Assistive Technology

Last summer I was thrust into the world of assistive technology. I was a mentor to an incoming master’s student who is blind who uses and inquired about assistive technology. I had no clue what her options were or what resources would best benefit her.

My knowledge of AT was slim to none. I had heard about people who were nonverbal using it to communicate with others but never considered the other types of AT out there.

What I quickly learned was AT doesn’t have to be innovative computer activated technology – it can be anything that helps improve the functional capabilities of those who have disabilities. AT can be as low-tech as a wheelchair, or as high-tech as a specialized computer system. It can be a prosthetic limb, a walker, or a communication device. We have encountered many forms of AT and just didn’t know it was called AT.

Aside from the more familiar types of AT like wheelchairs, the more advanced type of software used is what I was largely clueless about.

For my mentee, she utilized audio books and e-readers, and text-to-speech options on her computer so she could read for class. However, some old texts like Beowulf posed some issues. There were no audio versions for her to listen to in the old English style for her. There was an option for her to read using Braille, however, she was not as familiar with Braille and it slowed down her reading tremendously.

Braille in and of itself is a form of AT, but for the purpose of this class, she wouldn’t have been able to hear the way the words would have been pronounced had she been able to listen to it. The argument could be made that the students who are not blind also wouldn’t have been able to hear the pronunciation either, however, perhaps seeing the words spelled out using the alphabet made a difference or perhaps their books had notes about the pronunciations that the Braille copy didn’t. This is all just speculation but it shows the importance of AT and literature coming together to create a more functional resource for people who are blind.

Another argument could be made that people who are blind should not rely so much on the more high-tech versions of AT and perhaps familiarizing themselves with Braille would be useful. But this begs the question that if people who are not blind or who do not have a disability in general are allowed to adapt our ways of living and learning new and improved technology, then why not a blind person or a person with any disability?

If we have the means to produce better quality AT that is more functional, then why not? It also shows that we need students to care more about the humanities. It seems a bit paradoxical that to care about subjects that tend to get pushed to the wayside like literature and history, in favor of more technological fields like computer science and engineering are exactly what is hindering people with disabilities, like blindness, from being able to study older, historical phenomena. But I digress…

Basically, we need to meet in the middle to move forward with different types of AT. A balance of older more functional and accessible types of AT but begin integrating and making newer types AT accessible. And we need more engineers to start realizing the importance of AT. Making it known that there is a wide market for AT and being persistent is the best way to get people to pay attention to those needs.