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What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as talking with friends, going to school and work or participating in recreational activities is a challenge. Assistive technology (AT) devices are tools to help to overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance their quality of life and lead more independent lives.

Assistive technology can be anything from a simple (low-tech) device such as a magnifying glass to a complex (high-tech) device, such as a computerized communication system. It can be big—an automated van lift for a wheelchair—or small—a grip attached to a pen or fork by Velcro. Assistive technology can also be a substitute—such as an augmentative communication device that provides vocal output for a child who cannot communicate with her voice.

Meeting Challenges with Assistive Technology

Assistive technology helps to level the playing field for individuals with disabilities by providing them a way to fully engage in life's activities. An individual may use assistive technology to travel about, participate in recreational and social activities, learn, work, communicate with others and much more.

Here are several examples of AT that enable people with disabilities to enter into the community and interact with others.

  • For greater independence of mobility and travel, people with physical disabilities may use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers. Adapted car seats and vehicle wheelchair restraints promote safe travel.
  • Handheld GPS (global positioning system) devices help persons with visual impairments navigate busy city streets and use public transportation.
  • Building modifications at work sites, such as ramps, automatic door openers, grab bars and wider doorways mean fewer barriers to employment, businesses and community spaces such as libraries, churches, and shopping malls.
  • Special computer software and hardware such as voice recognition programs and screen enlargement programs enable persons with mobility and sensory impairments to carry out educational or work-related tasks.
  • Education and work aids such as automatic page turners, book holders and adapted pencil grips enable children to participate in classroom activities.
  • Bowling balls with hand-grips and one-handed fishing reels are a few examples of how technology can be adapted for sporting activities. Light-weight wheelchairs have been designed for organized sports such as basketball, tennis and racing.
  • Adaptive switches make it possible for a child with limited motor skills to play with toys and games.
  • Accessibly designed movie theaters provide closed captioning and audio description for moviegoers with hearing and visual difficulties.
  • Devices to assist a person with daily living tasks, such as cooking, dressing and grooming are available for people with special needs. For example, a medication dispenser with an alarm can be set to remind a child to take daily medication. A person with use of only one hand can use a one-handed cutting board and a cabinet-mounted can opener to cook meals with improved independence and safety.

Choosing the Right Assistive Technology Device(s)

To determine your assistive technology needs, an AT assessment should be conducted. The assessment can be conducted by the school, an independent agency or an individual consultant. This assessment should take place in your customary environments—home, school and community.

The end result of an assessment is a recommendation for specific devices and services. Once it is agreed that assistive technology would benefit you, issues related to design and selection of the device as well as maintenance, repair and replacement of devices should be considered. Training (to use the device) and ongoing technical assistance are necessary not only for you but also for family members, teachers, service providers and other people who are significantly involved in your life. It is also important to integrate and coordinate any assistive technology with therapies, interventions or services provided by education and rehabilitation plans and programs.

Acquiring assistive technology does not just happen once in a lifetime. The type of devices you need may change depending on the age, abilities, physical status and features of the immediate environment. Remember to specify AT assessments, devices and services in your IEP so that the school is responsible for providing them.

Learning More about Assistive Technology

A good place to start is often with speech-language therapists, occupational therapists and school professionals. There are many organizations that provide AT information and training to consumers and families such as parent training and Information centers (PTIs), community technology centers, state assistive technology programs and rehabilitation centers. If possible you should visit an AT center to see and try out various devices and equipment. Some AT centers offer lending programs that allow families to borrow devices for a trial period.

(Adapted from Assistive Technology 101, The Family Center on Technology and Disability, www.FCTD.info)

The Assistive Technology Program for the District of Columbia (ATPDC) is a citywide program that helps all Washingtonians with disabilities and their families get the appropriate assistive technology devices and services to live independently. The ATPDC's services include an assistive technology resource center, AT device loan program, disability equipment recycling program and technical assistance and training. ATPDC serves all District of Columbia residents regardless of age, disability or income and most services are provided at no cost.

    For more information, please contact:
    Alicia C. Johns, Program Manager
    University Legal Services
    220 I Street, NE, Suite 130
    Washington, DC 20002
    E-mail: ajohns@uls-dc.org
    Phone: (202) 547-0198
    Fax: (202) 547-2662
    Toll-free: (877) 221-4638
    TTY: (202) 547-2657

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