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What is Assistive Technology?

Four major concepts related to assistive technology (AT) and the delivery of AT services are presented.

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Content:The Impact of Environmental Demands

People with disabilities often experience difficulties coping with the demands that are placed upon them from the environment. For example, people with severe visual impairments may encounter problems in traveling from place to place. Those with hearing losses may have difficulty understanding information presented on television. Children with severe speech impairments may have difficulty communicating with others in school. Others with physical disabilities may be unable to control common appliances in their environment. Adults with severe learning disabilities may not be able to read printed materials required for them to perform their jobs.

It is possible to use a variety of devices and services to respond to needs such as the ones just described. Some devices help people with disabilities perform a given task. These often are called assistive devices. For example, a lap board with pictures on it may assist a person who cannot talk to communicate. Other devices change the environment or help the person to modify the environment. These are called adaptive devices. A switch that would allow control of different appliances from a wheelchair would be an example of an adaptive device. Another adaptive device is a ramp that could be used in place of steps for someone in a wheelchair.

The terms, assistive device and adaptive device, are frequently used as a single phrase when discussing the general topic. In reality, many people use them interchangeably. The evolving trend is to use the term, assistive technology, to encompass both types of devices, plus services associated with their use.

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The Federal Definition-with Embellishments

The potentWednesday, August 16, 2006f PL 100-407, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act. The definition of assistive technology that was included in PL 100-407 was modified slightly in the federal regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PL 101-476) to make the definition more applicable to children with disabilities:

Assistive technology means any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.

       -- (Federal Register, August 19, 1991, p. 41272)

The federal regulations went on to state that an array of services also is included when considering applications of assistive technology. Such services include activities such as evaluation of a person's needs for assistive technology devices, purchasing or leasing assistive technology devices for people, designing and fabricating devices, coordinating services offered by those who provide assistive technology services, providing training or technical assistance to a person who uses assistive technology, and training and technical assistance to those who work with people who use assistive technology devices, such as teachers or employers.

To elaborate further on the definition:

Assistive technologies include mechanical, electronic, and microprocessor-based equipment, non-mechanical and non-electronic aids, specialized instructional materials, services, and strategies that people with disabilities can use either to (a) assist them in learning, (b) make the environment more accessible, (c) enable them to compete in the workplace, (d) enhance their independence, or (e) otherwise improve their quality of life. These may include commercially available or "home made" devices that are specially designed to meet the idiosyncratic needs of a particular individual.

       -- (Blackhurst & Lahm, 2000, p. 7)

The functional model that is being used to guide many of the National Assistive Technology? Research Institute activities addresses a number of areas of human function that people need to be able to perform in order to respond successfully to demands placed upon them from the environment. Assistive technology devices and services can be used to enhance those functions. A full description of the functional model can be accessed from the article,called A Functional Approach to the Delivery of Assistive Technology Services, on the Assistive Technology Fundamentals Menu. When you review that information, note how the functional model relates to the definition of assistive technology provided in the federal regulations cited above, which specifically addresses the improvement of functional capabilities.

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The Assistive Technology Continuum

When many people think of assistive technology, they think primarily about computers or sophisticated electronic devices. However, It is important to realize that assistive technology applications can be viewed as a continuum that ranges from "high-tech" to "no-tech".

High Tech

High-tech devices incorporate sophisticated electronics or computers.

Medium Tech

Medium-tech devices are relatively complicated mechanical devices, such as wheelchairs.

Low Tech

Low-tech items are less sophisticated and can include devices such as adapted spoon handles, non-tipping drinking cups, and Velcro fasteners.

No Tech

No-tech solutions are those that make use of procedures, services, and existing conditions in the environment that do not involve the use of devices or equipment. These might include services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy or the services of other specialists.

An Example of Applying the Technology Continuum

In making decisions about the type of technology tools a particular person might require, a good approach is to start with the no-tech solutions and then work up the continuum, as needed. For example, in teaching a student with one arm to use a mixing bowl to prepare ingredients for cooking, it might be better for a home economics teacher to teach that student how to wedge the bowl into a drawer and hold it with a hip while stirring, rather than request the purchase of an expensive medium-tech electric mixer that is equipped to stabilize the mixing bowl while it is being operated.

Too often, when making technology decisions, there is a tendency to start at the upper end of the technology continuum when, in fact, it is better to start at a lower point. For example, when making decisions about a person whose handwriting is difficult to recognize, it is not uncommon to hear recommendations that a laptop computer should be provided that can be taken to various environments in which written products are required (cost: $1,000 - $4,500). In reality, an electronic keyboard with memory that can be downloaded into a desktop computer later in the day may be more appropriate (cost: less than $250). Although the student in this example may eventually require a laptop computer, the electronic keyboard may be a better place to start.

Additional information about assistive technologies, including devices and services that they encompass is provided by Blackhurst and Lahm (2000).

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The Importance of Assistive Technology

One of the greatest potentials for the use of technology is in the education of children with disabilities. In one of the first published reports on the implications of technology in special education, Blackhurst (1965) speculated about ways that a variety of technological devices could be developed to enhance the learning and independence of students with a variety of disabilities. Devices such as computer assisted instruction, adjustable electronic magnification of text, touch sensitive response pads, specialized switches, and auditory displays were envisioned, among others.

Within the ensuing 15 years, many of those devices (and others) were developed, thus confirming those earlier speculations. As noted in their review of the history and status of technology, Blackhurst and Hofmeister (1980) concluded that applications of technology could have significant implications for special education. The early work in technology, particularly after the invention of the personal computer, often focused more directly on equipment and devices that were available and training programs concentrated primarily on how to operate them. Often, the emphasis was on computer programming and other technical considerations rather than on the best ways to integrate those devices into the lives of people with disabilities. Fortunately, this trend is changing.

The functional model, mentioned earlier, helps to place assistive technology into its proper perspective (i.e., as an external support) that can be used to enhance the person's ability to function within the environment. While ability to use a technology device is still important, primary emphasis should be placed on arranging circumstances to enable the device to be used in the most effective and efficient manner.

Although the focus of technology applications appears to be changing, one thing seems clear: Most researchers and other authorities who are knowledgeable about technology (e.g., Behrmann, 1984, 1988; Blackhurst & Edyburn, 2000; Bowe, 1984; Church & Bender, 1989; Goldenberg, Russell, & Carter, 1984; Johnson, 1987; Lewis, 1993; Lindsey, 2000; Male, 1994) have concluded that technology has the potential for dramatically improving the quality of education and the quality of life for people with disabilities.

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Behrmann, M. (1984). Handbook of microcomputers in special education. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

Behrmann, M. (1988). Integrating computers into the curriculum: A handbook for special educators. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

Blackhurst, A. E. (1965). Technology in special education - some implications. Exceptional Children, 31, 449-456.

Blackhurst, A. E., & Edyburn, D. L. (2000). A brief history of special education technology. Special Education Technology Practice, 2(1), 21-35.

Blackhurst, A. E. & Hofmeister, A. M. (1980). Technology in special education. In L. Mann & D. Sabatino (Eds.). Fourth review of special education (pp. 199-228). New York: Grune and Stratton.

Blackhurst, A. E. & Lahm, E. A. (2000). Foundations of technology and exceptionality. In J. Lindsey (Ed.) Technology and Exceptional Individuals (3rd ed, pp. 3 - 45). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Bowe, F. G. (1984). Personal computers and special needs. Berkeley, CA: Sybex.

Church, G., & Bender, M. (1989). Teaching with computers: A curriculum for special educators. Boston, MA: College Hill Press.

Goldenberg, E. P., Russell, S. J., & Carter, D. J. (1984). Computers, education and special needs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Johnson, D. L. (1987). Computers in the special education classroom. New York, NY: CBS College Publishing.

Lewis, R. B. (1993). Special education technology. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooke Cole Publishers.

Lindsey, J. (Ed.) (2000). Technology and exceptional individuals (3rd ed). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Male, M. (1994). Technology for inclusion: Meeting the special needs of all students (2nd Ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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What is Assistive Technology? (© 2001) was prepared for the National Assistive Technology Research Institute by A. Edward Blackhurst, Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling, University of Kentucky. It may be duplicated and circulated for non-commercial purposes, provided this credit is included.

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