Over 13 million Americans use assistive technology devices to help with physical, mental, or emotional functioning, reports the CDC. From mobility aids to orthotics, microcomputers and augmentative communication devices, new technologies are enabling people with special needs to increasingly feel like they can interact with others and achieve personal goals more efficiently.
Assistive technology can also come in the form of software that controls hardware systems so that people can overcome challenges. One good example of technology that can make a huge difference to users with special needs is text-to-speech conversion therapy, which can aid people with visual problems.
What are some of the newest developments in assistive and adaptive technology and how are these technologies vastly improving the everyday lives of millions of people?
Augmented and Alternative Communication Apps
Augmented and alternative communication apps can aid a wide array of people to express themselves, enabling them to interact with caregivers and loved ones. Top apps include TouchChat (a symbol and text-based tool that has an ample library and that allows users to add their own images).
The app produces high-quality text-to-speech voices and allows users to share messages via popular social media apps such as Facebook. Proloquo2Go, meanwhile, contains some 14,000 symbols and programmed vocabulary sets that can be customized.
Tools like Proloquo2Go, MyTalkTools Mobile AAC, and TouchChat HD – AAC are popular apps for disabled children, including those with cerebral palsy (CP) who have communication difficulties. The visual, easy-to-use, responsive nature of these apps enables young users to find what they are using quickly, thus reducing frustration and facilitating the establishment of personal connections.
Eye Tracking Technology
Accessories such as DynaVox EyeMax enable users to communicate using their eyes. With just one blink or by spending time looking at one’s chosen area of the screen, an augmented communicator accesses all your device’s capabilities. Eye tracking can also be used to give commands (for instance, to a wheelchair) without the use of limbs.
Devices relying on this technology work thanks to forward- and rearward-facing cameras that are mounted on one’s screen. The cameras are ultra-sensitive to the movement of the cornea, so that staring at a symbol or phrase works in the same way that a manual ‘click’ would. Users can use this technology to spell words, choose symbols or pre-constructed phrases, or give instructions to other assistive or adaptive devices.
Seniors need the Internet as much as (if not more than) younger generations since online communications help them stay in touch with family and friends who are far away, enable them to make emergency calls, and boost home safety and security. However, computers can be very confusing for people to use if they never used online devices in their youth.
Today, seniors can rely on a computer called Komp—a one-button device that bridges the communication divide between generations. Komp enables the elderly to receive calls with no action whatsoever. Some 10 seconds after the call is made, the call is automatically answered. If the recipient does not want to pick up the call, they can simply turn the device off.
When the device is on, photos and messages appear so that users can stay up to date without having to use a menu, swipe, or select functions. This way, families can send images and messages, telling their loved ones about their daily lives and sharing special moments.
Passive Prosthetic Devices
Companies such as Arm Dynamics are, quite literally, ‘redefining possibilities,’ with prostheses that are incredibly realistic—so realistic that they can match a person’s exact skin tone, the presence of freckles, hair, and other features.
Some artists even create tattoos that serve as a big boost for those into body art. Additional advances in prostheses include the use of multi-positional joints (so that users can use their sound limb to position their prosthetic one), custom silicone restorations (that look and move like skin), and prosthetic fingers with a high grip stability.
Exoskeletons are enabling people with severe mobility issues—for instance, those who are paraplegic—to experience what it is like to walk again. Companies such as ReWalk Robotics are manufacturing wearable robotic exoskeletons that enable people to stand straight, walk, turn, and go up and down flights of steps. These devices are ultra-sensitive to movement. For instance, when they detect a forward tilt of the upper body, they initiate the first step. When they notice that the wearer is shifting their body weight, meanwhile, they begin walking to mimic the natural gait of legs.
Imagine a world in which people with special needs could instantly receive help from volunteers across the globe. It’s already a reality thanks to Be My Eyes—an app for iOS and Android devices that is catered for blind and low-vision individuals. These app users can use their smartphone camera to ask for help with reading almost anything—from street names to everyday items to food. Volunteers can answer their questions in real time, making it easy for app users to shop or carry out other tasks. The app is currently available in over 150 countries and it exists in some 180 languages.
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, enjoying live musical performances is challenging, but the use of haptic suits can make it so much more dynamic. The company, Not Impossible Labs, has created a suit that relies on haptic feedback (the tactile reaction we receive when we touch something). The team at Not Impossible Labs found that musical vibrations can be translated onto skin using a haptic suit or vest. Currently, the suit has 24 points of vibration and all are individually controllable. This means that notes can be made stronger or weaker, higher or lower. The suit works on the human body’s somatosensory system. The latter relies on receptors in our skin and tissue that sends information to the brain. Through haptic feedback, these receptors can be stimulated to produce a required response.
Live Transcribe and Sound Notifications by Google
For people with hearing disabilities, taking part in a group conversation can be inherently difficult, especially if other people in a social setting do not use sign language. Apps like Google’s Live Transcribe and Sound Notifications app are doing plenty to ease communication, promoting better social interaction. The app essentially uses a smartphone to transcribe voices picked up by the microphone. It also informs users of important notifications such as fire alarms, crying babies, or smoke alarms. Finally, the app makes the user’s phone vibrate when their name is mentioned, which is an excellent way for them to take an active part in group conversations.
Assistive technologies make life easier for millions of people. Innovation in areas like prosthetics and exoskeletons are making the impossible possible. They are also enabling people with special needs to complete personal and professional tasks and communicate with others in more profound and satisfying ways. Moreover, these technologies are being relied upon by children and adults alike, with new advances continually on the horizon. In the new millennium, these technologies are going beyond helping people with tasks and chores. They are enabling them to interact socially with others and feel like vital components of groups of family and friends. For instance, haptic suits allow the hard of hearing to “feel” music and enjoy live performances, while transcription apps like Google’s Live Transcribe and Sound Notification enable the hard of hearing to literally “read” what people around them are saying.