Assistive Technology Devices for Physical Disabilities

Image: An assistive technology device for physical disabilities

2019 Jul 04

People with physical disabilities are struggling every day to perform some tasks that the rest of the world find easy and require, for them, no second thoughts. Assistive technologies are those arrangements and devices that intend to make life easier to those people, by removing barriers and by enhancing their physical and mental capabilities. They greatly improve their quality of life, optimism and mood.

In this article we will show some examples of assistive technology devices designed to help people with physical disabilities of any kind.

Technology is advancing very fast and new devices, mostly electronic and powered by efficient motors and batteries are being created everyday. This is making it possible for people with physical disabilities to reduce their dependence on others. Assistive technology devices that were yesterday non-existent or prohibitively expensive or clumsy, are now affordable, efficient and suitable to the many needs of these persons.

Let’s take a look at what is now on offer.

Assistive technology for home comfort and care

Smart Home assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo help people with limited use of their arms and hands to be able to use easily their computer or phone. These devices can perform an array of routine tasks like make an appointment, play music, tell you the weather, make movies recommendations and respond to basic questions expressed aloud by the user about events, persons or any kind of data available on the Internet.

Also, the use of Environmental Control Devices is easy nowadays for people with physical disabilities if they can use some alternative input method, so that they can remotely control electronic appliances at home like lights, heaters, A/C or, for example, electronically controlled doors.

A Personal Emergency Response System is another assistive technology device that can help a person with physical disabilities. Usually, these devices come as a wearable bracelet, pendant or pin that is attached onto clothes. By pressing a button on the device, the person in need can alert a selected caregiver in any sort of emergency.

For home care and maintenance, something as common today as a cleaning robot is a perfect assistive technology device for people with physical disabilities. They help to keep the floors of the house clean and require almost no attention by the user, as they are practically autonomous from the moment they are installed at home.

Adaptive tools

Adaptive tools, like utensils, keyboards or switches allow those people with physical disabilities that limit their motor skills to eat, write, cook, dress, groom, play games or use their smartphones, tablets and computers.

Some of these are specialized handles and grips. These devices extend reach and allow these people to hold objects like spoons, pencils or toothbrushes. There are for example handcuffs or clips or writing supports.

Adaptive switches are devices that make it possible to activate and operate any switch-enabled device, like smartphones, tablets or computers. These switches can be activated by pressing them with hand, head, forehead, chin, legs… whatever is suitable for the person with the physical disability.

Then, software like the app from Mouse4all interfaces between switch and the electronic device (smartphone or tablet) to operate it with relative ease without needing to touch its screen.

Another assistive technology device is a mouth stick. This is a stick placed in the mouth of the person with a physical disability, so that she or he can do things like manipulate a trackball mouse or even type in a keyboard or a touch screen.

Head wands allow pretty much the same things as mouth sticks, by strapping the stick to the head wand.

Tools such as automatic page turners or book holders can also help these people to read. As we can see, not all assistive technology is high-tech or expensive. Finding the one that is appropriate to everyone is key.

Sip-and-puff systems are useful for people with paralysis or fine motor skill disabilities. With these, the user can operate a computer, a mobile device or even a wheelchair with her mouth. The sip-and-puff system behaves like a joystick that is moved in any direction with the mouth. They can even interpret the breath of the user like on-off operations. An on-screen keyboard allows the user to type anything using the same movements.

An adaptive keyboard can be counted also as another tool available to those users with physical disabilities that impair reliable muscle control in the hands to do precision movements. These keyboards have raised areas in between the keys to allow the user to place correctly the hands on them and find the correct key by sliding the fingers towards it rather than having to strike it. Another option is to use keyboards overlays over a normal one, and the use and results are basically the same. Specialized software to facilitate word-completion may also come with this adaptive keyboards to allow the user to use fewer keystrokes to type their messages.

Eye Trackers

Eye tracking devices are communication and control systems that follow the movement of the eyes and allow individuals with disabilities that restrict speech to navigate through their computer or mobile devices with only eye movements.

This assistive technology devices allow users with physical disabilities to interact with the world with their eyes. Special software allows the person to type by looking at control icons or data displayed on a screen and may include word-completion technology to speed up the process. The user can then generate speech either by typing the message or by choosing from a selection of phrases.

These systems can be expensive ‘probably, today, in the thousands of US dollars’ so they are less common than the less sophisticated devices, such as mouth sticks and head wands.

Speech generation and voice recognition devices

Voice recognition and speech generation are other assistive technologies useful for those people with physical disabilities who cannot enter instructions intended for computers with keyboards or touch screens. Some specialized voice transcription software is used for commanding data or instructions to the computer and this allows people with different abilities to use their computer or mobile devices efficiently by only talking to them.

With devices equipped with this voice recognition technology it is also possible to create text documents.

Speech generating devices allow them to communicate aloud, by means of an electronic device that is able to create speech from text, icons or images.

These technologies depend on clarity in the pronunciation of words or speech, so it may not be useful for persons who cannot vocalize properly.

Mobility aids

People who have physical disabilities may need help with mobility. Devices intended to help with mobility include wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, crutches, canes, and orthotic devices.

Depending on the severity and type of mobility impairment, a different device may be used by an individual. For example, an individual with quadriplegia may use an electric wheelchair controlled by an adaptive switch, a mouth stick or a head wand and an injured veteran may use a prosthetic device.

Other communication devices

Other communication devices that are assistive technologies intended for people with physical disabilities are things like hearing aids to help people hear or hear more clearly, closed captioning to allow people with hearing problems to watch movies, television programs and other digital media, screen readers or screen enlargement applications to help people with mobility and sensory impairments to use computers and mobile devices.