Class Notes - Disabilities and Assistive Technologies



As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA), 1990, a disability is:

"Having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual, having record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment."

It is estimated that ten out of every one hundred people has a disability. In the United States alone more than 68 million people have a disability that affects their daily lives. That is almost 26% of the total population. Until recently persons with disabilities faced many handicaps that prevented them from being active members in society. Before we continue let us distinguish the difference between a disability and a handicap. A disability refers more to the actual physical condition that interferes with an individual's ability to perform activities. A handicap, is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Disabling conditions include:

For many years and still to this day those with disabilities are discriminated against not given the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. On July 26,1990 the United States Government, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, into law. The purpose of the act is to:

Provide a clear, comprehensive, national policy to end discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Provide enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Ensure that the federal government plays a central role in enforcing these standards on behalf of individuals with disabilities.

The ADA has made provisions to allow the disabled an equal opportunity for employment by prohibiting discrimination by employers in any respect, because of a person's disability. The ADA has also given disabled persons access to all state and local government programs, services, and activities. Some of which include the right to public transportation, accommodations, telecommunications, fair housing, air travel, and education.

However, as we approach the 21st century yet another barrier exists for the disabled. Within the last two decades, our society has become "information" dependant. Increasingly we find ourselves becoming more and more dependant on computers just to get through our everyday lives. Thus the need for assistive technology for the disabled, has been a field of great growth and concern as technology rapidly changes everyday. Fantastic new innovations in both hardware and software have been and are continuously being developed to assist the disabled so that they might also benefit from the many resources that are only available via computers. First let us take a look at what assistive technology is.

Assistive Technology

Broadly defined, assistive technology includes any device or piece of equipment that increases the independence of a disabled person.

Assistive technology can be broken down into the following categories:

Adaptive Toys/Games Augmentative Communication Cognitive Aids Computer Access Environmental Controls Home Modifications Learning Technologies Mobility Positioning & Seating Prosthetics/Orthotics Recreation/Sports Robotics Self-Care Sensory Aids Telecommunication Transportation Work site Modifications

Assistive technology has greatly increased the ability of the disabled to lead more independent lives. Computer-based environmental control units allow disabled users to turn on lights and appliances and open doors from a wheel chair. Augmentative communication devices allow those who cannot speak, to communicate their thoughts and needs through touch or light activated keyboards tied into synthetic speech systems. There are screen reading programs for the blind, screen magnification systems for those with low vision, and even eye-gaze systems, that allow the disabled to gain access to computers. For the purposes of this paper we will focus mainly on computer related assistive technology.

Problem areas for the Disabled in Computer Access

In order to provide computer access to the disabled modifications and/or alternatives to standard computer hardware and software are often necessary. Standard personal computers can present barriers to certain disabled users. Here are some common access problems:

Diskettes - Handling diskettes is impossible for some users due to disabilities that limit the use of their hands. Power Switch - Those with impaired mobility may not be able to turn the computer on and off if the power switch is located to the rear of the computer, which is sometimes the case. Keyboard - The standard keyboard on most personal computers is often a barrier to people with impaired mobility or motor skills. Many disabled users either do not have the strength to press the keys on a keyboard or make frequent typing errors by pressing the wrong key. Mouse - Successful use of a mouse requires sufficient vision, fine motor control, and strength to drag and click the mouse. These requirements make it difficult for those with impaired vision, mobility, or motor control to use a mouse. Monitor - The screen display is not accessible to blind users or those with limited vision without screen magnification or text-to-speech conversion software.

Current Technologies

Since the beginning of time, humans have sought ways of using technology to better themselves.  From the invention of the plow in farming to the invention of the printing press for books, we are constantly adapting new ideas into our everyday lives.  The turn of the 21st century is no exception when it comes to technology.  We have ATM bank machines, cellular phones and non stop shopping channels that sell goods twenty four hours a day, all in the name of making life easier.  Today, we have many creature comforts like remote controls, answering machines and microwave ovens.  However, not all technology is used for comfort alone, some even has practical or even necessary usage.  Consider eye glasses or contact lenses, hearing aids, pace makers or prosthetics.  Items like these have become so common that most people do not even notice when someone is using them.  Imagine then, if it were possible to extend the use of computers to help a whole range of people who are often thought of as being helpless, so that they could function just like everyone else.  This is the goal of adaptive technologies.  The aim is to use technology to our advantage by extending or aiding a person's current abilities.  For those with disabilities, this could be the difference between dependence and independence.  What is adaptive technology?  Well, loosely defined, it is a generic term including assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices and the process used in selecting, locating and using them. Assistive technologies include:

mechanical, electronic, and microprocessor based equipment: This includes microcomputers, electronic communication devices and other sophisticated devices. non-mechanical and non-electronic aids: For example, a ramp to replace steps would fit in this category.
specialized instructional materials, services and strategies: Large print for persons with visual impairments is one example of specialized instructional material.

Computers have made much of the work that people do easier and less time-consuming, and adaptive technology offers people with disabilities the opportunity--not just to use computers--but to use computers to complete tasks that were previously not possible for them. For example, a computer and a screen reader can give a blind person access to on-line books and journals. A computer, scanner, and a screen reader provides a way for a blind person to read a printed book.  The ability to use computers, software and adaptive technology gives people with disabilities the tools to go to school and hold jobs.  This is a brief overview of adaptive computing technology and how it can help people with disabilities participate in our society.

Examples of Existing Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology Hardware


Whether through birth, accident, or disease, one may become stricken by any of a number of debilitating ailments. It may not be clear how our lives would be affected if we were to lose a sense, or muscle control, or to suffer from a mental deficiency until it actually happens to us. For most of us, this will never happen, but many people do suffer from a disability or otherwise know someone who does. These people may suffer from difficulties in their day to day lives, but they may also be the victims of social and job discrimination. To mitigate discrimination the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act which prevents discrimination against people where reasonable means exist that would let them participate in the institutions that others utilize. Luckily, the twentieth century has provided for a number of technologies to help people with disabilities achieve independence, acceptance, and the capacity to work, travel, access information, and accomplish the tasks the rest of us take for granted.

Some obvious technologies include walkers and wheelchairs, but with the advent of the information age, the use of computers necessitate a whole new brand of assistive technologies. Voice-to-speech, magnification, and voice recognition programs, and hardware such as braille embossers and orally fitted control devices represent a beginning of such technologies for the modern environment. The future however requires constant attention to an often overlooked people and their particular needs. With human advancement people who were once excluded from society are now empowered, and the future promises continued improvements and independence in the lives of the disabled.

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Last updated 98/02/06
© Leonard Pham, Scott Hampton, Sangwon Lee, Joshua Kneas, 1997. Edited and maintained by J.A.N. Lee