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A New Way to Think about Assistive Technology

Glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, canes, walkers are all devices that help a person do something better than he/she could without them. We don’t usually think of these aids as “assistive technologies,” but they certainly assist with a better quality of life and more independent living.

The term assistive technology usually refers to tools or devices used by a person with a disability. For example, a person who is blind or visually impaired can use devices like digital talking book players that read books aloud at the press of a button. Other devices display refreshable braille. These tactile devices have a row of cells consisting of pins that move up and down to display characters. The characters feed into the devices from sources such as a computer, braille notetaker, or mobile device. Refreshable braille displays read one line of text at a time and need to be “refreshed” for the next line of text to be displayed and read with finger tips. Think it’s amazing?  See it in action!

With mobile devices such as the iPad, the line between mainstream devices and assistive technologies blurs. The iPad is a mainstream device that has built-in features that make it accessible, like VoiceOver.  Further, more and more assistive apps are being built, like Read2Go, that make the device even more accessible to people with a range of disabilities, from visual impairments to physical disabilities. Assistive technologies can assist with many different life functions, from GPS navigation for blind people to augmentative and alternative communication systems for individuals with communication disorders. Imagine knowing words but not being able to say them; however, if you press a button representing your thought, the device speaks for you.

Text-to-speech, as described in two earlier blogs, is an assistive technology that helps those who can’t read print. The list of assistive technologies is endless.  Wikipedia has an extensive article.

Is Bookshare an AT? Not really. It’s a library of accessible books that are read on assistive devices, computers, and/or mobile devices. It provides content that flows into an assistive device. However, the free ebook readers offered by Bookshare are assistive software applications.

The role of the AT coordinator in a school district is to ensure that students with disabilities have the appropriate assistive technology to function as independently as possible and succeed in school.  In a pilot program in 2011, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) turned around the lives of many students with low incidence disabilities by pairing the appropriate assistive technologies with students. These students gained independence, earned better grades, and moved from separate placements to inclusive classrooms. The District helped these students learn how to use their AT to prepare them for the transition to college and a successful life.

Does using AT stigmatize a student? Some students may fear that it will, but it shouldn’t. After all, AT is like a pair of glasses. The students in the DCPS pilot talk about how much their assistive technology has helped them. Assistive technology enables independence, academic and professional success, and a sense of self-worth.

What can you do to help others understand AT?

  1. Discuss AT with your students. Have them make a poster or write an essay about all the ways technology assists us. What are all the assistive technologies we use us? Who can come up with the longest list? Post it as a comment on this site.
  2.  Invite a speaker with a disability or one familiar with disabilities to your school to talk with your students about AT.

Next week, we’ll post a blog written by a high school student about his use of AT with his thoughts on the stigma. Stay tuned.


  1. As you said, we like to talk about the latest new assistive technologies and sometimes not so much about the more basic technologies especially those that could help marginalized populations. This is from the World Bank Report on Disabilities:

    4.6 Take for example, mild to moderate vision problems correctable by glasses. In countries like the United States or Australia, this type of body function limitation would have no effect on a child’s ability to attend school. In a developing country with large classes, limited reading material, and no access to glasses or vision screening, such a problem could very well lead to higher drop-out rates or an increased tendency to have to repeat a grade. In fact, 40 percent of disabled children not attending school in Brazil were found to be not attending because of vision problems correctable by glasses.

  2. Dilsia A. Martinez

    I never thought of my glasses as assistive technology having used them since early childhood they have become a part of myself 🙂

  3. I remember getting my first glasses in the USA 5th grade — before that trees looked like big green lollipops; after the glasses I could then see the individual leaves.

  4. Great article, glad someone brought up the topic.
    When I introduce accessibility to newcomers, I like starting by saying “X people around this table are using an AT right now” (X being the number of people wearing glasses, and it’s generally around half of the audience). Sometimes I go as far as saying that in the sky, any human being is unable to fly, which can be qualified as a disability; yet, we have assistive technologies that allow millions of us to fly, every single day. It helps making them think differently about what “disability” means. It’s important because most people associate the idea of disability with a serious medical condition. This tends to make it a somewhat marginal issue: not that many people have visible impairments that make us think: “this person has a disability”. Whereas a fair share of the population should feel concerned by accessibility for their own needs. In fact, a 2004 survey by Forrester for Microsoft revealed that 57% of the US active population could use accessibility features, such as screen or text magnification, improved contrasts, or improved mouse precision. It could go as far as spell-checking and customized keyboard shortcuts, indeed.
    I also like your point about how the lack of even the most basic assistive technologies negatively impacts education, which of course impairs future economic growth. A study by the UNESCO (featured in this presentation by Donal Rice at the European Accessibility Forum in 2011 (PDF, 792 kb): estimated that 35.8% of the future Gross Domestic Product of Europe depended on the inclusive education of children with special needs. That should be a compelling enough figure for any government to act upon.
    It’s to be noticed that mobile devices are helping a lot with making AT more mainstream. Cool features like speech input, on-screen keyboard, touch control, motion control, self-adapting display and luminosity, all have their origins in AT development. In return, those features benefit from a much larger userbase, meaning better feedback, and more incentive to invest in their improvement.
    Those are excellent news for accessibility. We are living a paradigm shift, going from accessible design to inclusive design; and ultimately, to design that is inclusive by nature. We couldn’t hope for more.

  5. Marc Workman

    I think the author is right to point out the blurring of the lines between mainstream and assistive tech, but I think this should lead us to the conclusion that the AT category is simply a by-product of bad design.

    As I see it, products, tools, technologies, and so on are designed in a way that they can be used/operated/manipulated by a certain group of people, namely, those whose bodies function in typical ways. Those whose bodies do not function in typical ways we call disabled or people with disabilities, and we call the technologies they use assistive technologies. If the so called mainstream technologies were designed to be used by anyone who might wish to use them, there would be no such thing as assistive technology or mainstream technology, just technology.

    The category of disabled, I would argue, is itself socially produced, and so too is the category of assistive technology because it relies on the concept of disabled. Start designing products, services, even social institutions in more inclusive ways, and both the categories of disabled and assistive technology will become meaningless.

    • Heather Willis

      Exactly! Very well put.

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