Assistive technology (AT) can be a “device” or a “service”. Assistive Technology (AT) has many names. Some common examples are adaptive equipment, durable medical equipment, independent living tools, rehabilitation technology, gadgets or gizmos. There are almost as many names for assistive technology as there are types of assistive technology. For the purposes of this guide AT is any item, piece of equipment or system off the shelf or customized that increases, maintains or improves the functional capabilities of people with disabilities.
Assistive technology devices help people with disabilities do what they are able to do better and longer. Devices help people with disabilities do what people who do not have disabilities do. The unreachable comes within reach, the inaudible is heard, the unseen is discovered. Technology includes items and methods that help make ordinary places, jobs, schools, fun - ordinary, everyday life - accessible and enjoyable to people with disabilities.
Augmentative/alternative communication systems provide speech for people who cannot speak independently. Telecommunication devices such as TTYs, captions on TV and video telephones enhance communication and socialization for people with hearing loss. Alerting systems use lights or vibrations to warn people who are deaf or hard of hearing about dangers. To people with communication disabilities, these innovations bring independence and accessibility to the classroom and the curriculum, to community programs and services, jobs and independent living.
Robotic arms and other environmental control systems turn lights on and off, open doors, operate appliances. Locational and orientation systems give people with vision impairments information about where they are: what the ground nearby is like, if there is a curb close by.
Assistive technology includes modifications to buildings, rooms and other facilities that let people with visual disabilities move more freely, people of short stature and people who use wheelchairs reach and use pay phones, operate elevators. Access to shopping centers, places of business, schools, recreation and transportation, both private and public, is possible because of AT modifications.
Assistive technology is often thought of as expensive, very noticeable in use, difficult to learn about, find and use. It is true that some “high tech” assistive devices cost a lot, are quite noticeable and often complicated to use. Devices like a motorized wheelchair, electronic communication systems, or adapted vehicle are high tech assistive devices.
But other “low tech” equipment is not expensive, hardly noticeable, not difficult to use and often child, parent or provider made. The reacher you might have rigged up to help your daughter get her winter coat off its hook by herself is a low tech assistive device. Calculators, tape recorders, communication boards, adapted eating utensils, dressing aides, adapted writing aides, canes, walkers are low tech devices.
Assistive technology is always helpful. It is not always expensive, not always noticeable when appropriately “fit” and not always hard to learn about and find. Assistive technology might even be created by you, your child, your young adult, another family member, a friend or teacher. Whether high or low tech, assistive technology should help make life with a disability a little better, a little easier, a little more like ordinary, everyday life.
Assistive technology services are the activities that help people select, acquire or use their assistive technology devices. The evaluation to help you determine what kind of device your child needs, customizing the device to your child’s particular needs - the wheelchair’s contours, the keyboard’s height - are services.
Finding the right device, buying or renting it, making sure that it is used correctly, maintaining, repairing and replacing the device are all assistive technology services.
Assistive devices should be difference equalizers: they should not create differences between the user of the device and other people. Because of the intended equalizing nature of assistive technology, an important service is training. Training for family members, workers, friends and classmates helps make the device familiar to all who work, play and live with the person who uses it. As well as ensuring safe, effective use, training helps make devices the difference equalizers they are supposed to be.