Whenever I have the opportunity to speak to a member of the United States Congress, I typically spend my time talking about the importance of assistive technology and current bills that are being discussed in the US Senate and/or House of Representatives. For the Congress member, this is often the first time that they are hearing about assistive technology, and it’s important for them to know how much of an impact that these types of bills can have on their constituents. Here is what I want Congress members to know about assistive technology, from the perspective of a student and young professional in the assistive technology space.
Definition of assistive technology
The Technology-Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) defines an assistive technology device as “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 individuals with disabilities.” The Tech Act also defines an assistive technology service as “any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device.” This definition for assistive technology is used in most bills/laws that relate to assistive technology.
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There are many different types of assistive technology devices
My personal definition for assistive technology is that it is a group of tools that I can use to help me live and work independently, with one of the most important parts of this being information access. Without considerations for assistive technology and accessibility, I would be unable to attend college, access the internet, have meaningful employment, or live on my own. There’s no single piece of assistive technology or accessibility item that makes all of this possible, rather it is a combination of tools that each help me to improve my functional capability as a person with a disability.
Some examples of assistive technology that I use with low vision include:
- No-tech/low-tech items like high contrast labels and magnifying glasses (items that do not require a battery or power source)
- Mid-tech items like scanners and modified keyboards (items that connect to another device)
- High-tech items like computers and tablets (items that require a battery or power source)
Of course, assistive technology extends far beyond the technology that is used for people with vision loss, and there are several different categories and types of assistive technology devices that are used by people with disabilities every day. Many assistive technology devices fit into more than one category and can benefit people in multiple disability areas, and some of the items that I work with that fall into this category include
- No-tech/low-tech items like support chairs, canes, and modified medication bottles that are easy to open/identify
- Mid-tech items like audiobooks, switches for operating items, and large computer monitors
- High-tech items like smart speakers, smartphones with accessibility features, and adjustable beds
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Assistive technology skills don’t develop overnight
While there are assistive technology items that can be used out-of-the-box with no prior training, tools such as screen readers, Braille displays, speech/AAC devices, and screen magnification tools all require users to take the time to learn how to use them. The best way for users to learn how to use these complex tools is by working with an assistive technology specialist, instructor, professional, or vocational rehabilitation program. Funding for assistive technology devices and programs needs to take this into consideration and ensure that people not only have access to the tools that they need, but the training as well. This can include solutions such as funding assistive technology professionals in K-12 and higher education, as well as through state offices for disability (like the Department of the Blind and Visually Impaired in Virginia) and government-funded entities like the Veteran’s Administration.
Many of the costs related to assistive technology are not covered by insurance, so people often must pay out-of-pocket to purchase assistive technology and be trained on how to use it. Luckily, there are programs that can help with getting assistive technology for free or at a reduced cost, though many people are not aware that these exist, and they can vary from state-to-state.
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Not all assistive technology is created equal
The most common blindness cane that is distributed for free is difficult for me to use when navigating uneven terrain or for storing in a classroom. I prefer to use a cane that has a rolling tip (increased feedback) and that can be folded in a backpack, and need to ensure that my cane is the correct length for my height so that I don’t get injured when walking. While a lot of people would say that the free blindness cane is an adequate solution, it’s important to ensure that people have options when choosing assistive technology so that they can find a device or tool that will work best for them, instead of just being handed a device that may not work well for them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for assistive technology, and it’s important to ensure that assistive technology programs that receive state/federal funding provide people the opportunity to find a tool that works best for them.
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There are assistive technology programs that receive federal funding
There are several different assistive technology and accessibility programs across the United States that receive federal funding so that people can access vital information and community services. Some examples of these programs include:
- Bookshare, an accessible library that provides users with access to hundreds of thousands of books in accessible formats
- Accessible Instructional Materials organizations such as AIM-VA that converts textbooks and educational materials into accessible formats for K-12 students in public schools
- iCanConnect is a program with the FCC that provides assistive technology tools to deafblind people who meet income requirements
By fully funding these programs and those like it, users can be empowered with information and resources and be further included in their communities.
- Fast Facts About Bookshare
- US Government Programs For Blind/Low Vision Residents
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- iCanConnect website from FCC
- Assistive Technology Funding Guide from Texas DIRC
The ADA is inclusive of digital spaces, but that doesn’t mean they are accessible already
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (also known as the ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. This applies not only to physical spaces, but digital spaces as well:
- Title II of the ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination on the part of state and local governments, which includes government websites.
- Title III of the ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination for “places of public accommodations”: this includes private businesses that are open to the public such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, museums, and doctor’s offices, and is inclusive of both physical locations as well as their websites.
Just like how there is still progress to be made with implementing the ADA in the physical world, there is still a lot of progress needed for making sure that the ADA is applied to digital spaces as well. As a person with vision loss, it’s frustrating to encounter an inaccessible website for an interesting store or restaurant, and it’s the equivalent of me walking up to a building that has a brick wall in front of it. Some of these “brick walls” can include:
- Images that are posted without alt text or image descriptions, especially images that have menus or event details
- Accessibility overlays that make websites difficult or impossible to access with existing assistive technology devices/skills
- Websites with poor contrast or difficult-to-read fonts
- Websites that cannot be accessed with a screen reader
In addition to issues with accessibility related to vision loss, another major accessibility barrier I have encountered is that many businesses only have phone numbers listed as a contact option, which can be exclusionary for people who have difficulty with speech or hearing on the phone (bonus points for when this is the only option for audiology offices!). I would be interested in seeing more options that extend beyond TTY/TDY for people to communicate nonverbally, such as supporting texting on a phone or having live chat available online.
Improving access to assistive technology can improve access for everyone
While the primary focus of assistive technology should be on people with disabilities, assistive technology can have benefits for people who do not explicitly identify as having a disability as well. This can include:
- Short-term disabilities, such as an injury or illness
- Situational disabilities that impact how someone might access a space, i.e. someone pushing a stroller
- Seniors/people in the aging population
Assistive technology is a lifeline
Assistive technology is literally a lifeline for millions of people, and the devices themselves should not be treated as a frivolous item, a device that helps people to be lazy, or as something that can be broken without consequence.
- Without the JAWS screen reader, my friend would be unable to do their job as a software engineer at a major tech company. While it may seem like an expensive tool (costing around a thousand dollars), it enables my friend to work in a high-paying job where they improve technology for millions of people every day.
- Without a wheelchair, another friend is unable to move independently or travel anywhere- not just travel on vacation but travel to the grocery store or to their university. When airlines break their wheelchair, it is the equivalent of breaking both of their legs and refusing to help them get medical treatment.
- Without a communication device or AAC device, a different friend is unable to speak for themselves on their own and cannot efficiently express themselves. They don’t want to have people guess what they are thinking or make assumptions, they would rather use a speech program that lets them speak on their own.
When people take away assistive technology, they take away someone’s ability to see, to walk, to speak, to hear, or to do hundreds of other tasks that are otherwise difficult or impossible. Assistive technology is not something that just makes things easier, it makes them possible, and it has the power to change a life.
Summary of what I want Congress members to know about assistive technology
- Assistive technology is not just “technology”, it is any device or tool that is used to help people with disabilities to live more independently and to access information
- Assistive technology skills don’t just develop overnight, people will need to practice with them and receive instruction on how to best use their device
- There is no one-size-fits-all device, and there are several different types of assistive technology tools that can help people reach their goals of independence- no need to settle for a device that sort of works
- There are several assistive technology programs that receive federal funding and can empower people with information and tech skills that they need to be successful
- The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) states that digital spaces such as websites need to be accessible, but many websites are not accessible
- Improving access to assistive technology can benefit others in the population, but the primary focus should be on improving access for disabled people
- Assistive technology is a lifeline and can help not only to make things easier, but to make them possible.