Assistive technology includes a range of technologies which enable people to build on their abilities and participate as fully as possible at home, school, work and in their community—helping them to live a more independent life by reducing the amount or level of assistance needed from other people (Galvin and Scherer 1996). Assistive technologies could be the use of a joystick to replace a keyboard on a computer or an enlarged keyboard making it visually more accessible and easy to use. Other examples can relate to mobility or self-care—various wheelchair adaptations can aid independence, or an electric feeder can allow the user to control their own meal. Some assistive technology devices, such as eyeglasses, have been available and accepted for many years, while some are relatively new, such as touch-screen computer technology. Whether a device is low technology (without electronics) or high technology (using sophisticated electronics), the end result should be increased independence for the person using it. Assistive technology for people with disabilities is increasing both in the range of areas of usefulness and the quality of the technologies available (Cook and Hussey 2002).
Cook and Hussey (2002, p.5) use the term assistive technology to refer to ‘a broad range of devices, services, strategies and practices that are conceived and applied to ameliorate the problems faced by individuals who have disabilities’. They also refer to the definition in the US Technical Assistance to the States Act (Cook and Hussey 2002, p.5) which defines an assistive technology device as ‘any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customised, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities’.
These definitions are broad in that they encompass devices that are available commercially, modified devices and also those made for a particular individual or group. In all cases, the purpose of assistive technology devices is to assist the individual with a disability in some way—to help them to carry out a functional activity, rather than to teach a new skill or replace an existing activity. Examples of ‘low-technology devises’ are simple communication boards, modified eating utensils and simple splints. More high-technology devices include electronic communication devices and wheelchairs. Fundamentally assistive technologies are concerned with functional results as they represent a person with a disability carrying out an activity.
Anyone involved in recommending devices needs to ensure that a device meets the needs of the individual and that the user achieves what they want to accomplish (Cook and Hussey 2002). Some users may require a device for short periods, while they rehabilitate; others may use a device for life. The input of professionals is essential to ensure that the device continues to be of use and to address any changing needs the user may have. Lack of continued input and follow-up by professionals is one of the reasons why the use of a devise may be discontinued. Other reasons include not involving the user in the design, not providing correct or sufficient training, a change in the user’s ability or their lack of motivation to use the device (Gray, Quatrano and Lieberman 1998). Professionals, users and their families must work together to ensure that people with disabilities have access to assistive technologies and that they are fully involved in assessment and evaluation of any device.
Assistive technology and communication
A growing area of assistive technology is in relation to communication aids to ameliorate the problems of people who may have difficulty speaking and writing. Some people may be able to communicate unaided by using sign language, pointing or finger spelling. Other individuals may not be able to use unaided means of communication, owing to their physical difficulties; in such cases augmentative and alterative communication may be used. A simple definition of augmentative or alternative communication is any communication system that uses something other then the individual’s own body to communicate. These include letter or communication boards and electronic communication devices. Low-technology devices such as a simple picture-based communication board are quick and easy and can assist communication needs both in the short and long term. More sophisticated high-technology devices offer broad scope in relation to the amount of vocabulary on offer and general speed of access (Cook and Hussey 2002).
With appropriate assessment, training and detailed follow-up, assistive technology devices can provide useful communication systems to people with disabilities—provided assessment, training and detailed follow-up are provided.