Assistive Technology: History, Types, And Benefits

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Last Updated on February 4, 2022 by Editorial Team

When you use a hearing aid to compensate for your listening disabilities, you are actually wielding assistive technology. About 26% US population suffers from disabilities[1], which can be visible (physical deformities), or invisible (neuropsychological such as learning disabilities), sometimes abilities diminish with aging too. That is why there has to be some arrangement that can help them manage their life objectives despite the disabilities suffered. This arrangement is provided by assistive technology. Knowledge of AT devices is essential because now it has become a legal obligation to provide disabled or differently-abled with accommodations, and is the right of the people to ask for these for better learning or participation.[2]

Assistive technology is a broad term. It does not cover devices only. According to the WHO fact sheet 2018, it is an umbrella term for a continuum of systems, services, and strategies designed to complement the individualized needs of people with abilities to ensure their better participation in learning and at work; also, it helps improve the quality of life. Approx. 1 billion people require assistive technology and the gap between requirement and correct device advice needs further research.

In this post, we will be covering:

  1. Tracing the history of assistive technology
  2. Types of assistive technology
  3. Benefits offered

So, let’s start!

Tracing the history of Assistive Technology

The world got the initial hang of Assistive technology before 1900, an era considered Foundation Period for technological transformations. But, its real application plan to improve the situation at educational institutes and at work was drafted with the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, which mandated the offering of assistive devices to people recognized with learning disabilities[3]. This reauthorization broadened the implication of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, which validated the use of AT to enhance the quality of life of Americans.

Initially, the AT devices and systems were low-tech and mostly provided mobility aids. These comprised crutches to hold a pen or audio recorders for listening to the spoken words. Gradually, research revolved around how to make AT devices easier to apply for invisible disabilities too. It coincided with the introduction of AI-enabled software, screen readers, and other soft solutions that offered higher quality replacements for lack of ability to read, write or speak.

Types of assistive technology

Disabilities can be in-borne or a result of a traumatic impact on the body or mind. Some of these impact movements adversely, others hamper communication, and a few others interfere with the learning abilities.[4] Accordingly, the assistive technology space is broadly differentiated into:

  • Mobility aids
  • Communication aids
  • Learning aids

Here is a brief description and examples of each of these.

1. Mobility aids

If the disability does not allow walking like normal or affects the gait, the subjects can employ mobility aids. Their function is to help affected individuals rehabilitate and find ways to become self-dependent as much as possible.

Examples include wheelchairs, escalators, walkers, crutches, motorized tricycles or bicycles, etc. If there is difficulty in walking or maintaining balance while standing or moving, walkers and crutches help. In case of complete disability to move or stand on feet, wheelchairs, escalators, and motorized bicycles are required.

2. Communication aids

Communication aids can compensate for weaker listening, poor to nil vision, and deferred speech. Aging, neurological defects, and neuromotor diseases show up in the victim’s inability to communicate. Hence, these aids can be of supplementary nature or may completely replace the act such as speaking.

Examples include hearing aids, voice recognition command tools, text-to-voice conversion tools or apps, etc. All these arrangements assist in presenting ideas to others in a comprehensible manner.

3. Learning aids

The problems like the inability to understand words or numbers or write them have been classified as learning disabilities. Since these inabilities don’t allow people to absorb basic skills and force them to abandon their academic endeavors, the emphasis is on providing these aids compulsorily to students. The assistive devices that promote learning facilitate reading and writing and sometimes augment these with other modes of presenting ideas.

Learning aids can provide assistance of several types. These may bolster the grip on a pen to enable writing, or amplify sounds for clearer hearing, or may also restrict the spread of text or highlight it on a digital screen to enable easy reading. A few examples include:

  • Crutches to hold pen
  • Page turners
  • Computerized software for dyslexics
  • Alternative keyboards and mouses
  • Touch control devices
  • Word prediction programs and processors
  • Concept mapping supports
  • Graphic organizers
  • Reading pens
  • Note-taking pens or voice recorders
  • Text-to-speech synthesizers, etc.

Learning needs intelligence and talent. Those born with learning difficulties have both. The only support they need is an assistive facility that helps them work around the lack of basic skills.

Apart from learning aids, there are a few cognitive aids like alarms, phones, and alerting devices that make up for hearing and cognition loss and help the needy person acknowledge the stimulus. Devices studded with alarms or doors with alerts are examples of cognitive aids.

Benefits offered

AT is the constructive use of technological innovations, to say the least. Machines are growing in intelligence due to AI, deep learning, and predictive modeling features. These innovative tools sometimes offer ease of humanoid interactions, a feature useful in replacing or augmenting human-like skills like reading, writing, talking, singing, etc. The idea behind the introduction of assistive technology in people’s lives is to make learning, communicating, commuting, and working on various endeavors easier. All these objectives are easily accomplished because of the benefits, such as:

  • AT is designed to integrate seamlessly into the spaces of work, living, or study. Thus, these remove interpersonal and people-cosmos hindrances.
  • ATs allow better participation and helps people with high IQ but limited reading and writing abilities to get opportunities they deserve.
  • A very significant contribution of assistive technology lies in mental health maintenance. Since people with certain intellectual disabilities suffer from poor self-confidence, or inability to express, they tend to catch depression and other psychological problems. ATs can help prevent build-up of negative emotions by offering the disabled a way aound intellectual disabilities.
  • Assistive technology has brought people with disabilities to join the mainstream economy by enabling them to take up roles of higher responsibility and accountability.
  • With assisting devices and systems, children can improve language skills and learn doing calculations. Adults and seniors live life of self-dependence and reduce expenses on healthcare issues. Also, they can learn to stand up for themselves and practice self-advocacy in matters of career and branch of study choices.

Adding more quality to life and solving problems are the two main deliverables of technology use. These deliverables are reasonably utilized in designing and developing ATs. The space is yet to enrich more as innovators are trying to improve form and functionality to bring more sophistication in assistive solutions.

Conclusion

Technological interventions prove their utility better when these support an inclusive model in societal arrangements. With assistive technology in hand, those who felt ‘left-outs’ or were denied education and job opportunities can now better leeway to join the mainstream. The bigger challenge now is to fill the unmet demand, which is actually an outcome of cost considerations and limiting access to these facilities developed. So, it is right to assume that it is just the start; AT has a long way to go and will be reaching more needy people in ensuing times.

References:

[1] A report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Review Sept 2020.

[2] Johan Borg, Stig Larsson & Per‐Olof Östergren (2011) The right to assistive technology: for whom, for what, and by whom?, Disability & Society, 26:2, 151-167

[3] Federal Legislation and Assistive technology, AT Resource Guide, Ocali.org library, 2013, p.25

[4] Americans With Disabilities: 2010, Report Number P70-131, United States Census Bureau, Matthew W. Brault


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