Academic journal article The Future of Children

Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Disability

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Disability

Article excerpt

Technology has long been recognized as a potential way to help ensure that children with disabilities will have optimal opportunity for a long, healthy, and socially engaged life. Traditionally, technology and other interventions designed for children with disabilities were focused on strategies aimed at correcting a child's specific impairment or deficit. New scholarship and decades of disability advocacy have expanded this purview to include a wide variety of environmental and societal factors that are now recognized to be essential in optimizing health, development, and social engagement for children with disabilities. This more comprehensive understanding emphasizes the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and the technological and social forces that can reshape it.

Today the prevention and treatment of disability in childhood are being recast by unprecedented technological innovation. In essence, the nature and cadence of this innovation are transforming the prevalence and functional impact of child disability, the scale of social disparities in child disability, and perhaps the essential meaning of disability in an increasingly technology-dominated world. This article investigates several specific facets of this transformation: the influence of technological change on the definition of disability, the impact of preventive and therapeutic interventions on disabilities in childhood, and the ability of the current delivery system to afford access to emerging technologies designed to prevent and reduce the impact of disabling conditions in children. The article also discusses the interaction of technical innovation and the social determinants of health in shaping patterns of childhood disability as well as the interaction between the diffusion of science and technology design and disparities in child health. Understanding these issues and interactions is helpful in designing the health care delivery systems, programs, and public policies that will ultimately prove most effective in addressing childhood disabilities in the years to come.

Defining Disability and Assistive Technology

The definition of technology used in this discussion is comprehensive in nature and refers to the application of scientific knowledge for practical, applied purposes, here directed toward improving health and well-being. The definition of disability has undergone dramatic evolution over the years, conforming to evolving analytical frameworks and societal perceptions. For the purposes of this discussion, I use the definition of disability proposed by Neal Halfon and his colleagues in their article in this volume:

   A disability is an environmentally contextualized
   health-related limitation in
   a child's existing or emergent capacity
   to perform developmentally appropriate
   activities and participate, as desired, in
   society. (1)

In relation to this definition, technology can refer to both preventive and therapeutic interventions and can take on a variety of forms, including vaccines, other pharmaceuticals, engineering, or alterations to the physical or social environment. A primary objective is the maximization of a child's ability to function independently, which is in many ways determined by the ability to perform essential daily tasks, including those involving hygiene, mobility, and social interaction. (2) Another central objective is the minimization of the impact that the child's disability has on caregivers, both in their provision of direct assistance and more generally as part of day-to-day family life. (3)

A careful examination of the relationship between disability and technology, however, raises important questions related to the definition and societal meaning of disability in the face of rapidly changing technological capabilities. First, a changing technological environment can dramatically alter the functional impact of any given disability. …

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