Understanding Assistive Technology
Assistive technology (AT) works as a bridge between the world as it is, and the people who need to interact with it in an accessible manner. Simply, AT is equipment, devices and systems that people with disabilities can use to more equally access information and engage in activities, online and off. Whether AT is acquired commercially, modified, or customized, its purpose is to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of items for accessible use.
Assistive technology can present opportunities for people with disabilities to participate more fully in a variety of aspects of life, including education, employment, recreation, and social activities. From reading a book to opening a door, these tools often mean that tasks, once obstructed, become achievable, and accessible pathways open up. The main goal is accessibility. Accessibility means creating an environment in which everyone can participate.
There are many different types of AT, including:
- Low-tech AT: Typically inexpensive and easy to use, examples of low-tech AT include large-print books, talking calculators, and wheelchair ramps.
- High-tech AT: More complex and expensive, high-tech AT includes physical items such as power wheelchairs, and hardware- or software-based tools such as screen readers, voice recognition software, and accessibility overlays.
Assistive technology is an essential part of offering equal access to information and technology. In conjunction with inclusive laws, policies and attitudes, assistive technology furnishes ways and means for people with disabilities to more thoroughly enjoy their own independent and fulfilling lives.
What is “High Tech” Assistive Technology?
High-tech assistive technology (AT) typically refers to electronic devices or software applications designed to ease interaction with their environment for people with disabilities. Some examples of high-tech AT include:
- Power wheelchairs: Motorized chairs that can be operated by people who have difficulty walking; they provide a great deal of independence and mobility for people with disabilities.
- Screen readers: Software applications that read aloud the text on a computer screen; they provide people who are blind or have low vision a way to use computers without seeing the screen.
- Voice recognition software: A tool for people to control computers and other devices by speaking; helpful for people who are not able to use a mouse or keyboard. For those with motor disabilities or conditions like arthritis, this can make a world of difference.
- Website accessibility overlays or plugins: Software applications that can be installed on websites or computers to make them more accessible to people with disabilities; they can be an especially valuable tool for people with disabilities who want to access websites and computers that were not originally designed with accessibility in mind. Accessibility overlays or plugins can provide a variety of features, such as:
- Text-to-speech conversion
- Color contrast adjustments
- Keyboard navigation
- Screen reader compatibility
- Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices: Used by people who have difficulty speaking or writing; AAC devices can be used to generate speech, type text, or use symbols to communicate.
- Eye-tracking systems: People who are unable to use their hands to control computers and other devices can use these; they work by tracking eye movements.
- Robotics: Robots can be of assistance to people with disabilities as physical support, by transporting objects, or, with some more advanced models, as a companion.
What is “Low Tech” Assistive Technology?
Low-tech assistive technology (AT) typically refers to non-electronic devices or simple tools that can be used to help people with disabilities to perform tasks. Some examples of low-tech AT include:
- Large print books: Printed with larger than normal text, these are easier to read for people with vision impairments.
- Talking calculators: Calculators that speak the numbers aloud are useful for people who are blind or have difficulty reading.
- Wheelchair ramps: These structures offer wheelchair users access to buildings and other areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
- Magnifying glasses: A classic tool to boost the size of small text or objects for easier visibility.
- Raised markings: Raised buttons or markings on household items like ovens or microwaves assist users in differentiating controls, especially if they have visual impairments.
What Separates High-Tech from Low-Tech AT?
There can be a blurred line between high- and low-tech assistive technology in certain cases. What really differentiates between the two, defining where they lie?
For example, hearing aids are usually considered low-tech assistive technology. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Hearing aids amplify sound, which can help people with hearing loss to hear better. They can be worn in or behind the ear, or in the ear canal.
However, there are some high-tech hearing aids available that offer additional features, such as:
- Bluetooth connectivity: This enables hearing aids to connect to mobile phones, computers, and other devices.
- Noise cancellation: This helps reduce background noise, making it easier to hear speech.
- Direct streaming: This pulls streamed sound directly from a television or other device to the hearing aid, without the need for a separate receiver.
High-tech hearing aids can be a valuable tool for people with hearing loss. They can help people to hear better in a variety of environments, including noisy places. They are, unsurprisingly, generally more expensive than traditional hearing aids.
Ultimately, whether a hearing aid is considered to be high tech or low tech depends on the features it offers. Hearing aids with basic amplification capabilities are considered to be low tech, while hearing aids with additional features, such as Bluetooth connectivity and noise cancellation, are considered to be high tech.
Comparing High- and Low-Tech AT
Some of the differences between high-tech and low-tech assistive technology:
|Cost||More expensive||Less expensive|
|Complexity||More complex||Less complex|
|Functionality||More versatile||Less versatile|
|Ease of use||More difficult to use||Easier to use|
|Availability||May require training||More widely available|
At a glance, you can see that there are many different factors to consider when choosing between high-tech and low-tech AT. The best type of AT for a particular individual will depend on their individual needs and preferences. Some people may prefer the versatility and functionality of high-tech AT, while others may prefer the simplicity and affordability of low-tech AT.
|Functionality + versatility|
|High-tech AT can often offer a wider range of functionality. For instance, a screen reader can guide a user through an entire website, while a magnifying glass focuses on specific points.||However, low-tech AT is often less expensive, easier to use, and can be more versatile, due to its simplicity.|
|Cost + accessibility|
|High-tech AT can be more expensive than low-tech AT. This is because high-tech AT is often more complex and requires more specialized training. However, there are many government programs and private organizations that can help to offset the cost of high-tech AT, making them affordable.||Low tech solutions are usually more low-cost to begin with, and are therefore accessible to a broader audience.|
|User preferences + needs|
|The best type of AT for a particular individual will depend on their individual needs and preferences. Some people may prefer the comprehensive functionality of high-tech AT.||Others may prefer the simplicity, affordability, and straightforward approach of low-tech AT.|
|Integration + existing systems|
|High-tech AT can often be integrated with existing systems, such as computers and software applications. This can make it easier for people with disabilities to use the technology, which is helpful. Conversely, required integration, like ensuring a website is compatible with screen readers, can also be an additional accessibility obstacle to overcome.||Low-tech AT may not be as easily integrated with existing systems, although this obviously varies by tech. However, low tech tools, being standalone, don’t usually require such integrations.|
Considering Individual End-User Needs
It’s all about individual needs. Each person’s experience with their own disability is unique. While one tool might work wonders for a particular individual, it might be ineffective or even a hindrance for another. Both high tech and low tech assistive technologies have their role.
Whether you are choosing AT for yourself or for someone else, it is important to consider the individual needs of the end user. Some factors include:
- The type(s) of disability/ies the end user has
- The end user’s preferences and needs
- The cost of the AT
- The availability of funding
It is also important to make sure that the AT is compatible with the end user’s existing systems and devices.
Assistive Technology at Every Level
Assistive technology, be it high tech or low tech, is a key factor in unlocking possibilities for persons with disabilities. These tools and systems break down barriers and contribute to a more inclusive, accessible world for everyone. By embracing both high tech and common assistive technology devices, we can do our best as a society to make sure everyone gets the tools they need to thrive.