Assistive technology (AT) offers many people with a disability, impairment, or limitation enhanced ability and greater independence.
You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.
There has been a significant increase in recent years in the range and availability of assistive technology at all levels of complexity and covering a broader spectrum of potential users. Now much more commonplace it is used in the home, school, workplace, socially and recreationally, covering all aspects of daily living.
While some assistive technology can be purchased off-the-shelf and needs little or no input from experts, other AT can be much more complex requiring specialist expertise, and possibly bespoke design and/or set-up from a specialist service.
For optimum benefit it is important to match the right technology to the user’s needs; this often requires input from an AT specialist. Advice should be sought from the many services and organisations offering help, who you approach will depend upon disability and level of need.
Use the Professional Services section to get an understanding of the types of services available and any entitlement to an assessment, funding, or free provision of assistive technology.
If you are looking for a better understanding of assistive technology products and what devices are available then look in the AT Products and Suppliers section to identify the most relevant websites to search and products to purchase.
If you want to understand what professions work in the field of assistive technology, what they do, or who to seek for advice then look in section Therapists and Assistive Technology Professionals.
For an understanding of the different categories of assistive technology and terminology used to help with your search for information then look in section Definitions and Categories of AT.
The list below shows the main areas of disability where AT can be of benefit.
Disability and Examples of Assistive Technology
- Blindness and Visual Impairment (VI)
- Braille Technology (electronic refreshable displays, writers, and note takers)
- Audio players and digital books
- Voice recognition and dictation software
- Screen magnifiers
- Deafness and Hearing Impairment (HI)
- Visual alerting system
- Hearing Aids
- Amplified Telephone
- Video voice caption software and text display
- Communication Disorders
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication aids (AAC) e.g.
- picture communication boards and books
- eye gaze board
- Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA) e.g.
- Computer based communication device with dynamic screen
- Text to speech device
- Simple single and multi switch message device
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication aids (AAC) e.g.
- Mobility Impairment
- Wheelchair and Mobility Aids (e.g. walking frame)
- Stair lift
- Vehicle modifications
- Building and architectural accessibility
- Physical Disability and Motor Skills Impairment (including neurological disorders)
- Aids for Daily Living
- Computer Access (switch and alternative computer access)
- Computer and IT accessibility software e.g. Microsoft accessibility settings
- Environmental Control (electronic control of home adaptations)
- Special Seating and Positioning
- Prosthetics and orthotics
- Cognition and Learning Disabilities (including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and age related issues such as dementia and stroke)
- Computer software for learning and recording
- Telecare and home monitoring systems e.g. SOS call alarm
- Electronic pre-recorded voice memory aid (and timed reminders)
Scope of Assistive Technology Products and Devices
Assistive technology can range from simple (low tech) mobility aids and adapted utensils and products to help around the home, such as walking frames and jam jar lid openers, as shown opposite, to more sophisticated and complex (high tech) assistive technology such as that used by Professor Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking is often referred to when describing and explaining assistive technology (as an AT user example). Even though he was profoundly physically disabled as a result of contracting motor neurone disease, assistive technology enables him to continue his world-leading research in cosmology and theoretical physics. He remained active at Cambridge University until his death in 2018 and was known around the world; Stephen travelled for appearances and lectures, communicating using his computerised voice system with the distinctive electronic voice (speech synthesizer) that had become part of his identity - modern speech synthesizers are now much more human sounding and true voice like.
Aside from his medical equipment and care needs that were constantly present, Stephen made use of a range of assistive technologies configured for his specific needs, the main areas are listed below and can be seen from the photos opposite. More details can be found on his official website www.hawking.org.uk
- Powered wheelchair (attendant controlled)
- Adapted road vehicle to accommodate wheelchair
Seating and Positioning
- Contoured seating and pressure management cushions
- Adapted headrest providing position and posture support
Communication Aid and Computer Access
- Computer-based voice output communication aid (VOCA)
- EZ Keys software for text/character entry (scan and select)
- Word prediction software
- Speech synthesizer
- Computer Access
- Windows-based tablet computer combining VOCA and computer access with EZ Keys software for email, internet access, Notepad, Skype etc.
- Mounting system to attach a computer to the wheelchair
- Bespoke single switch system attached to spectacles, using infra-red sensor detecting cheek movements, to enable scan and select computer access
In his later years, the key component that enabled Stephen to access technology and communicate was the infra-red switch that he activated by a small muscle movement in his cheek. The computer automatically scanned rows and columns (e.g. each cell or key of an on-screen keyboard) and when the cell (key/character/word) was reached he would activate the switch to select the cell.
The process of scan and select using a single switch is a very slow process, even when using word prediction it can take about a minute for a single word. Much of Stephen's public speaking and lectures were written beforehand and delivered in sentence chunks by activating the speech synthesizer. Real-time conversations, that are more than brief comments, tended to take time for Stephen to respond.
Details of Stephen Hawking's computer configuration can be found on his official website here.