Examining the Past, Present, and Future of Assistive Technology

Published November 17, 2021

In today’s world, assistive technology is a catch-all term describing a broad category of original, modified, or customized equipment or systems “used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." Assistive technology’s purpose today is to increase access not only to buildings but also to information and its derivative processes, for anyone who can benefit, and primarily for people with disabilities.

Broadly defined:

[...] assistive technology can be anything from mobility devices to screen

magnification software. Assistive technology is anything that improves the

user’s ability to access or enjoy a program, service, activity, or facility.

The 21st century has witnessed immeasurable advances in technology. A consistent theme runs through this progress - a repetitive pattern initiated with a breakthrough invention promising new and exciting capabilities to the fortunate few which eventually transforms and ultimately offers the same benefits to almost everyone. For example, GPS technology was first developed in 1959 with the discovery that scientists could track the Russian satellite Sputnik with radio waves. Originally a critical tool for NASA in the space race, GPS is now available to all of us to find our way home with a push of a mobile phone icon. Similarly, a mid-range Ford Escape today contains many guidance, collision avoidance, and anti-lock braking systems which were available only in limited luxury vehicles less than a decade ago.

Origins

Some point to the appearance of the wheelchair hundreds of years ago as the first assistive device which gave people access to aspects of life not previously available. But it was the discovery and development in the early 1800s of a “universal system for reading and writing to be used by people who are blind or visually impaired” by Louis Braille at the age of 15 that is more often viewed as the real beginning of assistive technology.

Following braille, the next significant assistive technology advancement may have been the electronic hearing aid, dramatically expanding the aural benefits of the cumbersome ear trumpet. The hearing aid was made possible in the late 1800s with technology developed by Alexander Graham Bell. Before the turn of the century, a hearing aid small enough to fit in a pocket had arrived.

Steady progress

The second quarter of the 20th Century brought the rapid acceleration of progress that continues today. Highlights included:

The timeline above serves as a point of reference with only some of the notable advancements identified. Our list certainly doesn’t give credit to the many other developments that have changed the world for people with disabilities.

Barriers

Technological progress over the past 100 years has been astounding. The fact that we can sit in an airplane today at 35,000 feet and literally hold the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of our hand would have been the stuff of fantasy only 40 years ago. But in many unfortunate respects, the same can not always be said for progress with assistive technology.

If the continual improvement of the actual technology were the only factor determining successful broad adoption of assistive technology in the workplace, school, and home, all might be rosy. But for assistive technology to truly give every person with disabilities the access to everyday life others enjoy, that technology must be available, adopted, and supported. In this respect assistive technology faces unique but understandable barriers:

  • Understanding, approval, and adoption – the implementation of any new assistive technology is dependent upon the attitudes of many more people than simply those who will benefit physically. Teachers, employers, and family members play critical roles in the process. And with this, comes a multitude of biases and misunderstandings that can delay or prevent a wonderful device or process from fully benefiting its intended users.
  • Financial resources. Like anything else, resources must be in place to allow full implementation of assistive technology. Bureaucracy can prevent resources from being allocated appropriately. Sometimes the money is simply not there.
  • Technology training. An assistive technology tool is only as effective as the people operating it are trained.
  • In 2019, almost 34 million people were living below the poverty line. It is a sad fact that for many people with disabilities, assistive technology is a luxury that they can not afford. In fact, entire companies and agencies have sprung from the need for affordable or free assistive technology - Michael Curran, of NV Access, built the screen reader NVDA so no blind person would have to pay to access the internet. 

It can be disheartening to know that while self-driving cars and robots are on the horizon, the barriers above keep robust assistive technology for many people with disabilities out of reach. There are however certain revolutionary technologies expected to arrive in the near future which should help expand the reach and effectiveness of assistive technology.

The future may offer welcome surprises

New developments have the potential to help overcome these human barriers. Here are some examples of what’s to come.

The Internet of Things

The internet of things (IoT) refers to the countless number of physical devices throughout our world that are connected to the internet and can be ultimately linked with each other to share collected data and together be managed and accessed from a single point of contact. As the links spread each device actually gets smarter from its interaction with other devices.

All this leads to much greater control over the environment for those with disabilities. For example, instead of separately directing the many appliances and entertainment systems in one’s home, a single smartphone will soon be able to direct everything.

Cars for the blind

Sounds improbable in the near future but such a car is in development using extremely sophisticated technology that alerts a driver with auditory commands, vibrations, and self-driving capabilities. Considering that self-driving cars may soon be in our future, this may not be as far-fetched as one thinks. Visually impaired people now must rely upon expensive personal drivers, family, friends, or public transportation to simply travel to learn, work, or play. Controlling one’s own transport needs will be a significant change.

Stair-climbing wheelchair

This wheelchair which is currently available to some, relies upon self-balancing technology which enables a person with disabilities to move up and down stairs without leaving the chair. It is immediately obvious that this device eliminates a major roadblock requiring assistance from another.

Conclusion

There is a long way to go before every person with disabilities can experience comparable access to daily life that others enjoy and often take for granted. Unfortunately, simply building it does not assure that assistive technology is made available, financed, and supported. But the technology that excites and inspires, may in the end be the key to unlocking our potential and breaking down barriers.

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