Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology

The terms assistive technology and durable medical equipment are often confused. Durable medical equipment describes devices that are medically necessary, such as artificial limbs and wheelchairs. Assistive technology is an umbrella term that also includes durable medical equipment. Medicare and Medicaid cover some types of durable medical equipment, but most assistive technologies are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid.

Assistive technology includes any device that is used to improve the capabilities of individuals with disabilities. It can make a critical difference in the lives of seniors with limitations who are living at home. Such assistive devices range from $ 5.00 low-tech bottle openers to high-tech computer-aided equipment costing thousands of dollars.

This area of services for seniors is one of the most exciting in gerontology. The availability of most exciting in gerontology. The availability of products has increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, there is now so much demand or assistive technologies that many devices can be purchased at stores such as Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's Home Improvement, Target, True Value Hardware, and Wal-Mart.

One of the reasons why assistive technologies have flourished is the attention and badly needed dollars brought to the field by the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (ATA). The ATA affirmed the federal role of promoting access to assistive technology devices and services for individuals with disabilities. The purpose of the Act is to:

  • support states in sustaining and strengthening their capacity to address the assistive technology needs of individuals with disabilities;
  • focus the investment in technology across Federal agencies and departments that could benefit individuals with disabilities; and
  • support micro-loan programs to provide assistance to individuals who desire to purchase assistive technology devices or services.

The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) is an association of people with a common interest in technology and disability. The society is a valuable source of information about the State Assistive Technology Financial Loan Programs funded under Title III of the ATA.

In addition to financial loans, many states have lending libraries and other organizations that lend devices to individuals. Many of these programs are funded through local or state resources. For example, the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing offers their Assistive Devices Loan Program to residents (Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, n.d.). Examples of the devices they lend include:

  • amplified phones, which make sounds louder and clearer
  • PockeTalkers, which screen out background noise, clarifying and amplifying the speaker's voice
  • television decoders, which allow people to view closed captions on TV

A number of Web sites are available to help people find out about and locate assistive technologies. A major source is ABLEDATA, a federally funded project whose primary mission is to provide information on assistive technology and rehabilitation equipment available from domestic and international sources. The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) sponsors the project.

Assistive Devices

The broad range of assistive devices available to enable seniors to live more independently includes:

  • alternative and augmentative communication devices such as communication boards, scanning communicators that provide voice output, and videophones
  • assistive listening devices such as equipment that amplifies TV sound, devices that amplify the telephone, and hearing aids
  • assistive communication devices such as TTYs (also called telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs) or text telephones), which enable the hard of hearing to communicate over normal telephone equipment without the requirement to hear
  • back-saving solutions such as lumbar supports and neck pillows
  • voice or switch-activated controls for electronic devices such as environmental control units (ECUs), which allow individuals to control facets of their environment
  • devices to compensate for blindness and low vision, including talking computers, computer systems for reading, audio cassette magazines, and speech synthesizers
  • electronic aids to interact with and control appliances through voice activation, switch access, computer interface, or adaptations such as X-10 units, which transmit signals through a house's electrical wiring and allow for remote control of electrical devices
  • gripping and grasping aids such as researchers, easy turning handles, and wall bars
  • lifting devices such as transfer benches and overhead lifts
  • memory and organizational aids such as pill organizers with alarms and talking picture photo albums
  • mobility aids such as crutches, walking frames, walking sticks, wheelchairs, and scooters
  • modifications to homes, including ramps, wider doors, wider turning areas, handrails, stair-lifts, porch-lifts, and roll-in showers-features often found in homes referred to as universal design houses
  • modifications to telecommunication equipment, such as talking computers and amplified phones
  • modifications to transportation equipment, such as vans with wheelchair lifts and tie-down systems 

The ABLEDATA database contains information on more than 20,000 currently available assistive devices, from white canes to voice-output programs. The database contains detailed descriptions of each product, including price and company information. The database also contains information on non-commercial prototypes, customized and one-of-a-kind products, and do-it-yourself designs.

What is Ahead: Developing Technologies

A number of innovative technologies are being developed to increase the independence of seniors and people with disabilities. The following projects represent the wave of the future.

  • Research funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by Boston University physicist and bio engineer Jim Collins and his colleagues found that seniors showed signs of better balance when they stood on a pair of battery-operated vibrating insoles (O'Hanlon, 2002). The vibrations, which cannot be felt by the seniors, amplify signals between the feet and the brain. The insoles work by reducing postural sway.
  • Home Guardian LLC has installed a wireless monitoring system in apartments for senior citizens in Minneapolis (Greene, 2004). The system, which takes only about 20 minutes to install, uses sensors to pinpoint where residents are at any particular time. The system has detected at least four residents' falls.
  • The Aware Home research Initiative (AHRI) is an interdisciplinary research endeavor a the Georgia Institute of Technology. Among other projects, they are testing a program they call Digital Family Portrait (Georgia Institute of Technology, n.d.). Two people are involved in the testing: an elderly mother and her son. The seniors house has sensors under the floor that track her movements. The son has a digital picture frame, bordered by 28 butterflies and with his mother's photo in the middle. The frame picks up the level of the mother's activity along with other pertinent information. The butterfly representing the current day grows larger as the mother's activity level increases. If the activity stops without explanation, the son can call or stop by and check on his mother.
  • Also at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Gesture Pendant allows individuals to control ordinary household devices with the wave of a hand. The user wears a small pendant that contains a wireless camera. The user makes gestures in front of the pendant that controls anything from their home theater system or lighting to the kitchen sink. The system can detect loss of motor skill or tremors in the hand that might indicate the onset of illness or problems with medication. In addition, it can observe daily activities to determine, for example, if a person has been eating regularly and moving around. The device requires less dexterity, memory, and eyesight than traditional remote controls.
  • The LifeWise Home, built by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) Research Center in Bowie, Maryland, was designed to be accessible for seniors or disabled homeowners who are in wheelchairs, use walkers, or have physical limitations that impair mobility (National Association of Homebuilders, n.d.). Its features include a washing-and-drying toilet, with a warm-water rinse and built-in dryer, for occupants with limited range of motion.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.