NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

Siobhán Long, Manager, Enable Ireland National Assistive Technology Training Service, gives an overview of assistive technology

Where would we be without technology these days? It drives so much of what we do: whether it’s how we want TV (on demand, Netflix, and other streaming services take up as much of our attention as terrestrial TV stations), listen to the radio (internet/digital radio anyone?), keep in touch with one another, or plan our daily work schedules. The truth is that, like it or not, technology is so deeply interwoven into our daily lives that it’s difficult to see how we could get by without it. Even booking a concert ticket or planning a holiday would be difficult without access to technology. And now, with the proliferation of smart phones, all of this information is within even closer reach than ever before.

So much of the technology we use every day has a relevance and application to people with disabilities which is yet to be fully exploited. That said, more and more individuals with disabilities are harnessing technologies in countless ways to enhance their independence: whether it’s using voice to navigate a smart phone, instead of using a standard touch screen or keyboard, or chatting on a social network using eye gaze to input text. The results are impressive. Technology not only makes things easier to do: it makes things possible too, and that’s where the real transformative possibilities of technology are of interest to anyone supporting or working with individuals at home, in education, at work or in residential/respite settings.

So what is assistive technology?

Assistive Technology is any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off-the-shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase the independence of individuals with disabilities (adapted from Cook and Hussey 1995). This means that assistive technology (AT) encompasses everything from a walking stick to an alternative keyboard or mouse, or an electronic door opener. In response to service user needs, Enable Ireland’s National Assistive Technology Training Service has focused its service on developing and delivering electronic AT supports in the following specific areas:
■ Access to computers (including laptops, tablets and all other mobile devices)
■ Smart Home Technologies (more conventionally referred to as environmental control devices)
■ Voice output communication devices
■ Alternative controls for power wheelchairs.

Understandably, with the explosion in use of multi-functional mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones, many AT solutions now straddle more than one (and sometimes all) of the above categories, offering users a single solution to undertake multiple tasks, and rendering the above distinctions somewhat obsolete.

The benefits of using AT

Assistive technology can enhance independence in countless ways, whether by enabling an individual to open a door using a remote control (or better still, to firstly see who is outside that door using a CCTV, whose image can be transmitted to the user’s TV for easy viewing), or by having text on a screen read out loud (handy for both individuals who have a visual impairment and for tired students who need a break from reading interminable text on a computer screen). Increasingly, as design gets better, AT is merging with mainstream IT solutions. The standard iPhone, for example, has a built-in magnifier which almost all users take for granted; it allows screen content to be enlarged simply by touch.

Commonly used assistive technologies – Computers

Free built-in features on standard computers: eg. Microsoft Windows Ease of Access Center. It’s always a good idea to start with identifying suitable free solutions when an individual is setting about using a computer. Magnifying the text, having text spoken out loud, using Windows Narrator, or simply reducing the sensitivity of the keyboard to reduce keystroke errors. If free features aren’t sufficient, there is a wide range of alternative keyboards and mice to choose from, enabling single-handed users, individuals with learning disabilities or difficulties to choose an alternative method of accessing the computer. (see www.microsoft.com/enable) The arrival of touch screen devices (smart phones, tablets) has mainstreamed the use of on-screen keyboards which can offer a very useful alternative access method.

Alternative access: Speech recognition and eye gaze

Using speech to control a device, instead of using a standard keyboard or mouse, is becoming increasingly common. Speech recognition is available as a free, built-in feature in many devices including the Windows Operating System and iPhone (Siri). For individuals who use speech recognition as their primary method of controlling a device, it is generally advisable to invest in a fully-featured speech recognition software package such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (www.nuance.com ).
Using one’s eyes to control technology was the stuff of science fiction a number of years ago, but now, eye gaze technologies are extensively used by individuals with significant physical disabilities, as it offers a direct, efficient method of control. The cost of eye gaze technologies is reducing rapidly, and what in the past was a bulky, battery-heavy device is now becoming integrated in tablet devices at a much more affordable cost: www.tobii.com/en/assistive-technology/global/

Summary

Assistive technology is becoming more mainstream, more affordable and more widely-used by people of all abilities. For further information on how technology might benefit you, or someone you work with, why not visit:
www.enableireland.ie/at. We also have a YouTube Channel which has a range of videos illustrating the benefits and uses of AT: www.youtube.com/enableirelandat. Anyone interested in expanding their knowledge through further training can access our Foundations In AT Course, accredited by Dublin Institute of Technology.

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