What Is Assistive Technology?
Assistive technology was first defined in the way we currently understand it when the Disabilities Education Improvement Act was passed in 2004. This legislation was enacted to ensure that children with disabilities would have access to the most accommodative, least restrictive public education possible. It is within this act that assistive technology is defined as “any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.” The definition is quite broad, which is overall positive because it provides flexibility in the decision-making on behalf of these children. However, it is difficult to be concise when discussing assistive technology, also known as AT, because it encompasses a wide array of devices, people, and environments.
Dispelling Common Myths
To begin to tackle this topic, it is necessary to address some of the greatest myths that continue to plague advocacy efforts for AT:
- Assistive technology does NOT give students with disabilities an unfair advantage. AT provides equal access to these students and allows them to have the same learning experiences as their peers, but it does not give any sort of intellectual edge that the student did not already possess.
- Assistive technology is NOT always learned best by self-teaching. A lot of AT requires training and practice in order to be used effectively, while other kinds are relatively easy to figure out. Either way, students should have access to the guidance of knowledgeable teachers while attempting to integrate new tools.
- Assistive technology can NOT replace good teaching. It is necessary that teachers have the ability and desire to accommodate learning disabled students. Assistive technology cannot address the individualized academic and emotional needs of students. AT is only meant to be an accommodation and must be supplemented by compassionate and competent teachers.
- Assistive technology should NOT be used for everything. It’s easy to want to encourage the use of something as often as possible if someone is benefitting from it, but that is not always in the student’s best interest. Not all tools are appropriate or useful for every given scenario. When students are improving, they should be encouraged to step away from their devices and develop confidence in its absence.
- Assistive technology does NOT reduce students’ efforts. It is much more common for students to actually become more motivated once they are able to access material that was previously inaccessible to them. Assistive technology, as mentioned earlier, does not do the thinking for the student.
- Adults with disabilities are NOT too old to start using assistive technology. Assistive technology has not always been so widely available, so many adults today did not grow up with these types of resources and used different methods of accommodation. However, it is never too late for a person to desire more autonomy and learn to use technology in a way that is helpful to them.
- Assistive technology is NOT all high-tech devices. While many assistive tools include high-technology, like computers, tablets, etc., there are many non-electronic, non-battery-powered devices, such as canes, pencil grips, etc. There are also mid-tech devices that are battery-powered but not very complex, like calculators, portable typing devices, etc. In fact, the first evidence of assistive technology being used dates back to 950 B.C. in ancient Cairo. Located within a tomb, it was an artificial toe made of wood and leather and is believed to be the oldest known prosthesis.
Cognitive Aids: Types and Trends
The most exciting advents in assistive technology are always the most recent ones, though, because they tend to address the most prevalent needs and provide the widest scope of access. In our modern period, the majority of smartphones and tablets on the market have a variety of built-in AT. iOS, the operating system for iPhones and other mobile Apple products, has two text-to-speech (TTS) options, useful for people with reading issues. Speak Selection can be used so entire blocks of texts can be chosen and read aloud and words can be highlighted as they are spoken. There are other iOS tools that assist people who have difficulty typing or writing. Speech-to-text (dictation) tools allow people to speak in order to create text instead of typing. There are also built-in word predictions, to assist with spelling and word choice. These can also be utilized by people who have fine-motor skill issues. AssistiveTouch allows people to customize in accordance with many of their own needs, by providing a toolbar that is always accessible onscreen. People often customize a specific hand gesture to indicate a certain action.
iOS also provides assistance for attention deficit problems. Safari, the built-in web browser, includes a feature called Reader where ads and other unnecessary visuals are removed. Guided Access is another feature that allows parents, teachers, and/or students to lock specific apps or disable parts of the app that could serve as a distraction. The feature also enables a specific app to be “locked into” so they only focus on the one app they are intended to. Devices powered by Google’s Android operating system have similar assistive tech features available for their users. TalkBack is their text-to-speech feature that allows for reading speeds to be adjusted. Assistant Menu is Android’s onscreen toolbar that offers the ability to use easier, less fine-motor oriented gestures. Interaction is the equivalent to Guided Access. There are more specific AT features that can be accessed if a specific app is purchased. For instance, note-taking apps with audio recording functions, calculators with easy-to-use interfaces, and apps that teach concepts by using visual aids are all useful tools.
Optical character recognition, or OCR, is the conversion of pictures of text into digital text via scanned documents, webpages, or photos. This type of technology is especially useful to students with dyslexia and anyone who needs to have the ability to alter text so that they are more comfortable reading it. Graphic organizers are used by people with a wide variety of abilities, but they are especially useful for students who have difficulty reading. Graphic organizers may serve as a diagram of ideas and concepts to assist in comprehension before, during, and after reading. Additionally, paraphrasing apps may reword texts so that the language is easier to understand, but the students can still grapple with the complex ideas presented in the reading.
Handwriting tools, which are especially useful in people looking to improve fine-motor skills, can be used in different forms. One can use a slant board, which raises the writing surface to allow for more leverage when writing, triangular pens and/or pencils, which positions fingers in a more ideal grasp, and other writing and gripping tools, which assist those with poor hand strength or decreased coordination. These are a few of the most common handwriting tools, and while there are many more, they all fall into the same basic category of providing physical hand and arm support to aid in proper gripping and writing techniques. Computers have proven to be massively helpful to those with writing challenges. Specialized keyboards are designed to be more physically accommodating and reduce error rates. Touchscreens are often preferred when motor issues are at play because they are easiest to customize and troubleshoot with. Using both keyboards and touchscreens can exempt a child from handwriting an assignment that a teacher would not be able to decipher, while still encouraging the regular practice of related motor skills.
Aside from the obvious calculator and its specialized counterparts, there are other tools that provide assistance to students who struggle in math. Math notation tools allows students to write or type-specific mathematical symbols that are otherwise challenging to write by hand and difficult to locate on an average word processor. Graph paper is standard when performing specific types of math problems, but it has proven useful in simply lining up numbers and symbols that would normally become jumbled together and confusing. This is especially useful for people with dysgraphia, a specific set of motor challenges students face that impact handwriting, typing, and other tasks that require fine-motor coordination. Manipulatives are objects that allow a person to solve math problems using alternative methods. Examples of these are using number lines or abaci in order to add and subtract. This visual aid helps students make sense of the process before having to commit to solving the problem. There are also equation-solving tools, which help students figure out how to solve a problem without giving them the answer. This is useful for students with all different types of learning disabilities and problems paying attention.
For Listening Comprehension
There are many people who struggle with listening comprehension, and generally struggle to process and remember spoken language. In addition to audio recording note-taking devices and speech-to-text converters, there are a variety of options that address different origins of the problem. For example, personal FM listening systems are used for people who need the speaker’s voice as close as possible. Variable-speed recorders allow one to record spoken information and play it back at any time, with the ability to adjust how fast or slow the speaker is. These are extremely useful when accommodating for reading problems, hearing and listening problems, and attention issues in general. A new type of technology shows even greater promise. A paper-based computer pen, or digital pen for short, can link audio to what a person is writing using a specially calibrated pen and notebook paper. The words written on the paper are digitized by the pen and transferred to a computer file, so that it can be accessed via electronic device. This addresses a wide array of learning difficulties, including writing, listening, memory, reading, and attentiveness. Digital pens are becoming more popular as a business tool to boost the retention of information through kinesthetic learning, but they absolutely are an assistive technology.
Mobility Aids & More
So far, we have only discussed basic cognitive aids, but it is important to note that mobility aids have extremely positive psychological impacts for many people. The purpose of mobility aids is to provide people with the choice to be more autonomous while going about day to day activities. Utensils made to account for a lack of dexterity, scooters to aid in getting from place to place, and even guide dogs to provide assistance during a medical emergency are all examples of aids that work to enhance confidence in day to day tasks. Tools like these, when implemented in supportive settings, can help to diminish the stigma, as well as the perceived stigmas, around members of disabled populations, can abet rehabilitation or recovery efforts, and can boost feelings of positive self-esteem.
Market estimates for assistive technology predict that there is rapid growth ahead. 1 in 4 adults in the United States and over one billion people worldwide have some form of disability. The World Heath Organization believes that by 2030, 2 billion people will be eligible for assistive technology. Of course, not all of these people have access to assistive technology, but there are public health initiatives setting out to bridge the gap between availability and accessibility. As of right now, however, only 1 in 10 people experiencing disability have access to the assistive technologies they need. This has not halted the breadth of or ongoing growth in AT. Examples of this newer, higher-tech include cars adapted for people with physical disabilities, advancements in Braille-using devices, and even “Smart prosthetics”, limbs driven by AI assistance. The most important thing to note is that assistive technology will only continue to make progress if people learn more about their options and legislation is passed which makes it easier for people to obtain the tools they need. Assistive technology has always existed, but it is finally at the point where the next inevitable step is merging with policies and practices. From here on out, we should expect to see more people who are able to truly find their independence through these incredibly beneficial and worthwhile tools.
Rachel is a second year student at the University of Georgia majoring in psychology and minoring in cognitive sciences. She is also currently working as a research assistant in an Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory!