assistive technology (adaptive technology)

What is assistive technology (adaptive technology)?

Assistive technology is a set of devices intended to help people who have disabilities. Many assistive devices are built using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including real-time speech-to-text transcription and visual recognition tools.

Assistive technology devices may include things like hearing aids, screen magnifiers, large-key keyboards, alternative input devices such as touchscreen displays, oversize trackballs on computer mice, speech recognition and text readers.

The United States Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines assistive technology -- also called adaptive technology -- as any "product, device or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

Assistive technology devices and use

Assistive technology devices give people with disabilities the ability to interact with the outside world. These devices function as a persons' eyes, ears or voice. Without them, many people would be unable to work, lead independent lives or communicate with other people.

A number of assistive technology devices make use of eye gaze trackers. Eye gaze tracking helps people with physical impairments move a mouse on a computer screen or point to words and phrases on a communication board.

There is a range of assistive technology devices to help people who have hearing loss. Hearing aids can help people who are hard of hearing, but for those with greater degrees of hearing loss, cochlear implants can restore some degree of hearing. These implanted devices bypass some of the anatomical structures involved in hearing and create a kind of electronic hearing.

Speech-generating devices help people who have communication difficulties interact with other people more easily. These communication aids allow a user to input a word or phrase that is verbalized electronically.

These are just a few examples of assistive technology devices. Others range from robotic vacuum cleaners to robotic exoskeletons that enable paralyzed individuals to move around. The specific features and functionalities of devices are typically tailored to the specific needs of their users and, thus, are incredibly diverse.

Technology providers are looking at ways AI technologies can help more people with disabilities. In 2018, Microsoft launched the AI for Accessibility program to put artificial intelligence tools in the hands of developers to speed the creation of intelligent AI devices that can benefit people with disabilities.

Legislation and regulations for assistive technology

The first law governing the provisioning of assistive technology devices to children in school was the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, it was reauthorized and updated in 1990. Law, as it pertains to assistive technology, requires that children who have individualized education programs be given accommodations by their school. Typically, this requires some type of assistive device.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make jobs available to anyone capable of performing the core responsibilities of a job and to make reasonable accommodations to those who have disabilities. These accommodations may include assistive technology devices like refreshable Braille displays, screen magnification software and amplified telephone equipment.

This was last updated in March 2023

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