What is assistive technology?

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Technology has come to define the society in which we live. It has moved into every aspect of social, political, economic and cultural life. Technology can be considered as a source of social support with life enhancement opportunities for society at large. Technology is advancing rapidly and as with the rest of society its impact on people with disabilities has been considerable. For most people technology can make life easier, expanding life’s choices and opportunities. For people with disabilities however, technology can change the most ordinary of daily activities from the impossible to the possible. Technology has the potential to truly empower people with disabilities to live the life of their choice. This emancipatory possibility means it is a very exciting time for people with disabilities leading the way towards a new horizon of possibilities.

Assistive technology (AT) is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities. Included in this, is the process of selecting, locating and supporting of AT. AT promotes greater independence by enabling individuals to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing by providing enhancing to or changing methods of interacting with the technology needed to accomplish such tasks.

Appropriate assistive technology assists people with disabilities and older people to overcome or offset at least in part for their limitations. Rehabilitative technology can help restore function in people who have developed a disability due to a disease, injury or ageing. Rehabilitative and assistive technology can enable individuals to participate fully in community life. AT is a term that has come to be generally used to refer to practical tools that can support  functional needs of people who experience difficulties linked to disability or ageing. The most widely used definition today of AT today is probably the definition of Assistive products used by the International standards organisation.

Any product (including devices, equipment, instruments and soft wear) especially produced or generally available, used by or for persons with a disability, for participation, to protect, support, train measure or substitute for body parts /functions and activities or to prevent impairments, activity limitations or participation restrictions.[1]

The definition of AT has three elements. First there is Electronic Assistive Technology (EAT) defined as: “Any electronic product, piece of equipment, system or service whether acquired commercially, modified or customised that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities and which supports independence either for individuals with disabilities or for their carers – whether professional, family or voluntary”.

Second is Information and Communication Technology (ICT) described as, “the computing and communications facilities and features that variously support social inclusion, teaching and learning. ICT includes technologies such as desktop and laptop computers, software, peripherals, connections to the Internet and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aids that are intended to fulfil communications functions and information processing”.

Thirdly is Person Centred Technology (PCT) is defined as including electronic assistive technologies, telecare and telehealth, environmental controls, mobile communication, and other supportive technologies e.g. voice prompts, bath sensors etc.

This definition refers to AT as being for persons with a disability but can be taken to refer to both persons with a disability and to older people or other people with for example chronic conditions who experience challenges even if these challenges are not considered disabling.

Additionally AT will draw attention to the value for money that public expenditure on AT may represent. It’s potential to contribute to cost savings through reduced demand for more expensive services is an issue that is increasingly been recognised internationally. In the current economic climate it is important to take account of the potential for assistive technologies to deliver both substantial value for money for example in terms of gains of in quality adjusted life years and better educational and labour outcomes for users of at  as well as cost savings of other areas of public expenditure the can accrue from spending on assistive technologies.

The outcomes of AT can be measured by way of internationally validated assessment tools across a number of measurables e.g. effectiveness of the solution user satisfaction with the technology and services, impact on the quality of life and social costs. Outcomes become a trade-off between resource efficiency and quality of life over the life course versus the cost of long term care. Costs should be considered in terms of investor save as cost savings are generated by freeing up staff, parents and other resources. Parents for example could be able to take up employment and staff could be redeployed to other duties.



[1]ISO 9999:2011. Assistive Products for Persons with Disability, Classification and Terminology available from: https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9999:ed-5:v1:en


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