Assistive technology and accessibility
Assistive technology and accessibility is a wide-ranging and complex field, one that transcends sectors, disability groups, disciplines and industries. The work is closely linked to technological progress, e.g. new materials, products and applications, as well as to the new opportunities and constraints that arise all the time. The objective is to harness technological progress and constantly improve products and services to support an accessible and inclusive society for everybody – including people with disabilities.
The rapid rate of progress also makes this a field in a perpetual state of change. The concepts of assistive technology and accessibility are not constant or consistent, but depend on social and cultural contexts and evolve over time.
What is an assistive device?
Assistive devices are products specifically designed to assist people with a particular disability, or off-the-shelf products that have the same effect.
Information technology has generated a need for new assistive devices and accessible solutions, but it has also revolutionised the field’s potential. Technology constantly provides new assistive solutions in areas where this was previously impossible, e.g. in communications and cognition.
Assistive devices are often needed to guarantee accessibility and break down social barriers. The minor adjustments that assistive devices make in the daily lives of individuals with disabilities often make it possible for them to cope with challenges on their own. Assistive devices greatly enhance social inclusion and facilitate independent living.
Off-the-shelf products and assistive devices
Off-the-shelf products and services are often designed for use by as many people as possible – including those with disabilities. This approach is known as Design for All or Universal Design. Products and services that follow the principle of Design for All can reduce the need for specialised equipment. Conversely, their very functionality often also makes assistive devices interesting in a broader market context. Nevertheless, Design for All or Universal Design will never be able to eliminate the need for specific assistive devices. Some disabilities require such special solutions and major customisation that the end product is no longer accessible to all.
Opportunities for social inclusion and independent living are enhanced both by devices for the individual and by adapting and designing environments, buildings and products according to the Design for All principle. Accessibility in relation to physical surroundings, e.g. buildings, public transport, etc., is improved by taking as many needs as possible into account during the design process. Access to products and services is often enhanced by both the diversity and flexibility of the product concerned.
The interaction between accessibility and assistive devices is complex. The design and function of devices often places demands on their physical surroundings, which have to be addressed in order to make them accessible to individuals with disabilities. Devices and their surroundings must interact properly to ensure equal opportunities for people with disabilities – wheelchairs are associated with physical accessibility, just as screen readers help e-accessibility.
Welfare technology is a new concept, covering solutions that preserve or develop welfare services in a broad sense. Welfare technology and the field of assistive devices and accessibility overlap with welfare services for people with disabilities and people in need of care and similar services. Welfare technology is very much about both assistive devices and accessibility, as well as products and services not directly associated with this field, e.g. video-based public services, collective medication cards, digital public services and the digitalisation of welfare services in general.
Information about assistive devices and systems
The concept of assistive technology includes services and support systems designed to select, adapt and introduce assistive devices for use in the individual’s daily life. It is about the methods used in this process – i.e. the administration, storage, procurement and testing of devices.
The field of assistive technology and accessibility never stands still. Methods and processes for providing information have to be developed and improved all the time. It is important to nurture and enhance the skills necessary for professionals in the field to assess the potential of new technologies and match them to the end-users’ needs. There is also an increasing need to develop knowledge of the devices’ usefulness and social-psychological consequences.
The systems that form the framework for providing information about assistive technology are also an important part of the field. They have to comply with relevant political and social principles, e.g. sectoral responsibility, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and EU directives. The field also includes relevant legislation, e.g. the Social Services Act and the Working Environment Act, and the actual organisation of local-authority information services and other support functions, e.g. dedicated counselling centres, VISO’s counselling service and the Danish Centre for Assistive Technology.