In recent decades, new technologies have had a dramatic impact on the way we live. Not only have new innovations transformed the way we communicate with one another, but they've also had a transformative effect on how we go about our daily routines. While people with disabilities still face numerous challenges, it is fair to say that new technologies are providing them with new opportunities. Of course, those with disabilities often find it difficult to operate technologies in the way able-bodied users do, but there have been a wide range of innovative methods aimed at making these technologies more accessible.
It should go without saying that various devices have been used over the years to help people cope with their disabilities. Some of today's technologies build on earlier innovations, whereas some represent genuinely revolutionary advances. In this article, we'll take a look at just a few of the ways in which people with disabilities are making use of new technologies, and just what sort of an impact these devices have had.
Helping children with disabilities
Children with disabilities face unique challenges, and there are a number of technological innovations designed to help them. What's particularly interesting is that mainstream technologies as well as specialist innovations can be used to help children cope with their disabilities. Not only can this technology help children to develop social skills which are likely to prove valuable in later life, but it can also enable them to pursue educational or career goals they otherwise might not have been able to achieve.
As an article from Mashable points out, tablet computers such as Apple's iPad are being used more and more commonly to help children with learning disabilities and speech problems. These tablets can be used to help children develop motor skills and cognitive abilities as well as their language comprehension and speech. Because tablet computers are operated through a touch screen rather than potentially awkward peripherals such as keyboard and mouse, they are particularly useful for both adults and children looking to develop their cognitive and motor skills.
Whereas touch-to-speak technology was frequently prohibitively expensive for many people, the tablet computer has helped to make it far more accessible - transforming the lives of many families in the process. Now, parents simply have to buy the tablet device itself and a touch-to-speak app, rather than spending thousands of dollars on the appropriate technology as they would have had to do in previous years.
Tablet computers such as the iPad can also be used as educational tools, and have proved effective in this regard. Of course, these devices are best used as a complement to traditional person-to-person teaching methods rather than a replacement. Nevertheless, there are various apps which concern a range of academic subjects and topics. It has also been argued that children with autism see a particularly impressive benefit when using tablet devices in the classroom.
There are also apps which monitor the behavioral progress of children with disabilities, enabling parents, therapists and teachers alike to track just how far their children have come. In addition, there's a wide range of apps to help parents and children manage their disabilities. For example, some apps can help to improve memory retention, while others can remind children when to take their medication.
Voice recognition technology has also better enabled children to cope with their disabilities. According to BrainLine, there have been significant advances in voice recognition software in recent years, ironing out some of the flaws which had hampered earlier generations of technology. Indeed, voice recognition is now commonly used in the classroom to help children with learning disabilities to learn more effectively.
Speech-to-text technology, in particular, can help to enhance disabled students' independence by ensuring that they're less reliant on teachers and classroom assistants. This enables them to complete writing and other academic tasks more effectively. Because speech-to-text technology enables students with disabilities to become more independent, it also alleviates any anxieties they might have. This, in turn, should help them to write and express themselves without the fear of having their errors picked over by someone else - however well-meaning teachers or their assistants might be, it can still be embarrassing for the students themselves.
It is, however, true that it can take time for young people with disabilities to become fully familiarized and comfortable with voice recognition technology. They may, therefore, experience some frustration - at least to begin with. This is why it's so important to partner the use of voice recognition software - and other technologies - with other, complementary strategies to assist personal development, including drafting, planning and organization. However, it should be clear that this will all depend on the individual and their particular capabilities.
As this article from Disaboom observes, voice recognition technology can also help with language therapy for people affected by conditions such as aphasia, and those who struggle with a severe stutter. By providing users with automated speech recognition audio-visual feedback, this technology can help people to improve their own speech. These are just some of the ways in which voice recognition technology is helping young people to overcome their disabilities.
Helping others with disabilities
Of course, many of the technologies which are used to improve the quality of life of children affected by disabilities are also used by adults. Assistive technology encompasses both low-tech aids - such as pencil grips, for instance - to the latest cutting-edge devices. However, the mobile revolution of the last decade or so has prompted an increasing focus on how new mobile technologies can be deployed to help make life easier for people faced with various challenges as a result of their disabilities.
According to the Kansas Health Institute, there are a number of other technologies which can be of assistance to people with disabilities, including lifting devices to help those with limited mobility - thereby also reducing the risk of injury facing healthcare workers tasked with moving individual patients - and even all-terrain wheelchairs, capable of scaling uneven surfaces. In addition, there are a number of innovations which have made smartphones and tablets more accessible to people with disabilities.
Smartphones and tablets
A blog post from Reason Digital highlights some of the ways in which mobile technology is being used by people with disabilities. It points out that voice control technologies allow users to dictate messages which are then converted into text on their phones. This is particularly useful for those affected by conditions such as dyslexia, as it saves them the frustration of having to type messages out manually. What's more, certain smartphone apps read screen text and commands out loud so that visually-impaired people can use them.
Apple's AssistiveTouch is just one of the technologies which the tech giant has developed for sight and hearing-impaired people over the years. This program allows users affected by motor control problems to navigate their way around their iPad with minimum fuss. Rather than pinching the screen to zoom in or use the side buttons to adjust volume, for instance, AssistiveTouch allows users to perform these functions by simply tapping icons which appear in a dialogue box on the screen.
It's also worth noting how prosthetic limb technology has advanced in recent years. An article from Howstuffworks.com makes it clear just how advanced today's prosthetic limbs are when compared to earlier generations. Dr Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago developed targeted muscle reinnervation technology, through which amputated nerves are used to control healthy muscle elsewhere in the body. The electrical activity of this substitute muscle can then be harnessed to control a prosthetic limb, providing the user with a previously unheard-of degree of control. It is anticipated that further advances will be made over the coming years, potentially restoring a sense of touch via artificial limbs.
What does the future hold for disability technology?
Anyone who's been paying attention to developments in the tech world in recent years will no doubt have been struck by the sheer speed at which new innovations have emerged on to the market. There's every reason to think, then, that new technologies will appear over the coming years which will further enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities. But just which technologies should we be looking out for? There are a few clues which may point us in the right direction here.
Speaking to the BBC, Robin Christopherson of UK based charity AbilityNet said he was particularly intrigued by the arrival of technologies such as Google Glass. As Google Glass is operated entirely hands-free, it could potentially be used with ease by people with disabilities. In future, smart glasses could include facial recognition software which interprets facial expressions and tells the wearer how the person in front of them is feeling. This could be particularly useful for people Asperger's Syndrome, for instance, who struggle to interpret facial expressions unassisted.
Driverless cars may also hold considerable promise for people with disabilities, although it should perhaps be stressed that this technology remains at a relatively early stage of development. Google Ventures, however, has invested more than $250m in purchasing autonomous, driverless taxis. While this could potentially open up a range of possibilities for people with disabilities, it is worth remembering that passengers may need to take control of driverless cars in the event of an emergency, and this may be a potential obstacle to their use by people with disabilities. However, it is to be hoped that in time, this will be overcome.
While there remains a long way to go before all new technologies are made accessible to people with disabilities, in recent years we've seen a great deal of progress. Mainstream technologies are becoming increasingly adaptable, and specialist technology is in many cases become increasingly affordable. While it is important to remember that there's still a long way to go before technology closes the gap between people with disabilities and their counterparts without disabilities, there are genuine reasons for optimism that this gap will be reduced further in the coming years.
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