Useful Notes / Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is something you see every day, whether it be a person in a wheelchair or a blind person using a special cane, yet it's rarely commented on in the media. Maybe your local paper might report something about a train station installing a new lift, tactile flooring , or something to that effect every now and again, but it's not something that's really explored in-depth. A real oddity, considering the world's increasing population of the elderly and PWDs (People With Disabilities).

An assistive technology (or AT for short) is any technology that helps a person with some sort of impairment (whether physical, mental or sensory) to live and function within their community. Assistive technology is neatly split into high-tech and low-tech categories, running the gamut of being as grandiose and as expensive as a specially-built computer with voice recognition software, or as cheap and simple as a visual diary.

Currently, a whole new set of assistive technology is in the process of development and testing, one right from the trope "We Can Rebuild Him". Things like neurally-controlled artificial limbs, camera-like artificial eyes and exoskeletons that help overcome paralysis already exist, but are still very expensive and not mass-produced, so this article will focus on the more mundane devices.

High-tech Assistive Technology

High-tech assistive technology is exactly what you think it is. Those fancy mechanics (requiring lots of skill to design and implement) that you often see on science channels are built into machines that help PWDs with their daily lives. Some examples of high-tech ATs include computers that move the cursor solely by eye movement (perfect for those affected by paralysis) and specially-created software that utilises voice recognition, visual cues and other such devices to help complete daily tasks (such as these devices used in a classroom). At the very highest end of the spectrum, you have powered exoskeletons like these that allow totally paralyzed people to walk again, at least to some degree.

Pros: High-tech ATs are more often than not a necessity for the severely impaired. For example, a person who needs a wheelchair needs to live in a house with stairs for whatever reason, so they'll need to install a special moving chair that slides along the wall should they need to access the upper floor(s). A college student with severe cerebral palsy needs to study, so they'll need a special computer that dictates or helps to write their assignments so they don't have to rely on another person all the time. A sight-impaired person lives on their own, so they need their entire home modified to ensure easier access to rooms, objects and the like. In the techno-centric 21st century, new discoveries are being made to build more advanced machines that function as fully competent ATs, and much of the software that is commonplace today would not have existed some years ago.

Cons: High-tech ATs can be very expensive, especially is the hardware or software is being created to the needs of an individual. The care of these ATs can also be very draining to one's budget, and have the potential to run into thousands of dollars (or pounds, or Euros, or whatever). There are some government initiatives which aim to subsidise and offset the cost of assistive living, but even with some alleviation living with expensive pieces of technology can cause a lot of stress. There is also the issue of high-tech items breaking and then needing to be fixed, replaced or otherwise, which would cost the person both money and time as it hinders the ability to function effectively within their lives and the community.

Low-tech Assistive Technology:

Low-tech ATs go into the simpler, more inexpensive end of the scale. They can be bought or hand-crafted by any individual, skills notwithstanding. Some examples include flash cards and hand signals for the hearing impaired, modified mug handles for the sight impaired and stimulating "play tables" for sensory-impaired children.

Pros: Of course, there's the cost. Lower costs leads to less stress for the both the individual and his/her family, and for some clients they can do a job just as effectively. Low-tech devices also tend to be portable, leading to increased efficiency in dealing with day-to-day tasks and activities.

Cons: Sometimes, a low-tech device just won't do the job effectively. To achieve better results, sometimes a person needs to fork out for higher-tier devices. However, there are some volunteer organisations such as TADNSW which aim to create inexpensive, portable ATs from scratch. Unfortunately, these organisations tend to be few and far between, especially outside of Australia.

There is also some media which specialises in discussing ATs, such as the AT Show, broadcast in Maine but accessible worldwide via podcasting.