Though we often look at technology with a critical eye and fear the negative impact it has on our lives, for many people around the world, technological advancements are important, and even necessary, resources. Duquesne University states, “Advances in technology are allowing the disabled and those suffering from chronic conditions to be economically active and socially included.” Putting technology in this context is crucial to understanding the importance of assistive technology.
Assistive technology is defined as “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities.” The first definition of assistive technology comes from the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, a federal law that provided funding to each state for the purpose of improving access to assistive technology for those who need it. These programs have helped countless Americans go to school, find jobs, and successfully perform daily activities of living. Assistive technology has existed for years, but it has come a long a long way from text-to-speech programs and graphic organizers.
Assistive technology continues to develop and grow in all areas, from completely specialized products and programs for specific needs to simple modifications of common devices. And since it is more universal now than ever before, there is no end in sight to what technology can do for people with different needs.
Assistive Technology In Healthcare
Healthcare is one of the biggest industries for the development and application of assistive technology. Though technology has already affected how we practice and receive healthcare, including electronic storage of patient data and telemedicine, the University of Cincinnati sees even more changes in the future. They envision a digital revolution with technology such as cloud storage, virtual reality, and population health more integrated into the field. These technologies can benefit all patients, but especially people with chronic conditions and disabilities.
This digital revolution will be a necessity for Baby Boomers, who are facing an increasing number of chronic conditions as they age. New healthcare technology could save their lives and their wallets; the financial experts at Fiscal Tiger claim that people 85 and older are likely to spend one third of their income on healthcare. As Baby Boomers grow older, this risk will likely continue to haunt them. Existing advances are useful to maintaining the health and comfort of people with disabilities or chronic conditions, but to ensure a decent quality of life and affordable medical help, assistive technology must continue to grow in the healthcare industry.
Luckily, new developments are already in the works. Virtual reality is being developed to help people who deal with chronic mental illnesses, like PTSD and dementia. Population health can help physicians determine how disease outbreaks will affect certain demographics and see which populations are most at risk, which can help keep infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems safe. Perhaps one of the most common and helpful new forms of assistive technology is the internet of things (IoT).
Encompassing an endless list of items from connected cars to wearable technology, IoT is a network of connected objects that can share data and information—they are different from a computer because their primary function is not to compute, but to drive or track your fitness. Wearable technology, such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit, is already used to encourage users to make positive choices about their health. In the future, IoT devices may be used to help physicians monitor patients’ vitals, monitor patients with chronic illnesses or disabilities, or even track the location of patients who have dementia or are prone to falls.
Everyday Objects as Assistive Technology
Assistive technology is useful in everyday life, not just at the doctor’s office. Simple, everyday things are already used by a lot of people, regardless of their capabilities. Common technology have many features that can be used to help people with different levels of ability.
Increasingly popular voice-activated home technology, such as the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, can help people who have limited mobility or visual impairment. To name a few, voice commands can turn smart lights off or on; control music and media playback, including volume and play/pause; and can read out news headlines and weather updates.
Apart from the multitude of apps available for people with disabilities, new smartphones have many features built into their operating systems that make them accessible. Noteworthy features include vibration alerts instead of a ringtone, ability to make the text size larger, speech-to-text communication, and the facial recognition software on the newest iPhone. As more models are released, expect to see more features designed with accessibility in mind.
Keep in mind how these new features work for others. They may seem unnecessary or random to able users, but for those who have different needs, new technology can increase the number of activities those users can accomplish on their own. If you do not need to use these items and programs to complete daily activities of living, you may not realize how important they are to people with alternative needs.
Increase in Assistive Technology
People have always had disabilities and attempted to create new devices to make those disabilities easier to live with. For example, hearing aids have a long history that dates back several centuries. Invention and innovation is nothing new, but assistive technology seems to be more common than ever before.
Because people with disabilities have access to smartphones and computers, which are increasingly affordable, they have a means to make themselves visible in a way they never could. There are also more resources, both free and paid for, available now. Researchers are even developing a computer to help visually impaired STEAM students identify scientific images on a screen.
Social media platforms make connecting with other people who have similar levels of ability possible, regardless of where they are in the world. In addition, people can raise awareness for their condition; for example, the immensely popular ice bucket challenge was hugely beneficial for bringing attention to ALS Association.
Technology, assistive and not, has helped normalize people with different abilities. Media representation has helped with this normalization too, as TV shows like “Parenthood” and “Speechless” portray well-rounded characters who have disabilities. On “Switched at Birth,” several deaf and hard-of-hearing characters use video calling to communicate with each other, depicting how assistive technology can be used naturally by people with different capabilities. Though these depictions are not real, it’s important to represent them in the mainstream media; it helps real people by not only drawing attention to their needs but also addressing them.
By creating assistive technology, excluded groups of people can have more independence in their daily lives. While assistive technology has come a long way, it still has a much longer way to go. Some disability scholars believe that all technology is assistive, as it’s intended to make humans’ lives easier. When looking into future assistive technologies, consider scholar Sarah Hendren’s opinion on the matter: “By returning ‘assistive technology’ to its rightful place as just ‘technology’—no more, no less—we start to understand that all bodies are getting assistance, all the time. And then design for everyone becomes much more interesting.”