Technology harnesses the power to provide two core outcomes: the ability to support and solve some of the most complex issues we’re experiencing in the world today, or the ability to harm our surroundings. Computer scientists, product designers, software engineers, and anyone involved in the co-creation of technology are wary to support the former outcome.
To ensure technology can be useful and accessible to everyone, we must build and develop products so that they are inclusive of individuals with diverse characteristics and abilities. Assistive technology (AT) refers to any product, equipment, and system, that aims to deliver helpful learning solutions for people with disabilities.
AT has the power to include any person to use technology and live productive, healthy, and independent lives. It aids individuals to partake in educational facilities, the workforce, and day-to-day community activities. However, only 1 in 10 people with disabilities have access to AT, as these technologies often come with high costs. There’s also less awareness on AT, personnel to provide AT, and other, societal issues related to financial support and policy.
What is assistive technology?
Assistive technologies refer to an umbrella of software, hardware, products, and systems, that can improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. Whereas some of these technologies can be complex and specialised, others can serve other purposes that support people who have difficulty in speaking, typing, writing, remembering, and other cognitive or mobility abilities. AT can therefore include:
- Customised computers,
- Prosthetics, positioning devices, and similar equipment,
- Specific switches, keyboards, and similar devices,
- Screen readers and other communication tools,
- Learning tools for educational support,
- Wheelchairs, walkers, eye-gaze and head trackers, and so forth.
The diversity of AT reflects the unique needs of individuals with various abilities. In other words, different disabilities require the use of different assistive technologies. Assistive technology can also help the elderly, individuals with particular medical diagnoses such as diabetes and stroke, and mental health conditions like autism and dementia. In this way, AT is inclusive of the many abilities people have and who can benefit most from these technologies.
Selecting the right assistive technology
Looking for the right assistive technology for you or a loved one depends on various factors. Generally, this decision is made among a team of professionals and consultants alike that will help you match the appropriate assistive technologies with your needs. Depending on the circumstances available to you, decisions related to AT are supported by family doctors, educational members, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and so forth. These are the specialists and represent and help develop assistive technology.
It's important that if you’re considering the use of AT, you receive the advice from diverse professionals, such as those in occupations as above, to ensure you or your loved one receives the best support according to your specific needs. This is because assistive technology can be designed to be customisable to your abilities, which would require additional professional judgement.
The health and wellbeing impacts of assistive technology
Assistive technology can mean wonders to people with disabilities in feeling independent and part of a wider, supportive community. AT can be empowering and positively impact the health and wellbeing of people using the technologies, as well as their close relatives such as family members.
For example, providing hearing aids to young children can improve their language skills without the limitations of hearing loss, facilitating their involvement in education and social settings. Manual wheelchairs can support people with diverse mobility abilities in accessing various institutions, including getting an on-site or remote job. In a systematic review, therapeutic footwear supported people with diabetes and reduced the incidence of foot ulcers and other health concerns.
Whilst the above pertains to the positive outcomes related to assistive technologies, accessibility for these remains burdensome to many communities around the world. For example, from the 75 million people who need a wheelchair, only 5% to 15% have access to one.
Many countries do not have the structures or the workforce in place to support the provision of assistive technologies, wherein low-income countries, high expenses are reportedly the main reason people do not possess these.
However, organisations are working to reduce the disparity between AT and accessibility. Namely, the World Health Organization (WHO) are collaborating with institutions such as the Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology (GATE) to encourage high-quality and affordable AT for any person, no matter their geographical location.
Technology continues to support our lives in meeting various daily objectives, within the home or at our jobs in Malta or elsewhere. Accessibility for these to be available for everyone is a significant challenge to address in today’s digital world.
Additionally, if we are to design and build technologies that are truly inclusive, research must include the voices of people from diverse communities and ensure learning solutions that can render technologies useful and applicable to everyone.