December 17, 2016

by Loreta Boskovic, Communication Specialist

“What sort of life would it be like in social terms if our whole life is built around computers? Will we become a computer-dependent society?”

– “In some ways, but they also enrich our society because it’ll make it possible to live anywhere we like…”

– From the introductory credits to “Steve Jobs” (2015), about the co-founder of Apple, Inc.

Assistive technology [AT] is revolutionizing the way our children experiencing disability are making their way through the world. Yet like the father in the scene above, it’s challenging to imagine the realm of possibilities that await our children – and our children’s children – thanks to advances in computer technology.

After all, consider that only 6 years ago, the first iPad was released to the public. Now this technology has made its way into classrooms, tallies your order at the coffeeshop, and does everything but vacuum your living room floor. Thanks to this portable device, there are an ever-increasing set of communication apps for non- and low-speaking people; ASL apps to facilitate sign language; and apps to help people with visual impairments see. 3D printing, eye tracking software, driverless cars… AT is truly revolutionary and one of the strongest proponents of offering equitable access to the community for people experiencing disability.

So why does it seem so special?

A number of years ago at a training, a FACT staff person was talking with a parent who shared how her 70 year-old father told her she should be focusing her attention on teaching her young son to write. “How’s he ever going to have a job if he can’t use a pen?” Try as she might, she couldn’t convince her father that this reliance on manual dexterity was not a dealbreaker anymore (and an hour spent in any high school study hall would quickly showcase how easily young people communicate using only their thumbs). AT could make communication possible for her child – it was just going to look different. (If you need another example of overcoming the seemingly impossible, check out this video of Nick, a young entrepreneur who owns his own lawn care business. The  part showing his adaptive van is worth its weight in gold.)

AT is often perceived as complicated, high-priced technology, programs, or gear that is specially designed for and used by people with disabilities. Yet as disability advocate Kathie Snow often shares in her presentations, many of us rely on AT, and don’t realize it. Consider its definition from the IDEA, Sec. 602(1):

The term `assistive technology device’ 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 functional capabilities of a child with a disability.

So the glasses your 4th grader wears; the crutches your friend had to use after a bad fall; the motorized shopping cart your mom relies on at the store; the large print mystery books you enjoy reading – these are all AT.

If we can get over the idea that AT is only a special service supporting certain students, it will broaden its accessibility considerably. Instead, let’s regard it as anything that helps any person experiencing disability see, hear, communicate, play, read, write, work with numbers, use a computer, or be mobile. Through this lens, the possibilities are endless.

FACT worked with Oregon Department of Education to create a video that showcases the ways AT can benefit a student, ranging from low- to high-tech strategies. Take a look and tell us what you think in the comments below!

Screen shot for Assistive Technology: Creating Opportunities video