How assistive technology can empower people to have choice, control and independence
Smart home devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have brought affordable voice-activated technology into our homes, giving us alternative ways to control our environment and communicate with the tools and appliances around us.
For people with a physical disability or speech impairment however, finding alternative ways to communicate and perform tasks isn’t new. From being able to control the way you raise your bed with your breath, to choosing your dinner with your eyes, assistive technology has long been creating communication, choice and independence for people with a disability.
We sat down with Speech Therapist, Rania Azzi and Occupational Therapist, Joseph Semaan from Northcott’s Computer Assistive Technology Service (CATS) to find out more about how assistive technology can support people with disability to get their message across, or learn to perform tasks for themselves.
What is a simple definition of assistive technology?
Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, or product system that is used to maintain or improve functional abilities of individuals with disability.
Why would somebody think about assistive technology?
Rania: Assistive technology can be helpful for individuals who have difficulties with handwriting, accessing their computer, accessing their environment (e.g. lights, bed), or who have no verbal speech or have unclear speech. Limitations can be placed on individuals who find these things difficult to do, however, assistive technology provides the possibility of breaking down these barriers. It can give individuals access to a whole world.
A small, controlled, consistent movement is all you need to access so much. The controlled movement could be as little as a twitch of an eyebrow, their eyegaze, or even a puff of breath. Communication is about getting a message across; the message doesn’t need to be verbal to be effective.
How does a speech pathologist and occupational therapist work together to support somebody’s communication needs with assistive technology?
Joseph: An occupational therapist will look at the way a person can access devices and the world around them, for example, their hand, leg or eye movements. A speech pathologist will look at how that can be used to build their communication skills or give them decision-making power.
How can assistive technology change the life of a person with disability?
Joseph: There was a customer who was a resident of an accommodation service. It was assumed she had no communication following a terrible fall. We followed a schedule that told us when to shower her and feed her. Then a speech therapist suggested we try eyegaze technology. We trialled it and eventually she came to understand that her eyes were in control. Now hopefully one day this customer will be able to say: ‘No, I actually don't want to shower at 8:30 in the morning. I want to shower at two o'clock in the afternoon’, by selecting options with her eyes.
I have also seen one customer who actually controls his bed just by either breathing into a tube or breathing out from the tube. If he sucks, the bed will move up. If he breathes out, it goes down. That’s the only movement that he has, so we’ve used that motion to move the bed up and down so that he can watch his TV or go to bed when he likes. It’s creating independence, basically.
It’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities of assistive technology, so what should customers and their families be aware of?
Joseph: Everyone needs an assessment first. We want to see if they have one consistent, repetitive movement; this will assist in determining the best technology. If a person is able to use their hands, then we’re going to use their hands. If they can use their chin, we'll use their chin. It really just depends on what we observe when we do the assessment.
Rania: Yes it is important to give time to the assessment process and trial period. What might work for one person might not work for another. Also, there’s always a learning process involved with assistive technology. For example, you wouldn’t give someone a car and just expect them to be able to drive straight away. It’s the same with learning how to use a whole new communication method. For example with eyegaze technology, a person might learn that their eyes are in control of a screen before they are able to move on to making sentences with the use of their eyes.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how Northcott can support you with assistive technology, please call 1800 818 286 to book an assessment.
We have a multidisciplinary team of therapists who can support you to meet your goals with assistive technology.