Tools, Assistive Technology and Disabled People

The following is a adapted from a theme in my currently being drafted book “Tools for life, tools for learning, a philosophy of technology and disability” and my PhD submission:

One of the defining characteristics of humankind is its extensive use of tools; of technologies it has fashioned.  The fact that some people use additional or different tools to accomplish a task should emphasise their humanity not mark them out as different. Martyn Cooper 2010

This statement represents is a long held belief of the author who has worked on technology for disabled people since 1990. This blog post is not focussed on issues of discrimination but it illustrates the fact that the way we think about technology used by people with disabilities has impact beyond the functional.  Judgements are regrettably made about the person because of the tools they use.  This can affects the attitudes of disabled people to those tools.  Conversely designers of technology often assume all the users will be like them and do not design with the diversity of humanity in mind.  The way we think about technology and about disabled people impacts on the design and readiness of supply of appropriate tools that meet their needs in day to day life.

This blog post is seeking to draw together thoughts, from different perspectives, that impacts on those whose life, education, or work is affected by the use of technology in the context of disability.  Those involved in recommending technology to disabled people, formulating policy in the area or involved in the design of technology may find it useful. (It is fully recognised that disabled people may also be professionals in the field.)  This is not a guideline for professional practice but a collection of thoughts developed over the last 20 years.  It is hoped that it provides a collection of thinking that informs that practice and its further development.

There are many generic definitions of disability [See DDA[1] WHO – ICF[2] ] and thus definitions of accessibility focussing on reducing barriers to accessing the Web (e.g. Paciello[3], 2000; Web Accessibility Initiative[4], 2005).

The IMS Global Learning Consortium offers a more education specific definition of both disability and accessibility:

[..] the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user. IMS Global Learning Consortium 2004

Technology may be for general usage or invented specifically to overcome a disability (assistive technology). In either case it needs to be designed inclusively, with diversity of users in mind. This principally means recognising that different people have different ways of interacting with technology. Some,as examples, may not be able to see a display and need audio output others may not be able to manipulate the standard controls but can be enabled to fully control the device in question a different way (e.g. keyboard alternatives to mouse control).

Man has been using technology for millennia.  The earliest examples of what might be described as assistive technology were probably sticks used as crutches or walking sticks.  The use of tools, of fashioned technologies, is a defining character of humanity.  The fact that some people use particular tools too overcome a disability should emphasise their humanity.


[2] ICF definition of disability and impairment. Disability is defined as “the outcome or result of a complex relationship between an individual’s health condition and personal factors, and of the external factors that represent the circumstances in which the individual lives”. Impairments are defined as “problems in body function or structure such as significant deviation or loss”, http:/www3.who.int/icf/intros/ICF-Eng-Intro.pdf

[3] Paciello, M.G (2000) Web accessibility for people with disabilities, CMP Books, Kansas, USA

[4] Web Accessibility Initiative (2005) Introduction to Web Accessibility. Online Available from: http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php

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One thought on “Tools, Assistive Technology and Disabled People

  1. Interesting post, but in some ways, weak in focus. It vacillates between speaking to or about people, the implied reasonable accommodations needed (technologies in general), people’s judgments, attitudes, (possibly) discrimination and the definitions of disability.

    The problem is, defining disability doesn’t provide the technological solution, doesn’t define the role or function of the technologies. The IMS Global Learning Consortium 2004 reference gets it close but speaks to it in terms of educational resources. If one peels the onion a little further, the truth comes out: there are exacting technical standards that exist to provide adaptability and accessibility (not simply usability) that should be best practices in creating that technical content. If one focuses on those technical standards (e.g., Section 508 technical standards, or even specific W3C recommendations) instead of focusing on the individual disability, it is easier to achieve success.

    By example, focusing on a person with a disability or a type of disability, leads us down a well-intentioned path to failure, one where we test for a specific assistive technology, and encourage group-think that is representative of the entire end-user community with disabilities.

    Only by focusing on the technical issues (e.g., does it have “alt” text?) first and then stating what user community that might impact, can we keep the technology development issues clear, and stop implying anything to a user based on disability, instead of technology need.

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