The world is moving towards inclusivity, be it including historically marginalized groups or adapting the world to the needs of people with health conditions or impairments. Humanity has tried to make the world accessible since the dawn of technology, starting in the early 1800s with the development of Braille, a universal reading and writing system for blind and partially sighted individuals. Since then, researchers have made enormous strides toward tech-forward assistive technology.
Perhaps we’ll reach a point where buildings are equally accessible to everyone, schools cater to individuals with learning differences, and jobs won’t discriminate between candidates based on their apparent limitations. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where disabled children will be assisted and taught how to become as independent as possible instead of being bullied and cast aside. Can you imagine a world where adults with disabilities are offered resources they can afford and treated as equals instead of infantilized?
For that purpose, technology has made its mission to carve out a place for everyone, without exception. We need to establish the slight difference between assistive technology and adaptive technology. The former refers to any technology increasing or maintaining the capabilities of people with disabilities; it adapts the individual to the world (e.g., non-skid dinnerware). In contrast, the latter refers to any technology specifically designed to increase and maintain the capabilities of people with disabilities and seldom used by individuals with no disabilities; it adapts the world to the individual.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)
Life comes at us in unpredictable ways. One day you are going about your day as usual; the next, you are faced with your mortality and the fragility of the human body. And despite their robust nature, our skulls cannot mitigate all the damage that could happen in unfortunate situations. Under such circumstances, the brain will never be the same. Technology, for its part, is trying to find ways to help patients recover swifter. Although VR and AR are frequently employed for mundane activities like video games or virtual meetings, academics have looked at their potential use in rehabilitation programs. In fact, VR has been widely used to successfully overcome neurological conditions such as neurodevelopmental abnormalities and neurodegenerative diseases.
The Cochlear Implant
1964 witnessed the invention and the consequent implantation of the first cochlear implant. They are electronic devices that improve hearing in individuals dealing with severe hearing loss due to inner-ear damage but cannot wear a hearing aid. The main difference between a hearing aid and a cochlear implant is that the former amplifies sound while the latter bypasses the damaged parts of the ear and delivers sound signals to the auditory nerve.
Talking Word Processing Software
Not all disabilities are visible; some are invisible such as various learning disabilities. As a result, they are often mistaken for laziness or a lack of willingness to learn on the student’s part. Furthermore, not all learning disabilities are the same. Some require more accessibility than others. However, students with writing disabilities unanimously agree that word processing software, such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs, enhanced their academic outcomes. Using talking word processors helps students write better by providing audio feedback. While the student types, the device reads out letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, or complete documents. Users can tailor the features to their needs by choosing which text is read from pull-down menus.
Most talking word processors offer additional options like backdrop color, text color, font size, and graphic additions. Students can check the spelling of entire texts or single words by highlighting them in the talking spell-checking feature. Some spell checkers allow students to hear the context of an unfamiliar term and provide alerting noises or visual signals for misspelled words and homonym checks to ensure the use of the correct word form. Some spell checkers allow students to hear an unfamiliar term in context and provide meanings, warning sounds, or visual signals for misspelled words and homonym checks to ensure proper word form. Students can benefit from these features through strong visual and auditory methods.
Mobile Assistive Technology
The mobile is such a small device in comparison to its global impact. In terms of accessibility, it has been a crucial device, especially for the blind and visually impaired population. A phone offers several assistive technologies in a compact package. Screen readers, for example, use a humanoid voice to read aloud the screen’s content. Such software exists on iOS and Android, respectively, as Apple VoiceOver and Android TalkBack.
Furthermore, phones today have voice-activated functions that rely on the human voice to trigger commands. The four major players in this department are Google’s Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. In addition, users can program their cell phones to respond to touchscreen gestures. Independent developers also contribute to the race to make the world more accessible with niche applications. One such app is an AI-based camera application that reads texts and communicates who and what is around the user.
The Hearing Aid
The electronic hearing aid was invented in the 19th century. Since then, it has been on an upward trajectory in terms of evolution. Basic hearing aids are wireless, allowing two devices to operate in tandem as one fully functioning system. In addition, they have many features, including but not limited to a telecoil, FM compatibility, directional microphone systems, and feedback management systems. Nevertheless, the new and advanced hearing aids are spectacular in the new horizons they introduced. Some key features are Bluetooth compatibility connecting them to mobile phones and other devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI) features allowing them to access a deep neural network to process sound, and applications enabling adjustments and battery monitoring.
Chronic diseases are life-altering. And learning how to manage them is a steep learning curve. Some even require the patient to undergo lifelong treatment to manage them. One such illness is diabetes. Depending on the type of diabetes, the patient’s body does not produce insulin (Type 1) or adequately process the insulin it makes (Type 2); both are detrimental to a person’s longevity. Diabetic patients must constantly monitor their glucose levels to correct them in case of an increase or a decrease. The testing is somewhat invasive, including pricking the finger to test the blood. A bionic pancreas, however, does the job on its own in the case of type 1 diabetes. The device comprises three main parts: a continuous glucose monitor (a tiny sensor under the skin), a program that calculates how much insulin is needed, and an insulin infusion pump that delivers the required dose.
Smart Gloves help disabled people lead an everyday life. They communicate with others through hand gestures and facial expressions. Smart gloves ease the burden and frustration of trying and failing to communicate with those around them. It helps convert hand gestures into text and voice. Consequently, people that don’t know sign language understand what is being shared and reply accordingly. This device recognizes and understands every motion of the user using flex sensors and an accelerometer. Based on the gesture, the algorithm converts it into text and sends it to the cloud, creating a database.
Cleaning robots are a prime example of assistive technology. Everyone uses these inventions, but they are beneficial and necessary for people with mobility impairments, as cleaning the home in a wheelchair is complicated and, at times, dangerous for the individual. While these products do not take care of every task, they alleviate chores’ burden. The most common robots are vacuum and floor-mopping robots. Robot vacuums work as advertised. A cat-sized machine that independently moves around the house vacuuming. Some fancier models offer the option of setting a cleaning option. Similarly, floor-mopping robots have a water tank and an attached cloth/pad to scrub the dirt off your floor.
Bionic Prosthetic Devices
Learning to use modern motorized hands is more challenging than traditional prosthetic devices. Traditional prosthetics rely on movement to open and close the arm; the tension on the skin and muscle is noticeable and tells you what the hand is doing. To close the motorized hand, however, the wearer contracts the remaining muscles in their arm. The electrical sensor detects muscle contractions and signals the hand to close. Professionals help retrain the remaining limb muscle to operate the prosthetic. Therefore, learning how to use a prosthetic hand is slightly tricky. In the future, advanced bionic prosthetics might rely on the brains and nerves’ electrical signals.
The device’s engineering makes it simpler to attach and remove the prosthesis. Additionally, it offers a much more comfortable sitting position and enables much more movement. There is undisputed evidence that osseointegrated implants (implants integrated into the bone) connected to bionic limbs greatly enhance mobility.
Wearable Robotic Exoskeletons (WREs)
Wearable Robotic Exoskeletons (WREs) are adaptive technology developed from orthoses ( devices designed to improve biomechanical function, encourage proper joint alignment, or protect an existing limb). They aim for gait reconstruction in patients with spinal cord injuries. Simply put, these inventions are wearable electromechanical devices developed to enhance the physical performance of the wearer or as orthotic devices for gait rehabilitation or locomotion assistance. Think high-tech braces or a primitive Iron Man suit. WREs offer the opportunity to provide acceptable walking performance at home and in community environments by moving powerless SCI legs in a reciprocal stepping pattern and by having a necessary battery capacity. They are also reported to have additional health benefits compared with conventional orthoses as they enable fewer patients ‘gait training, improve pulmonary and bladder function as well as sitting balance, and deliver a high patients’ standing stability.
While the world has made strides into accepting everyone from all walks of life, it still comes up short in certain areas, especially regarding accessibility. Science and technological innovations have enabled disabled people to lead independent lives as best as possible. Over the last century, humanity has witnessed an evolution in assistive and adaptive technologies. And this upward motion is not about to stop anytime soon. Today, technological advancements mirror the preached culture of acceptance in devices that cater solely to communities whose lives are colored by their experience with disability and accessibility. From gloves that interpret sign language to a primitive Iron Man suit, researchers are opening avenues of innovation that bridge the gap between the abled and the disabled communities.