When I first heard the words “assistive technology,” all I could imagine was something out of science fiction, like a helpful hologram or a robotic backpack. But I’ve since realized that I’ve used assistive technology every day for my whole life, and it doesn’t have to be fancy or futuristic. “Assistive technology” just means “a tool that helps a disabled person accomplish a task.”
That tool can be futuristic and cutting-edge, like software that tracks eye movements on a screen to help people communicate. Or it can be as low-tech as a carved wooden walking cane – something humans have made and used for thousands of years.
What kind of tech we use depends on a lot of things, like what we have access to or what we can afford, what our needs and limitations are, what we’re used to, and what feels best to use. Some tech comes from doctors or disability services, some is available to buy, and some we even make ourselves.
Because of this, people use all sorts of different kinds of assistive tech to accomplish the same task. A nonverbal person might use text-to-speech on a computer in order to communicate. Another nonverbal person might use paper and pencil. When I’m nonverbal, I type or use emojis on my smartphone.
Like phones, many kinds of assistive tech are a visible part of everyday life. If you don’t wear glasses, you probably still know somebody who does, and people wear face masks to protect themselves and others from germs like COVID-19 every day. But there are some kinds of assistive tech you may have never seen or noticed before.
You may not know if you’ve met someone who uses an ostomy bag to help with bladder or bowel problems, because many people wear them under their clothes. Or maybe you’ve never met someone who wears a cannula to help them breathe. Maybe you didn’t notice that a new coworker was wearing hearing aids, or you didn’t realize that your friend used closed captioning until you watched a movie at their house. Look around, and you’ll start to notice that all kinds of people use all kinds of assistive technology every day!
If you’ve never seen a certain kind of assistive technology before, you might be surprised or confused by how it looks, or by how the person uses it. But assistive tech doesn’t have to be scary. It just takes time to learn how it works and how it feels.
For over ten years, I’ve used a cane to help me with balance and pain while I walk. My cane is short, with a curved, soft handle, and we’re best friends. When I’m walking, I know just how to move my body in sync with my cane, and how to tell where to place the foot with each step. When I sit down, I know how to settle the handle on a nearby surface so that my cane doesn’t fall.
But there are other kinds of canes that I don’t know how to use. A blind friend of mine uses a white cane. Unlike my cane, white canes are straight and very long, and don’t bear much weight. My friend knows how to use her cane to understand what the world around her looks like. By moving the tip of the cane over the ground, she can tell if there are things in her way, or whether she’s about to move her wheelchair onto carpet or concrete.
She also knows how to prop her cane up against a wall without it falling down. But even after helping her a few times, I still have no idea how she does it! I’m great at handling my own cane, but it takes more than that to know how to handle someone else’s. Unless she asks me to help her and tells me what to do, I don’t touch my friend’s cane, even if she isn’t using it. I trust her to know how to handle her own assistive tech much better than I do.
You can use these good manners with all sorts of assistive tech. Don’t touch people’s assistive tech – their wheelchairs or walkers, the tablet they use for AAC, their pill container, their stim toys, or any other tool they use – unless they ask you to, and tell you how to handle it. Imagine grabbing someone’s glasses from off their face, or yanking their leg out from under them! Just like you’re the only person who can choose what to do with your body, the person using assistive tech is the only person who can choose what to do with their tech.
It’s also important not to assume that someone uses their assistive tech in a particular way. Making assumptions is an easy way to make something new more familiar to us, but that doesn’t mean our assumptions are right. When it comes to assistive tech, there’s only one assumption that’s always safe to make: the person using it probably knows what they’re doing!
At stores, I use a wheelchair or motorized scooter to get around. Sometimes I stand up with my cane to get something I need. That doesn’t mean I don’t need my wheelchair or scooter. Some people use a wheelchair because they can’t stand, but I use a wheelchair because I can only stand a little. Other people use wheelchairs so they don’t get too tired, or to prevent injuries.
If you aren’t sure why someone is using their assistive tech in a way you don’t expect, take a minute to imagine all the different ways that the same tech might help different people with different needs. Service animals might help a blind person know when to cross a street, but they also might warn their owner if they can smell a seizure coming on. Someone wearing headphones at the movies might be listening to a description of the movie’s visuals, or they might be listening to white noise so they don’t get overwhelmed by the loud sounds.
Plus, assistive technology has nothing to do with diagnosis or identity – it’s all about fulfilling needs. An autistic person and a person with cerebral palsy might use the same AAC software. Or, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as disabled at all might use the same jar opener as someone with arthritis or Parkinson’s. All bodies have different needs and limitations, and assistive tech is here to support them, regardless of why.
This Assistive Technology Awareness Month, let’s challenge one another to explore the possibilities of assistive technology. Think about the assistive tech you use, the tech you’ve seen other people use, and the kinds you want to learn more about. Check online for assistive tech users talking about their experiences, and if you want to, you can talk about your own. The more we know about each other’s assistive tech, the better equipped we are to interact with each other.
You might also consider the tasks in your daily life you wish you had more support for, or that you’ve noticed a friend or family member yearning for: there’s probably assistive tech for that! Over the years, I’ve been able to share all kinds of different tools, from shower stools to blue-light glasses to compression gloves, with friends who needed support, but didn’t know how to get it, or thought they weren’t “disabled enough” to deserve it.
But the beauty of assistive tech is that there are as many tools to help our bodies as there are different kinds of bodies, and no limits on who’s allowed to use it. Indeed, using tools to improve our lives isn’t strange, shameful, or the stuff of science fiction – it’s human nature. This November, share the good news: assistive tech is for every body!
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