Disability and Technology

Technology is the core of almost every career, but the invention of technology has left out persons with disabilities for many years. It was not until the late 20th century that the creation and usage of assistive technology increased.

By Lovett Michael Weah & Tarlee A. Nuahn

Have you wondered how a visually impaired/blind person uses smartphones and computers? Did you know that a deaf/hard-of-hearing person can still hear? All these are possible through the power of assistive technology.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive Technology Industry Association defines Assistive technology (AT) as any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.

Where did assistive technology come from?

In this 21st century, the world is digital. Technology is the core of almost every career, but the invention of technology has left out persons with disabilities for many years. It was not until the late 20th century that the creation and usage of assistive technology increased. This was due to the increase in PWDs due to the world wars that ended in 1945. Victoria Diaz, in her article, "History of Assistive Technology, divided the invention of assistive technology (AT) into three developing stages: the foundational stage (anytime before the 1900s), the establishment stage (early 1900s), and the empowerment stage (late 1900s to present).

Foundation Period:

This period witnessed schools for PWDs, one of which is the New England Asylum for the Blind. The invention of Braille (a form of writing for the blind) was also created by Lewis Braille.

Establishment Period: 

During this period, PWDs were viewed in a positive light because soldiers became disabled due to the war. For instance, the hoover cane was introduced in 1947 for soldiers who became blind during the war. Additionally, institutions like the Council of Exceptional Children, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, amongst others, were established to support PWDs.

Empowerment Period:

Protection of the rights of PWDs, according to Diaz, was vital during this era. The reason for that was many legislations were passed to protect the rights of PWDs. For example, the rehabilitation act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities education act of 1977. Till now, several human rights organizations have risen to advocate for and help PWDs enjoy their rights like everyone else. The advancement of AT is also crucial. For instance, the first Braille embosser, an electronic machine that produces braille documents, was used on a computer in 1978.

Why do we need assistive technology?

Assistive technology is beneficial to the daily functioning of PWDs. For instance, wheelchairs and mobility devices help people with physical disabilities move around; hearing aids help people with hearing problems to hear, the cane assists visually impaired individuals to navigate, etc.

The invention of these devices restores the freedom and independence that PWDs lost the moment they acquired a disability.

PWDs in Liberia is still viewed as a liability in the homes, schools, community, and nation due to the absence of assistive devices.

Who needs assistive technology/devices?

Shockingly, PWDs are not the only people who need or use assistive devices. The World Health Organization confirms that even older people need assistive devices. The WHO wrote, "Globally, more than 1 billion people need 1 or more assistive products. With an aging global population and a rise in non-communicable diseases, more than 2 billion people will need at least 1 assistive product by 2030, with many older people needing 2 or more." However, the WHO observed, "Today, only 1 in 10 people in need have access to assistive products."

What are some functions of assistive technology?

  • Mobility: The ability to change one's social or socioeconomic position in a community and improve it.

A large body of academic research shows that inequality and lack of social mobility hurt not just those at the bottom; they hurt everyone. We must provide the necessary tools, opportunities, and available resources to enable PWDs to have all essential means of achieving what they would think of and wouldn't have experience yet. 

  • Communication is an essential part of who we are; however, some individuals with speech and language disabilities caused by either cerebral palsy, autism, spinal muscular atrophy, or head injuries cannot use their physical ability to communicate verbally. However, technology has a solution to such a problem. The Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), an American non-profit academic medical institute, wrote, "With the help of assistive technology and appropriate communication strategies, children and adults will have the tools to communicate with family and friends and participate more actively in school and the community."

"AAC, which stands for augmentative and alternative communication, is a way for people to communicate when they do not have the physical ability to use verbal speech or writing. AAC can range from a simple set of picture symbols on a communication board to a computer system that is programmed to speak with words or messages." (CCHMC)

These are a few of many ways assistive technology can help persons with disabilities live productive lives.

What is the benefit of assistive technology?

The introduction or usage of assistive technology does not only benefit persons with disabilities; it also presents impressive benefits to society.

"Assistive technology enables people to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives and participate in education, the labor market, and civic life. Assistive technology reduces the need for formal health and support services, long-term care and the work of caregivers." 

(World Health Organization May 18, 2018) The findings of the World Health Organization prove that the usage or introduction of assistive devices provides economic, social, and political benefits to individuals and the nation. For instance, when a PWD obtains an assistive device, it empowers the individual to communicate and gain an education; in turn, the education gained makes them competent to work, earn money, and even become a solid positive leader. The provision of one assistive device to a needed person is an addition to any nation's social, economic, and political growth. A puzzle is never complete when a piece is missing, regardless of how little that piece is. Therefore, it is now time the authorities ensure that everyone is a part of the development process in Liberia regardless of disability, sex, etc. The left-out disabled community is a seemingly insignificant piece that is crucial to solving Liberia's overdue puzzle.