Beyond Disability: The Universal Benefits of Assistive Technology
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Assistive technology is a vast term covering all the systems, devices, and services that make the lives of those who use them more accessible and more efficient. It is easy to imagine sleek finicky devices when the term assistive technology is used, but such is not the case. Assistive devices can range from your humble walking stick to a customised prosthetic arm and everything in between.
Assistive technology has always been around, the earliest examples being the walking stick or crutches fashioned from sticks, as we can see from Egyptian hieroglyphics from as long ago as 2830 B.C. The earliest prototype of a wheelchair comes from the 5th century in China. One of the most commonly used pieces of assistive technology that is indispensable to many, the spectacles, was invented in the early 1200s in Italy. Braille, which enables those with visual impairment to read, has existed for the past two centuries.
Globally, over 2.5 billion people require one or more assistive products. With a sharp rise in noncommunicable diseases and an increasing number of older citizens, over 3.5 billion people will need assistive technology by 2050 to lead a fulfilled and dignified life.
Types of Assistive Devices
The market is flush with assistive technology catering to a variety of needs. As mentioned above, these solutions can be technology-intensive devices like AAC devices or something as simple as a bendy straw. They can also range from devices costing thousands to a few dollars. All devices can be used for various requirements and cannot be bracketed into one type. The voice amplifier can be used both by a person with hearing impairments or a person with speech impairments. Here are the top 4 categories of assistive technology with examples.
Assistive technology that aids people with speech impediments to communicate their needs effectively and understand what others are communicating will fall under this category. The most popular examples include Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) solutions. Low-tech AAC option includes relying on notepads, drawing and writing on paper, while high tech option includes speech generating devices, tablets, apps and communication boards or switches.
In this category, the products are for people who are blind or visually impaired. They may be used for activities of daily living like accessing computers, wayfinding, and reading. Examples include magnifiers, Braille displays, and phones with large tactile buttons.
Screen reading software is arguably the most used offering in this category. Screen reading software is programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the content being displayed on the screen with a speech synthesiser or Braille display. It also allows users to locate text displayed in a particular colour, read a portion of the screen, and spellcheck, with more new features coming into being.
The hearing aid used by those with hearing impairments is the most ubiquitous assistive device visible in public after spectacles and walking sticks. Hearing aids are small electronic devices worn in or behind the ears. It amplifies certain sounds so that a person with hearing loss can listen, communicate and participate efficiently in social life. They are effective in setups like noisy places like restaurants or quiet spaces where people speak in hushed tones.
Other examples of assistive technology for people who are hard of hearing include personal amplification systems, vibrating alarm clocks, portable closed captioning systems and amplified telephones.
Assistive devices under this category increase independence among people struggling to do daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating, and shopping due to old age, disease or disabilities. Examples include dressing aids such as zipper pulls and button hooks, reacher, automatic soap dispensers and vacuum robots.
Adapted Cooking Utensils are tools and accessories utilised in the kitchen that may have some modification to enhance an individual’s cooking and eating experience. They are designed specifically to make cooking easier and safer for everyone and will ensure the involvement of all participants. Swivel utensils, lipped plates, non-skid mixing bowls, easy-grip utensils, finger loops, and openers are some examples of modified kitchen tools and utensils.
Benefits and importance of assistive technology
The widely held notion that assistive technology is only limited to people with disabilities or elderly people is skewed. The products and devices might have a larger user base of individuals with disabilities, but they can make life easier for everyone.
The electric toothbrush is an easy example to illustrate the same. Dental hygiene is important to everyone, but for those with limited motor skills, brushing can be an arduous task. Electric toothbrushes came into being to address this issue and enable people with limited strength, mobility, and control to brush efficiently. Quickly it morphed into a hot-selling product among the general population, going on to be recommended by dentists as the better alternative to the traditional toothbrush.
A 2019 study showed that people using an electric toothbrush had better teeth and gums and were less prone to tooth decay. Other examples of this effect, popularly known as the ‘Curb-Cut Effect‘, include fidget spinners, audiobooks, typewriters, and voice recognition software.
Assistive Technology is important because it allows users to learn and live more productively. They can positively affect the health and well-being of the person and their family. Assistive technology can monitor the safety of vulnerable persons in their own homes continuously, easing the minds of their caretakers, families and themselves. It is more affordable than getting round-the-clock professional caretakers. Furthermore, it offers service users increased choice, security, autonomy, and control.
In a world that is turning digital, individuals with disabilities have a right to be a part of it, and programs like screen readers help them to use word processors, laptops, and other computer technologies. People on the autism spectrum or nonverbal can use technology to communicate with others and manage sensory overload. People with visual impairments, learning disabilities, cognitive challenges, advancing age and language hindrances can achieve much with technology that includes brighter colours, voice prompts, or textured materials. The possibilities are endless, and a lot can be done when the correct assistive technology is chosen.
Increased independence with AT
One of the crucial benefits of assistive technologies is that they foster independence. To better support people with disabilities, many devices and programs have been devised to help users work more independently and efficiently.
For example, a person with impaired use of fingers can use voice diction devices to type instead of relying on traditional keyboards. Other software like screen-reading software often includes characteristics that permit users to navigate documents on the devices more quickly.
Better Communication with AT
Another benefit of having assistive technologies is that they can enhance communication, whether they have disabilities or not. A person who is blind or struggles to read due to a learning disability can use programs like TextHelp Read & Write to access documents, emails, webpages and more with ease. Assistive listening devices (ALDs) can also help boost the sounds in the area, specifically where there’s a lot of background noise. In all of these cases, the use of AT can help reduce communication snags and make it easier for people to communicate with each other.
Better Mental Health Support with AT
Assistive products can help support people living with mental health conditions by providing the necessary support. For example, a person who is having anxiety issues can use noise-cancelling headphones to help relieve stress and tension. Also, a person who has difficulty focusing can use a virtual or physical timer to stay on assignment.
Creating a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion with AT
Assistive tech can have a positive impact on all social environments including educational set-ups, workplaces, households, and public transport among many others. Access to assistive technology erodes structural barriers and offers alternative means to bring in more equity to such setups. It promotes diversity, and inclusion and also decreases the chances of discrimination. For eg. hearing aids make public spaces like cafes and theatres accessible to all including those with hearing impairments.
How to choose the right assistive technology?
Choosing the right assistive technology is crucial for experiencing it to its fullest. This decision should ideally be made after consulting with professionals, including family doctors, teachers, special educators, speech-language pathologists, and specific disability experts.
The market offers many options, and one must be discerning according to their needs and be mindful that there is always a low-tech, low-cost option for every high-tech device/software out there. Sites like Google and Pinterest offer a lot of blogs, research, studies, articles, and alternative options like DIYs and sites like Facebook offer reviews of products and services you might be looking to invest in.
Here is a list of questions you must ask before making the big leap:
- Does the tool address your needs/requirements?
- Is there a similarly effective but simpler alternative available?
- Is the tool portable?
- Can you use it in your daily life?
- Do you know how the product works?
- If you don’t know how it functions, is there a demo for the product?
- Are the manufacturers offering training sessions so that you can fully utilise the product?
- What is the after-purchase support like?
- How frequent are the updates for software or devices with internal programs?
- Is it compatible with your existing tools?
Regardless of the complexity, assistive technologies offer limitless solutions for people with hearing impairment, cognitive disability, vision impairment, speech, and communication or mobility impairments to increase capabilities and perform everyday activities independently. Therefore before purchasing consulting professionals, researching and answering the questions listed above will ensure that you choose the right option and use your AT to the fullest.
About the Author: Ewa Bukowska
Ewa is an education practitioner focusing on technology adoption to support the daily lives and education of neurodiverse children and young people.
Ewa has worked in different settings on the verge of education and technology and is passionate about creating accessible and inclusive learning environments.
Ewa is also a SEND Programme Manager at Ignite Hubs, a UK-based charity, where she develops programming resources and offerings for children and young people with Additional Learning Needs.
Ewa’s passion for education was sparked by her older sister in their teenage years who encouraged her to tutor children in their neighbourhood. She is also a younger sister to a brother with Down Syndrome.