Assistive Technology (AT) is a generic term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices and the process used in selecting, locating, and using them. AT promotes greater independence for people with disabilities by enabling them to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing enhancements to or changed methods of interacting with the technology needed to accomplish such tasks. According to disability advocates, technology is often created without regard to people with disabilities, creating unnecessary barriers to hundreds of millions of people.
Universal (or broadened) accessibility, or universal design means excellent usability, particularly for people with disabilities. But, argue advocates of assistive technology, universally accessible technology yields great rewards to the typical user; good accessible design is universal design, they say. The classic example of an assistive technology that has improved everyone's life is the "curb cuts" (or dropped curbs)in the sidewalk at street crossings. While these curb cuts surely enable pedestrians with mobility impairments to cross the street, these also aid parents with carriages and strollers, shoppers with carts, and travellers and workers with pull-type bags, not to mention skateboarders and inline skaters.
Consider an example of an assistive technology. The modern telephone is not accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Combined with a text telephone (also known as a TDD [Telephone Device for the Deaf] and in the USA generally called a TTY[TeleTYpewriter]), which converts typed characters into tones that may be sent over the telephone line, a deaf person is able to communicate immediately at a distance. Together with "relay" services (where an operator reads what the deaf person types and types what a hearing person says) the deaf person is then given access to everyone's telephone, not just those of people who possess text telephones. Many telephones now have volume controls, which are primarily intended for the benefit of people who are hard of hearing, but can be useful for all users at times and places where there is significant background noise. Some have larger keys well-spaced to facilitate accurate dialling.
Another example: calculators are cheap, but a person with a mobility impairment can have difficulty using them. Speech recognition software could recognize short commands and make use of calculators a little easier. People with cognitive disabilities would appreciate the simplicity; others would as well.
Toys which have been adapted to be used by children with disabilities, may have advantages for "typical" children as well. The Lekotek movement assists parents by lending assistive technology toys and expertise to families.
Telecare is a particular sort of assistive technology that uses electronic sensors connected to an alarm system to help caregivers manage risk and help vulnerable people stay independent at home longer. A good example would be the systems being put in place for senior people such as fall detectors, thermometers (for hypothermia risk), flooding and unlit gas sensors (for people with mild dementia). The principle being that these alerts can be customised to the particular person's risks. When the alert is triggered, a message is sent to a carer or contact centre who can respond appropriately. The range of sensors is wide and expanding rapidly.
Technology similar to Telecare can also be used to act within a person's home rather than just to respond to a detected crisis. Using one of the examples above, unlit gas sensors for people with dementia can be used to trigger a device that turns off the gas and tells someone what has happened. This is safer than just telling an external person that there is a problem.
Designing for people with dementia is a good example of how the design of the interface of a piece of AT is critical to its usefulness. People with dementia or any other identified user group must be involved in the design process to make sure that the design is accessible and usable. In the example above, a voice message could be used to remind the person with dementia to turn off the gas himself, but whose voice should be used, and what should the message say? Questions like these must be answered through user consultation, involvement and evaluation.
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