What Is Assistive Technology? (Tech Scapes)

By Bodine, Cathy | The Exceptional Parent, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Is Assistive Technology? (Tech Scapes)

Bodine, Cathy, The Exceptional Parent

Tech Scapes is a new column that will be featured on a monthly basis in EP Magazine. Due to ever increasing impact that technology holds for persons with disabilities and their families,

EP will now provide the newest and most important information about assistive technology devices and services to our readers from well known AT specialists and researchers.

While humans have used tools to accomplish everyday tasks in many cultures throughout history, the perception remains that the use of technology as a tool for persons with disabilities is a fairly recent phenomenon. In a book published by James & Thorpe in 1994, called Ancient Inventions, the authors describe any number of assistive devices used as early as the sixth or seventh century B.C. Their descriptions include partial dentures, artificial legs and hands and drinking tubes or straws. The earliest documented account of optical and lens technologies, or eyeglasses, came from Venice around 11300 A.D.. The use of the term Assistive Technology (AT) to describe devices used to facilitate the accomplishment of everyday tasks by persons with disabilities is actually the more recent development.

Easily recognized assistive technology devices include products like walkers, manual wheelchairs, grab bars and other aids for daily living. However, the definition of assistive technology covers a much broader spectrum. Assistive technology includes any item that is used to maintain or improve functional capabilities. It can include items such as jar openers for individuals struggling to remove a lid from a stubborn container; pencil grips; alarm signaling devices; large dialers on the telephone; prompting devices for individuals with memory impairments; screen readers for computers; and environmental control systems that open and close doors and drapes, raise and lower beds, or operate electronic devices. Assistive technology includes both low and high tech solutions.

In 1988, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) was passed. This Federal legislation was designed to enhance the availability and quality of assistive technology devices and services to all individuals and their families throughout the United States. For the first time, a legal definition for assistive technology was available. The Tech Act defined assistive technology as any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. This definition also included a second component defining assistive technology services as any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device. This includes:

1. The evaluation of the needs of an individual with a disability, including a functional evaluation of the individual in their customary environment;

2. Purchasing, leasing or otherwise providing for the acquisition of assistive technology by persons with disabilities;

3. Selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, retaining, repairing or replacing assistive technology devices;

4. Coordinating and using other therapies, interventions or services with assistive technology devices, such as those associated with existing education and rehabilitation plans and programs;

5. Training or technical assistance for the person with a disability or, if appropriate, their family; and

6. Training or technical assistance for professionals (including individuals providing education or rehabilitation services), employers or other individuals who provide services to, employ or are otherwise substantially involved in the major life functions of children with disabilities.

Since then, this definition has been included in other federal legislation authorizing services or supports for persons with disabilities including the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

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