Tools & Gadgets for Independent Living

The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology: Tools & Gadgets for Living Independently

Using a “lively narrative style,” Suzanne introduces readers to new and existing technologies, where to find them, and how to pay for them.

“The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology and Devices” by Suzanne Robitaille reached #1 on Amazon’s Assistive Technology List, and I’m happy to republish this excerpt with her permission. This book has been universally praised since it cuts through the clutter surrounding assistive devices with a simple conversational style. It’s organized according to disability and easily explains the best type of device for a multiple situations, home, work, on the road, or at school.

The book “combines research and personal insight to help even the most novice user make better, more informed choices about assistive technology.”
- Frances West, IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center

Chapter 1

WHAT IS ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY?

Having a disability isn’t easy. Believe me, I know. I have had a hearing disability since I was four years old. Growing up profoundly deaf impacted my education, my lifestyle, and eventually my employment. Indirectly, it affected my parents, my sister, my teachers, my friends, and my bosses.

But being deaf was also a blessing. It helped me build character; it gave me insight into a more realistic world than the one in which my peers lived; and it brought for me a love of books, and of writing, which my wonderful mother–who, like the rest of my family, was hearing– encouraged me to pursue as a career.

Self- preservation is the first law of nature. – Samuel Butler

The definition of “disability” is any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Disabilities include, but are not limited to, learning disabilities, blindness or low vision, hearing loss, speech impairments, and mobility impairments. Assistive technologies have helped many people to circumvent, mitigate, or eliminate the barriers to major life activities.

In my case, I couldn’t comprehend language or use the telephone with just my hearing. When I was twenty-seven I got a cochlear implant; the surgery removed my natural hearing forever and replaced it with artificial hearing. Today I can hear on the phone. I have a device implanted inside my head that’s attached to a processor I wear behind my ear. I made the choice–and for me it was a good one–to allow assistive technology to play a large role in my life so that I could hear again.

When I tell people I write about assistive technology, I can see their eyes glaze over–that is, until I tell them that this technology helps people with disabilities succeed in the workplace and in life space. Then their faces light up: “Oh my, that’s so wonderful,” they exclaim. “My sister has a learning disability” or “Gee, my father is losing his hearing.”

Suddenly, they can relate. That’s because disability affects most of us in one way or another. In the United States, 54 million people have a physical or mental disability. That’s 20 percent of the population. More than 20 million families have at least one family member who has been touched by disability. And one can add to that list the 80 million baby boomers, the growing number of children with special needs, and the thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have service- connected disabilities such as limb loss and brain injury.

Today, disability has been threaded into our national discourse. It affects health care, employment, education, and recreation. It has an impact on a person’s physical and financial health and well-being, not to mention on the strain on a family trying to provide care and attention.

That’s why technology is so important for people with disabilities. Assistive technology devices can help someone improve physical or mental functioning, overcome a disorder or impairment, prevent the worsening of a condition, increase capacity to learn, or even replace a missing limb.

TYPES OF ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY

Assistive technology comes in many different shapes, sizes, and packages. It can be acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, or designed specifically for one or more disability types. The one thing that all assistive technologies have in common is that they are capability enhancers.

There are ten classes of assistive technology devices, categorized by their main objective. They are:

  1. Architectural elements, such as adaptations to the home and other premises
  2. Sensory elements, such as aids for communication and hearing
  3. Computers, such as software and hardware
  4. Controls, including environmental controls
  5. Aids for independent living, such as personal care items
  6. Prostheses and orthoses
  7. Aids for personal mobility, including wheelchairs
  8. Modified furniture and furnishings
  9. Aids for recreation and sports
  10. Services, such as device selection and training

This list of classifications is widely used in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, assistive technology can be “no-tech,” such as Velcro for fastening one’s shirt; “lowtech,” such as a walking cane; or “high- tech,” such as screen-reading software. It can be specially designed equipment for people with disabilities, or standard equipment that has been modified for their use. Here are some more examples:

  • Hearing aids
  • Access ramps
  • Wheelchairs & Scooters
  • Speech generators
  • Talking books
  • Closed- captioned television

In this book I discuss all types of assistive technology, looking at technologies that can aid individuals in their work, home, and lifestyle. These devices include the various types of low-tech and high-tech hardware, software, and gadgets that are available to people with different disabilities. However, I will pay closer attention to products on the higher end of the technology spectrum.

For example, people with limited hand function may use a keyboard with large keys or a special mouse to operate a computer, people who are blind may use software that reads onscreen text in a computer-generated voice, people with low vision may use software that enlarges screen content, people who are deaf may use a text telephone (TTY), and people with speech impairments may use a device that speaks out loud as text is entered via a keyboard.

In many cases, higher-tech assistive technology is more expensive, is harder to find, and has a learning curve, but the results can be extraordinary and life-changing. Without these technologies, someone might not be able to go to school, sustain a job, or communicate with family members.

DEFINING ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY

Many people in my field don’t like the term “assistive technology.” It’s medical sounding, doesn’t trip off the tongue, and, quite frankly, seems boring. The legal definition of assistive technology was first published in the Technology- Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, known today as the Tech Act. This act was replaced with the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, which established a grant program to provide states with funding for assistive technology products and services. In 2004 the law was amended to mandate, in some instances, that states provide alternative financing and loans for assistive technologies. I talk more about this in chapter 9, “How to Pay for Assistive Technology.”

Congress defines assistive technology in Section 3 of the 1998 Tech Act as follows:

Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a person with a disability.

People with disabilities might be pleased or even surprised about what the U.S. government has to say on assistive technology and disability. According to the Assistive Technology Act, disability is “a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to live independently, enjoy self-determination and make choices, benefit from an education, pursue meaningful careers, and enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of society in the United States.”

Under the Assistive Technology Act, the Department of Education provides grants and funding to increase the “availability [of] and access to assistive technology devices and services” that will “significantly benefit individuals with disabilities of all ages.” Keep in mind that this law was passed two years before the proliferation of mobile devices, smartphones, mp3 players, and electronic book readers. It also preceded the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990–the landmark civil rights legislation for people with disabilities– which I’ll talk about later in this book.

On a less formal note, a former Business Week Online colleague, John Williams, should get some credit for coining the phrase “assistive technology.” John has been writing about disability and assistive technology since 1980–a full decade before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law. He also started the Assistive Technology column, which I took over after he left Business Week in 2001 and continued until the end of 2004.

BENEFITS OF ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY

The benefits of assistive technology cross categories of age, disability, and health challenges. From young children to seniors, people may face a range of physical and cognitive limitations. Today, there are thousands of assistive technology products on the market to help people with disabilities with all sorts of needs, from the simple to the sophisticated. If you or someone you know has difficulty typing on a keyboard, reading a document, or hearing the TV, there’s probably a product that will fit your needs. It’s really just a matter of finding the right technology and figuring out how to use it. Sometimes I meet people who are afraid of using assistive technology because they believe it seems like a crutch. Believe me when I say it is not. In all the conversations I’ve had with people outside of the assistive technology world, they use words such as “cool,” “brave,” and “inspiring.”

This is especially noticeable when the assistive technology is associated with helping someone who is already doing something well do it even better. Take, for example, Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic athlete from South Africa who straps on blade runners (prosthetic legs) to run 100- meter races, or Stephen Hawking, the brilliant astrophysicist with a neuromuscular disability who uses a device that helps him communicate his theories about black holes. Users of assistive technology must acknowledge that the device exists to help them. There is no stigma in using assistive technology as a daily or occasional aid in your life. Quite honestly, self-preservation is a human responsibility; it’s a hard world out there, and if you want to thrive, it is wise to do whatever it takes to stay on top of your game.

With assistive technology, the families of people with disabilities benefit too. Instead of a wife having to read the mail of a person who is blind, he can read it himself using scan and speak software. Instead of a child making a phone call for his mother who is deaf, she can do it herself in sign language, over the Internet.

One of the most important things to remember is that, as humans, we’re all temporarily abled. At one point or another, it is likely that each of us will use some form of assistive technology. If you have a disability now, you’re just starting a little sooner. Assistive technology is a life-changer. It can help individuals with disabilities increase their independence, build their self-confidence and self-esteem, improve their quality of life, and break down barriers to education and employment. The real challenge, of course, is finding the right devices and gadgets, for the right purpose, at the right price.

BIO photo of Suzanne Robitaille

Click image to link to the BIO on her website

About Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne is a writer, author and blogger who has real experience with a disability. She lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as “the ultimate assistive technology.” Suzanne was the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek.com, Media Post, Ability magazine, HealthDay, Disaboom, Modern Health Talk, and other publications and she serves on the advisory board of the National Center on Disability and Journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from the Medill School of Northwestern University and a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She resides in Greenwich, Conn. and founded abledbody.com, a media and communications company with a focus on disability issues

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