Why This Topic is Important
Disability can be defined as "any condition that challenges the development or functioning of an individual, such as sensory, physical, or mental impairments..." Assistive technology can help people with disabilities meet these challenges and become more independent, productive, integrated and included in their communities. An "assistive technology device" is any item, piece of equipment, or product system...that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. An "assistive technology service" is any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an "assistive technology device." [PL.100-407]. Technology Related Assistance for People with Disabilities Act.
Assistive technology can help some people communicate, move around, meet their own needs, control their environment, work, and live more independently. In these ways, technology can allow us to focus on someone's abilities, rather than being preoccupied with what someone cannot do. Technology can make inclusion and participation much more possible.
The quality of life for many people with severe disabilities depends on our creativity in developing, applying and funding adaptive devices. According to one policy analysis report, modern technology has been a major force in improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. The report also notes that "in spite of numerous innovative programs, resources, and expertise available in the area,"9 many people with disabilities still do not have access to the types of technology that could improve their quality of life.
9Policy Analysis Series, Issues Related to Welsch v. Levine/No.22 Improving the Quality of Life for People with Disabilities: Potential Uses of Technology, April 1984.
There are many ways we can improve the environment for people with disabilities:
- We can change the attitudes and behavior that discriminate against people with disabilities and bar them from the opportunities to which they have rightful access;
- We can make sure that places and activities are physically and programmatically accessible;
- We can directly support people with disabilities to participate; and
- We can develop and use technology that extends the abilities of people with disabilities.
Some technology is really sophisticated and complicated. For instance, computer technology allows people who cannot speak or move their hands, to write and deliver speeches to legislative committees. Some technology is very simple and quite liberating. For instance, an emergency buzzer hooked up to a neighbor's place means a person can live on his own rather than have overnight staff. Technology – new new or old, simple or complicated – can enable people with disabilities to:
- Pursue productive employment;
- Develop more autonomy and independence in determining how and where they live;
- Discover their talents and gifts;
- Enjoy social and recreational opportunities in a way not possible without technology;
- Shift the focus from their functional limitations to their abilities; and
- Be seen as contributing members of the community.
We have never had greater opportunities for developing and applying technology. There is much more support for the idea of helping people to be more and more independent. A number of pieces of important legislation are in place – the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 and 1992, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-394), and the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 and 1995.
To take advantage of these opportunities, we must take action to:
- Assure technology is applied creatively;
- Make sure people have access to appropriate technology;
- Share information;
- Fund training; and
- Carry out the research and development that expands on the promise of technology for people with disabilities.
The cost of this kind of action will be small in comparison to the resulting savings in productivity, economic growth, human dignity and well-being.
10Adapted from Abilities and Technology (1986). MN Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Possible Actions to Improve Accessibility and Use of Technology:
- Lobby for full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Get devices for people to use or test out.
- Make sure that people with disabilities, their families and friends, professionals, policymakers and the general public are aware of advances in technology and what they can mean.
- Train professionals from a wide range of disciplines on the uses of technology for people with disabilities.
- Provide people who need assistive technology with access to adequate services for assessment, prescription and follow-up.
- Work to establish funding mechanisms to allow for the purchase and maintenance of assistive technology and related support services.
- Establish advisory boards on the use of technology for people with disabilities. Such boards would recommend public policy changes, ways to use technology, and how to get information out to people. Advisory board members should include consumers, and may include service agency representatives; family, friends and advocates; third party payers; and educational and government representatives.
- Develop technical assistance and resource centers to promote the understanding and application of technology.
Examples of Assistive Technologies:
- Augmentative communication – manual and electronic communication aids to help a nonverbal individual to communicate and socialize with other people.
- Environmental controls – making a switch larger or a device easier to use can increase the ability of people with physical disabilities to independently control their environment. Examples include turning on the television, lights, and appliances; answering the phone; opening doors; and steering an electric wheelchair.
- Custom seating systems designing a wheelchair insert that is fitted to the the shape of an individual (without compromising the ability to maximize trunk strength where applicable) can promote healthy body system functioning, prevent skin breakdown, and improve learning/participation in all life areas.
- Postural supports inserted into a power wheelchair to help a person sit in a comfortable position and reduce abnormal muscle tone. The person can then work at a desk or table along with friends and classmates, and generally participate in more activities.
- Independent mobility is a first step toward independent living. Many kinds of power wheelchairs are available. The controls can be placed to match a person's particular abilities.
- Vocational and employment adaptations – modifications to a work site such as raising the height of a desk, or fabricating work areas, or adapting machinery to make it accessible to employees with disabilities.
- Home modifications – lever door hardware and grab bars in the bathroom, lowered light switches and shelves, toe space at counters and the sink, and lowered counters and paddle faucet controls may allow someone in a wheelchair considerable independence at home.
- Environmental modifications – ramps at state and local parks; restaurants, theaters, retail stores, businesses, and other places of public accommodation allow access to public recreational, commercial, and business opportunities.
- Lifts for public transportation, TTYs for phone systems, and pointers and switches.
- Environmental control system – one man had installed an amplifier on the phone to accommodate hearing limitations and a personal alarm system to notify health personnel if he has a medical emergency. This combination of high and low technology has given him the confidence and support to remain quite independent in his own home.
- A head mounted light beam for a ten year old child with cerebral palsy allows her to use a computer keyboard and operate a communication system that speaks for her.
- Voice processor – a microelectronic device that rebuilds the sound waves of speech by analyzing and reconstructing speech; weak or difficult to understand voices are clear and concise, background noise is rejected and vocal strain is greatly reduced.
- Ultra Voice Unit – a loudspeaker with a rechargeable battery that fits on an upper denture or orthodontic retainer; volume and pitch are set by a handheld control.
- Mind Control Tool Operating Switch (MCTOS) – a switch controlled by bioeletrical activity measured at a person's forehead. The switch operates using eye movement, muscle activity, or the mind – the switch is "off" when the mind is quiet and "on" when the mind is excited. Communication devices, environmental control devices, and computers can be operated by MCTOS.
On the horizon:
- Improvements in natural language technology that will permit sending video over the Internet that can be signed for people with hearing impairments.
- Improvements in converting spoken word to text with 95% accuracy.
- Using the Internet to integrate email, paging, and real time TTY; and voice-to-text messaging.