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Introduction to assistive technologies

Introduction to assistive technologies


Author: David Banes, Chief Executive Officer, Mada - Qatar Assistive Technology Center. Edited by James Thurston, Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Group

There are many definitions of Assistive Technology in common use, they range from formal technical definitions maintained by organisations such as the WHO, to informal definitions often popularised by users themselves. For the purposes of this toolkit we are taking a wide, relatively informal definition. The term "assistive technology" is closely related to "enabling technology,"  that is technology that enables access to information, communication or the environment. In this section we will focus on those technologies that enable access to other forms of technology, whether that be computers, phones, digital TV or home or office control systems. We will look at how assistive technologies enable and support Independent Living, personal mobility, working and communication. Finally, we will examine how assistive technology can be implemented, the importance of procurement and examples of approaches taken in different countries.

There are many sources of further information related to access to technology and accessibility who provide useful free resources - these include the

Other trade and industry bodies exist at national levels throughout Europe, the U.S. and Asia. 

Without assistive technologies, the immense benefits that ICT systems bring to communities and individuals are denied to disabled people and others who experience functional limitations such as older people. Access to employment, education, leisure and a range of forms of social interaction are increasingly dependent on access to technology and notably the internet. Access to the tools used across all of these settings is for many dependent upon assistive technologies.

To illustrate this point, we can view two examples of users in very different settings.

Example 1 (from AbilityNet's case studies at work)

George is Systems Administrator at Triangle - a software communications company - and has Friedrich's Ataxia - a degenerative disease affecting his balance and coordination. Triangle called in advisors to ensure all reasonable provisions were made for the computing needs of their first disabled employee. As a result, George was equipped with a smaller keyboard, a tracker ball and was introduced to some key software modifications available for free within Windows. An expenditure of less than GBP100 has made George significantly more comfortable and efficient. George says:

"I can now work faster and more productively - I make fewer mistakes and therefore feel more relaxed. With this help, I am more at ease both physically and psychologically."

"Life doesn't have to end after paralysis - computer technology allows me to deliver in the same way as my colleagues and compete in the employment market as an equal."

Example 2 (from AbilityNet's Case studies at home)

Luke is nine years old and as a result of macrogyria - a genetic condition - he is quadriplegic and has no speech. Following recommendations, he is now benefiting enormously from having a computer at home, much to the delight of his mum, Jane.

A touch screen and a large switch enable him to access specialist software and scanned images and as a result he is learning new concepts like colours, numbers and sentence construction. The prospect of achieving effective communication with others is becoming a reality - a widening of his horizons, which would not have been possible without the right technological help.

Assistive technologies are designed to accommodate the widest range of needs. From physical needs such as an inability to effectively manipulate a mouse or keyboard, to sensory needs where a vision and hearing loss make a screen or speakers less useful, to reading and writing challenges such as Dyslexia.

However such assistive technologies are in fact of benefit to a much wider ranging community than those who would define themselves as disabled. With the  global aging population, access to technology will become increasingly challenging as we all age. Eyesight is less acute, joints respond less well to movement and hearing less sharp. All of these may well be accommodated effectively when interacting with a computer or other platform through the use of assistive technologies.

In practice the community that benefits from assistive technologies is still wider. Many users of technology report pain and discomfort during computer use, as a result of eyestrain, back pain or work related upper limb disorders such as repetitive strain disorder. In the UK the Health and Safety Executive report that some 2.8 million working days a year are lost to employers as a result of such pain and strain. The same assistive technologies that support disabled users can help to reduce such pain and strain leaving users to work more effectively, with greater efficiency and productivity and less discomfort.