Assistive technology: past, present, and future

How have recent advances in assistive technology impacted accessibility and life for people with a disability, and where to from here?

With recent leaps in assistive technology, we discuss some of the existing tools available for people with a disability, and look at where to from here.

In the not so distant past, flicking through a street directory, waiting for your VCR to rewind, and listening to a dial-up modem struggling to connect, were part of life. Today, Apple, Android, smartphones, tablets, apps, the NBN, and smart-watches are the new norm.

But how have these advances in technology impacted accessibility and life for people with a disability, and where to from here?

Don’t worry, be ‘appy

The smartphone is no longer a phone. It’s a phone, wallet, camera, diary, music player, computer, book, GPS and more all in one.

With so many tools at your fingertips, it’s fantastic to see the majority of smartphones and tablets now come with a range of features to improve accessibility for users with a disability including screen readers, assistive touch, and voice search.

Before the iPad, assistive technology and communication devices were bulky, expensive and served only one purpose. This meant some users had to juggle several devices day-to-day. The introduction of apps on smartphones and tablets shrinks these bulky devices down to one, which sits neatly in the palm of your hand.

Going back to Apple’s mantra of, ‘There’s an app for that’, there really is a huge range of apps which can assist people with a disability.

For example, for someone who has a visual impairment or difficulty reading, the challenge of being presented with a menu at a restaurant can be overcome with the ability to take a quick picture of the menu with your phone and have it read aloud or magnified.

GPS and location apps can be a personal guide, others will work together with assistive technology such as hearing aids and braille keyboards, and others can be set up to control lights, heating, and functions in your home.

To assist with communication, there are simple picture board apps, text-to-speech tools, all the way up to those which allow sentences to be constructed and spoken.

Read more about our picks of the best apps for people with a disability.

Looking through the Google Glass

*Update: Since we published this article, Google Glass production has been put on hold, however we are sure the wearable technology trend will continue.

The long awaited and talked about Google glass, is an exciting upcoming technology advance for people with a disability.

Sitting on your nose like a pair of traditional glasses, the Google Glass is able to take pictures, search, play music, make a call, send a message, provide directions, and much more.

Companies such as Telstra have already begun to explore how the Google Glass could improve accessibility. One such prototype uses voice recognition to translate spoken conversations into text. Just like subtitles, as someone speaks, text will appear on the lens above the right eye. For those with a hearing impairment, this development could be invaluable.

Another prototype allows users with a visual impairment to identify items in front of them. For example, if you were to ask the Google Glass at a supermarket ‘what’s this?’, the device would take a photo of the item and tell you whether the can you are holding is pumpkin soup, baked beans or stewed apples.

In theory, people who have difficulty sensing emotions such as those with autism, could use facial recognition software to tell how a person they are talking to is feeling such as happy, sad or upset.

As technology advances, this functionality is just the tip of the iceberg for what we could see developed around wearable technology.

The future

Recent years have seen leaps in the development of technology for people with a disability, and the good news is it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon!

Research and development around assistive technology is continuing to capture our attention and imagination.

Seemingly straight out of the comic book Ironman, robotic exoskeletons which allow people with paraplegia to stand and walk are fast becoming a reality. These wearable suits are powered by motors which drive each leg forward as the user shifts their weight from side to side, or even in response to signals sent from a wearer’s brain.

Gesture controlled devices using technology similar to a Nintendo wii or Xbox Kinect are also being developed, as well as those which you can control just by thinking. Instead of flicking a switch to turn off a light, one day someone using this technology may be able to turn it off with a thought.

Other ideas currently being developed include wheelchairs that are can go up and down stairs, navigate difficult terrain, and even self-drive. Google is also investing heavily in self-driving cars through their Google Chauffeur software. In May this year, Google debuted a new prototype of their latest model, one that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.

Some of these developments may only be a year or so away, some longer, and some may not see the light of day, but a focus around development of technologies such as these could change what the world for people with a disability looks like in another decade’s time.

And where to from here? Well, it’s anybody’s guess what the next big idea will be. What we will say is, with ongoing developments in technology, comes increased opportunities for people with a disability to adopt these as part of their day-to-day lives. So while we don’t know what the future will hold, we do know it will be exciting.