What is Assistive Technology?

Posted by Rob Mineault on

It seems only fitting that the first blog post on our blog, CAT on a Keyboard, would be titled ‘What is Assistive Technology?’ After all, I’ve spent almost 17 years answering that very question, since the early spring day that I began work for a smallish Assistive Technology company based in North Vancouver, BC.

As it turns out, Assistive Technology is one of those things that has been ever present in our society, but one of those topics that people don’t really feel the need to think or talk about – until the day that they or one of their loved ones need it, that is. Assistive Technology in the past has been a ‘niche market’, only noticed by those searching for solutions for a particular physical challenge in their lives or by professionals and educators needing support or consultation for a disabled client or student.

But that is slowly changing.

As more and more people with disabilities enter the workforce, build and maintain strong online communities and online presences conversations about different types of Assistive Technology are becoming more prevalent.  

So what is meant by the term Assistive Technology?

Simply put, Assistive Technology is anything that assists someone experiencing difficulty with a task – whether that task is visual, physical, or cognitive – to increase, maintain, or improve their functional capabilities. 

In a general sense, this could be everything from eyeglasses to crutches. In this sense, we can safely say that almost everyone, at one point or another in their lives, will use a type of Assistive Technology.

Of course, the more common usage of the term applies to a much more specialized category of technology, some of it high tech, and some of it low tech.

So what are some examples of Assistive Technology? Well, of course, there are as many pieces of AT as there are limitations faced by people in their daily lives.

For example, for those with Low Vision, CCTVs can make a huge difference in their daily lives. For people suffering from degenerative eye disease such as Retinitis Pigmentosa, Glaucoma, Cataracts, or any other number of visual impairments, CCTVs allow users to magnify reading materials on a viewing platform that a digital camera then magnifies and sends to a high definition monitor. The result is printed text that can be magnified up to 80x in some cases, allowing the users to read their mail, browse a magazine, or even do crossword puzzles or write notes.

These days, OCR (Optical Character Recognition) has been bundled into many models of these machines, offering yet another way for users to access the text. In some cases, the CCTV will scan the text on the viewing platform and not only magnify it on screen, but allow the option to have the text read by a speech engine.

Digital Magnifiers such as CCTVs come in all shapes and sizes, and there are portable options for those that need to take some sort of magnification option with them on the go. There are even several wearable solutions on the market that feature specialized goggles or glasses that enhance and magnify the user’s field of vision. Products such as the Jordy, IrisVision or Orcam can offer magnification solutions or text-speech functionality that will read printed materials out that the user looks at.

For Blind users, the range of AT is even more varied. From the classic, timeless white cane to the most advanced Android enabled electronic Braille notetakers, Blindness solutions come in various forms and functions, not to mention shapes and sizes.

That being said, Braille is still the cornerstone of literacy for people who are blind around the world. From Braille embossers which produce printed Braille materials to digital Braille Notetakers which are essentially digital personal assistants for the visually impaired, Braille is a critical feature for education and for peoples day to day lives.

But Braille is just one tool in the toolbox and there are many more tools available. Blindness mobility aids assist the visually challenged to navigate their everyday world. Mobility aids range from the standard white cane all the way to state of the art wearable smart glasses like the Aira system, where users can transmit video from a camera mounted on the glasses to a live sighted operator for clarification about obstacles, signage, or any number of unexpected situations. Beacon technology can be combined with GPS apps on smartphones can work together to offer highly accurate routing information and navigation indoors. Add to this haptic wearable devices such as the BuzzClip that will detect obstacles via ultrasonics and vibrate in order to alert the user and one can see the potential for these all to work together in order to provide doorstep to doorstep mobility solutions for the visually impaired.

Solutions for physical disabilities also account for a large percent of Assistive Technology. The most commonly thought of piece of equipment for those with limited motion is of course is the wheelchair. And while the wheelchair continues to serve the physically disabled well, it can’t help when it comes to higher tech challenges like how someone without full use of their arms might be able to access a computer or smartphone.

That’s where alternate access hardware comes in. Switches that can be configured to emulate mouse clicks can help those with limited motor control are available, as are complete mousing alternatives such as head and eye gaze systems, which allow users to move the cursor on a computer using the movement of their head or even merely their eyes. Blinking can emulate right and left mouse clicks and through this configuration, people with little or no physical mobility are suddenly able to access the full range of functions of a desktop or laptop computer. Needless to say, these systems can assist in opening up a whole new realm of possibilities.

Communication aids are considered anything that help individuals communicate more effectively with the people around them, and are quite varied as well. For people who are non-verbal, these aids are crucial for being able to interact with family members, caregivers, or anyone else that they may encounter. These complicated aids range from low tech letter boards which can be used to spell out words and limited phrases to full electronic speech generated vocabulary systems.

And of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to list all the products, past, present, and future, this article would be far longer than any one person’s attention span (especially on the Internet). What is a given is that there are at least as many solutions as there are physical or cognitive challenges in existence.

And the list is only getting longer.

As conversations about inclusion and accessibility are becoming more prevalent, more and more products are coming to market that offer up solutions. Mainstream devices are being leveraged and used as platforms for the AT community more and more. It’s an exciting time for Assistive Technology, and never before have we seen such rapid advances in terms of accessibility solutions.

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