Assistive technologies are nothing new. According to some scholars, for example, wheelchairs have existed in one form or another since classical times, which means Plato may have been familiar with these devices. A variation of this tool—the self-propelled wheelchair—has been used since the seventeenth century, and though it has undergone significant enhancements over the past few centuries, its basic design is virtually the same now as it was when it was first introduced.
Like the wheelchair, many common assistive devices have a long history. Braille is one example. It’s been in use since the early 19th century, when a young man named Louis Braille realized he could use a secret military code as the basis for a new system of tactile writing. Similarly, in the early 1800s, some people used “ear trumpets” to focus and amplify sound. These devices, originally manufactured by companies that made musical instruments, represent one of the earliest forms of hearing aid.
But while assistive devices have existed for almost as long as civilization has, the number of new technologies available today is unprecedented. Thousands of new devices have been developed in just the past few decades, giving new options to people who want these technologies.
A New Era in Device Manufacture
Many of today’s assistive tools are made possible by recent advances in robotics and miniaturization, as well as human-computer interface technology. Other devices rely less on cutting-edge developments, and instead represent the clever application of existing technology in a new way. And some devices combine the two approaches.
Sip-and-puff (SNP) technology is one such example. SNP was first developed in the sixties, and it’s long been used to allow people to operate machines like motorized wheelchairs. Now it’s often paired with a computer, where it enables the user to type, play video games, and fully utilize the computer’s functions. Adaptive keyboards are another useful computer interface technology, allowing people with limited muscle control to type using fewer keystrokes. Similarly, eye tracking devices enable people to manipulate their computers and mobile devices using only eye movements.
A New Type of Prosthetic
The synthesis of old and new is especially pronounced in the field of prosthetics, where new materials are bringing greater functionality to a device that has been around for thousands of years.
Artificial limbs are one of the oldest types of assistive devices still in common use. For example, archaeologists recently unearthed a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy with an artificial big toe. The wooden toe was so well-designed that it could even bend, enabling the wearer to walk with it. Over the next few thousand years, prosthetics improved. The use of new materials like metal and leather made artificial limbs both durable and more flexible. In the early 20th century, aluminum replaced steel as the metal of choice, making artificial limbs lighter than ever before. A few decades later, plastics and composite materials were introduced, adding durability and spring to prosthetic devices.
Recently, artificial limbs have undergone another transformation, thanks to a new technology: 3-D printing. This technology is especially useful for children, who outgrow their prostheses repeatedly during childhood. While 3-D printed limbs aren’t as functional as those made out of other materials, they are inexpensive, which means they can be replaced frequently as children grow. Their low cost also ensures that far more children around the world now have access to prosthetics.
Like mobility aids, devices to assist or enhance the senses are also becoming more sophisticated. Braille, for example, is finding its way into new applications. Braille computer keyboards and text-to-speech technologies have been around for years. Now they’ve been joined by more advanced tools. Haptic technologies, for example, use electromagnetic vibrations and ferrofluids—liquid metals—to enable computer users to feel texture on their touchscreens, bringing Braille to a new medium.
New tablet devices are also aiding communication between deaf and hearing people. There are now tablets with software that can convert American Sign Language (ASL) to speech, and vice versa, allowing deaf and hearing people to hold conversations even if only one of them knows ASL.
Recognizing Personal Choice During Rapid Technology Development
So what does the future hold? There are currently hundreds of new technologies in development, designed to address a wide range of disabilities. Prosthetic arms that respond to the user’s thoughts, wheelchairs that can climb stairs, hands-free artificial larynxes, smart glasses that enhance limited vision, and a host of new developments are on the horizon.
But while most people agree that developing new tools is a worthwhile endeavor, disability activists have one caveat: assistive technology should never be considered mandatory. Put simply, it’s not up to individuals to conform to inaccessible situations.
Exoskeletons are great for those who want them, but that doesn’t change the fact that buildings need to be wheelchair accessible. And while cochlear implants are the preferred choice for some people, not every deaf person wants one. It’s still important to have interpreters available at public functions. In other words, it’s wonderful that there are so many assistive technologies being developed, but no one should ever feel obligated to use these devices.
Gabrielle Hodge, a deaf post-doctoral researcher at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London, made this point recently in an interview. In her critique of a new glove that translates sign language into speech, she said it’s important for inventors to remember that technology serves us best when it focuses “on user-driven and user-centered design.”