Assistive technology (also known as AT in the industry) is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a person with disabilities.
While there is an extensive variety of assistive technology and uses for it, AT is typically used to work towards increased functionality in one of three goal areas: daily living, working, and learning. The individual's disability affects each of these areas in a unique way. The individual looking for assistive technology works with a professional to address specific daily living, working, and/or learning concerns to best meet their goals specific to their disability-related needs.
The most common needs that assistive technology addresses are communication (receptive and expressive), seeing, hearing, reading, mobility, memory, and learning new skills. Below is a chart noting how different disability-related needs may affect the individual differently, based on the area of function.
Disability related need examples by goal area
Communicating care needs
Communicating work questions
Communicating comprehension of content and asking clarifying questions
Hearing/seeing a fire in the home
Alerting to hazards in the workplace
Communicating with peers and teachers
Remembering to turn off the stove/oven
Remembering to complete each work task regularly
Remembering/retaining information learned in the classroom
Accessing the home shower, cupboards, and all home entrances
Accessing at least two entrances and exits for safety
Accessing each classroom, restroom, library, and playground
Reading grocery items
Reading a to-do list
As noted above, assistive technology addresses a unique range of needs. To meet these needs, assistive technology ranges from low to high tech in order to ensure each need can be met. The low-tech option is assessed first in most instances, to ensure the most cost-effective and least-intrusive method of assistance is being utilized.
Communication is one of the first needs addressed at a young age. Low tech options can include PECS communication boards, which are laminated icons placed in sequences to communicate the wants and needs of the individual using them. These items can be created for a low cost by individuals, families, or schools. Higher tech options include artificial intelligence assistive communication devices, such as InnerVoice and an all-in-one communication device, the Tobii DynaVox. These higher-tech options can include eye gaze technology to assist users with limited fine or gross motor skills, so they are able to choose icons with their eyes rather than traditional methods.
Assistive technology is paving a way for individuals that once needed humans to provide support for them to live more independently and often in their own homes. People and their support systems are automating home tasks; installing safety features, such as auto appliance shutoff; and utilizing security monitoring systems, rather than relying on paid staff. These technologies give people more privacy, independence, and self-direction. Programs are being implemented across the world that match people with appropriate assistive technology for their lives, install them in their homes, and train them to use it while working towards greater independence. Smart Living, Learning, and Earning with Autism is one of these many programs implementing and training on assistive technology.
The ultimate goal for assistive technology is to enable each user to be as independent as possible so they are able to communicate their wants, needs, and decisions as well as work towards interdependence rather than dependence on paid caregivers.
Assistive technology companies
Companies in this industry
Dependence, Independence, or Inter-dependence? Revisiting the concepts of 'care' and 'dependency.'
Michael Fine and Caroline Gledinning
Peer reviewed journal
High-Tech or Low-Tech? Impact of Assistive Technology in School Settings for Students with Visual Impairments: Review of Research
Peer reviewed journal
March 1, 2020
Intro to Assistive Technology from The Center on Technology and Disability
October 5, 2017
PACER Video Series: Assistive Technology in Action - National Parent Center on Transition and Employment
Types of AT / Guide to Assistive Technology