Assistive technology (AT) refers to any device or technology which increases the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Assistive technology aims to help people with physical, sensory, cognitive, and/or learning disabilities function more independently.
Assistive technology can provide significant benefits to people with disabilities when it comes to daily interactions in the workplace and in everyday life. Assistive technology can also facilitate the way in which people with disabilities engage with web-based information and services, along with mobile apps.
Beneficiaries of assistive technology
Assistive technology can benefit a diverse range of people. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- People with physical disabilities or limitations
- Elderly people or those with age-related limitations
- Individuals with cognitive or learning disabilities
- Health care professionals, who can utilize assistive technology to treat people more efficiently
- Caregivers of people with disabilities
Assistive technology also provides significant benefits for employers, allowing them to maximize employee performance and meet legal obligations while leading to greater productivity and a more diverse workforce. An example of assistive technology provided to employees with disabilities are screen reader tools, which allow those with visual impairments to engage with software and web content.
The different types of assistive technology
Assistive technology is a broad term and covers a wide range of products and methods. Some of the more prominent categories of assistive technology include, but aren’t limited to:
- Adaptive equipment: Devices used to help people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities perform everyday tasks. Examples of such devices include screen reading tools (like JAWS and NVDA), modified keyboards, braille displays, voice recognition software, and magnifiers to assist with written or on-screen material
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): Devices that help people with communication difficulties. Such difficulties might include (but are not restricted to) conditions such as autism or aphasia. An example of such a device is a picture exchange communication system (PECS)
- Prosthetics: Artificial devices that can replace functionality for those who have lost limbs
- Mobility aids: Devices such as wheelchairs and walkers that are used to improve mobility
- Adaptive equipment: Devices used to help people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities perform everyday tasks. Examples of such devices include screen reading tools, modified keyboards, braille displays, voice recognition software, and magnifiers to assist with written or on-screen material
- Environmental control systems: Devices used to control various electronic systems. Examples of such devices include smart switches and automatic door openers
- Hearing aids: Devices used to amplify sound for people with hearing disabilities. Examples of such devices include amplified telephones and portable closed captioning systems
Cost, durability, and maintenance requirements of assistive technology
Assistive technology devices vary in terms of cost, partly due to their level of technological sophistication. However, costs can also rise when solutions are very specific in nature, meaning that they are manufactured in smaller quantities. This can lead to higher manufacturing costs and a smaller market, resulting in higher prices.
Durability and maintenance
It is vital that assistive technology devices are designed to be durable and long-lasting, while also being as easy as possible to maintain. Issues with durability can be not just expensive to resolve, but also lead to a lack of independence and confidence on the part of the user
When keeping these points in mind, it becomes easier to keep the overall lifecycle cost as low as possible while ensuring maximum effectiveness.
Selecting assistive technology
The process of selecting the proper assistive technology entails researching available technologies and identifying suitable ones. This includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Investigating types of assistive technology, such as computer-based tools, including hardware and software which meet the user’s requirements
- Exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each type of technology
- Examining user reviews of the technology to assess usability and effectiveness in real world scenarios
Many governmental and nonprofit bodies, such as the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP) in the U.S., provide detailed recommendations on how to select the most useful types of assistive technology and where to source the devices themselves. In addition to such groups, it is also useful to consult with professionals in the field. This can be done in the following ways:
- Arranging consultations with occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language specialists, or others who specialize in assistive technology
- Asking for recommendations from other professionals who have used assistive technology to develop further ideas for best practice
Assistive technology and ADA compliance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most important law protecting the disability community from discrimination in the U.S. Under the ADA, businesses need to provide employees with disabilities with reasonable accommodations to perform their jobs. Additionally, reasonable accommodations need to be provided to customers with disabilities to ensure they have equal access to goods and services. Assistive technology may be one type of reasonable accommodation provided to both employees and customers with disabilities.
Assistive technology and AI
Assistive technology plays a central role in improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and promoting their independence. As technology advances and artificial intelligence becomes more widely adopted, it is expected that assistive technology will continue to evolve, offering even more innovative and effective solutions to support individuals with disabilities. Advanced text-to-speech systems, for example, are utilizing the power of AI to produce clearer and more natural sounding speech, aiding those with vision impairments or reading difficulties.
The progress in speech recognition technology has also been noteworthy, now enabling people with mobility impairments to control devices or type messages solely with their voice. Furthermore, AI-driven image and object recognition tools are being developed to help individuals with vision impairments (e.g., blindness) interpret their surroundings more effectively. Groundbreaking tools for translating sign language also stand to transform the communication landscape for those with hearing impairments.