July 16, 2024


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What Is Assistive Technology? an Overview

What Is Assistive Technology? an Overview

  • Assistive technology devices and services help users with disabilities perform tasks like typing, drawing, and more.
  • Assistive technology comes in dozens of forms, and can be built to help with a specific need or a general issue.
  • Text-to-speech programs and prosthetics are two different forms of assistive technology.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Assistive technology is an important aspect of any new device. If your computer or phone isn’t accessible, you’re locking out a massive part of your userbase.

Here’s everything to know about assistive technology — including examples of assistive tech you probably use all the time.

What is assistive technology?

Essentially, assistive technology is any technology that helps individuals with disabilities perform tasks that could otherwise be difficult. 

Most people might associate the phrase with devices like hearing aids or wheelchairs, but assistive technology applies to lots of things we use on a daily basis. For example, the speech-to-tech feature on your phone is a form of assistive tech that helps users who can’t easily type with their hands.

In the US, The Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (or Tech Act) defined what objects and services are considered assistive tech. Per the law, an assistive technology device represents “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.”

An assistive technology service, on the other hand, is “any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device,” according to the Tech Act. 

The Tech Act served as a template for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, which focused helping children with disabilities. The main difference in their definitions of assistive technology is that IDEA doesn’t include surgically implanted medical devices like cochlear implants.

Person with visual impairment using screen reader on smartphone

Screen readers help people with visual impairments hear the text on their screens.

agrobacter/Getty Images

Millions of people use assistive technology in their everyday lives — everything from a standard wheelchair to educational software for children on the autism spectrum is considered assistive technology. 

Who can use assistive technology

Assistive technology is primarily built for users with activity limitations or impairments. However, most forms of assistive technology can be used by anyone. And depending on the device, assistive tech can improve anyone’s mobility, education, communication skills, and more.

Automatic door openers and accessible bathrooms are modifications that have become a necessity in most public spaces. Simplistic tools like graphic organizers are used in schools to help children organize their thoughts or assignments. Any modern smartphone, tablet, or computer will offer a range of assistive tech for all users in the form of accessibility features, which are typically managed through the device’s Settings app. 

The accessibility menu on an iPhone

The accessibility menu on an iPhone, which contains over a dozen different assistive tech features.

William Antonelli/Insider

In some cases, a user will need to be prescribed or assigned a form of assistive tech. In this case, a physician, special education teacher, therapist, or other specialist has to approve. It’ll usually come after a test to decide what the best type of accessibility tech is for the situation.

Examples of assistive technology

Accessibility tech is built into all sorts of devices. Here are some common forms of assistive technology. 

  • Digital recorder: Allows you to record and play back captured audio. 
  • Voice recognition: Enables a computer or mobile device to train and recognize what the user dictates.
  • Text-to-speech: Electronic text can be read aloud if highlighted on a mobile device or computer.
  • Smart tablet: Offers a multi-sensory learning experience to support education programs for children or adults.
  • Electric wheelchair: A battery-powered wheelchair that can be controlled using a joystick and adjustable settings to fit the individual.
  • Keyboard alternatives: Specialized keyboards with enlarged keys or in the form of a touchscreen.
  • Listening devices: Assistive listening devices like hearing amplifiers for casual use or hearing aids for the hearing impaired. 
  • Screen magnifiers: Manipulate and magnify the look of a screen to make text or images easier to see.
  • Prosthetics: Artificial implants specially designed for patients to help improve overall mobility and functionality.