Google is also investing heavily in self-driving cars through their Google Chauffeur software. In May this year, Google debuted a new prototype of their latest model, one that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.

Some of these developments may only be a year or so away, some longer, and some may not see the light of day, but a focus around development of technologies such as these could change what the world for people with a disability looks like in another decade’s time.

And where to from here? Well, it’s anybody’s guess what the next big idea will be. What we will say is, with ongoing developments in technology, comes increased opportunities for people with disabilities to adopt these as part of their day-to-day lives.

This is why it is extremely important to see the potential of those with disabilities, enable them to reach their full potential by making ourselves aware of solutions that are available in improving their lives whilst at the same time keeping in mind that the human touch still has its place in society and that technology alone cannot solve all the challenges faced.

So while we don’t know exactly what the future of assistive technology will hold, we do know it will be exciting and interesting.

References

  • Assistive Technology Act of 1998. (2004, October 24). Retrieved March 15, 2021, from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-108publ364/html/PLAW-108publ364.htm
  • Assistive Technology from Ancient to Modern Times. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2021, from http://bluebirdcare.ie/assistive-technology-ancient-modern-times/
  • DISABILITY HISTORY TIMELINE:. (2007). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from http://ncldyouth.info/Downloads/disability_history_timeline.pdf
  • Grant, L. (Ed.). (2013, March 1). A Disability History Timeline -The struggle for equal rights through the ages. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from http://www.uhsm.nhs.uk/AboutUs/Equality and Diversity/DISABILITY Timeline – NHS.pdf
  • Scherer, M. (2002). Assistive technology: Matching device and consumer for successful rehabilitation. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Smith, R., Rust, K., Lauer, A., & Boodey, E. (n.d.). Technical Report – History of Assistive Technology Outcomes (Version 1.0). Retrieved March 13, 2021, from http://www.r2d2.uwm.edu/atoms/archive/technicalreports/fieldscans/tr-fs-history.html

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