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DisABILITY Series - Assistive Technology

One of the big things that sets us, as humans, apart from animals is the way we use tools. For thousands of years, humans have been using tools to do what they couldn't, from starting fires to flying. From a cane made out of a tree branch all the way up to space-age implants and robotic prosthetics, we have found ways to make the lives of everyone, especially the disabled, easier, healthier, and more fulfilling.

Mobility Aids

Mobility aids come in many shapes and sizes. There are wheelchairs, some of which are pushed, others are self-propelled. The self-propelled wheelchairs can be controlled via controllers and, for those unable to operate manual controls, there are now breath-operated wheelchairs available. In addition to wheelchairs, there are also canes, walkers, crutches, and scooters.

This category includes a lot of non-mobile machines as well, such as elevators, stair lifts, and even the retractable ramps in vans. Depending on the nature of your disability, even an adjustable bed can drastically improve your comfort and ease of mobility. This also includes things like transfer poles and hand rails, which are great both for easing mobility and for avoiding a nasty spill.

Visual Aids

Visual aids are probably the most widely seen assistive device, in the form of glasses and contact lenses. There are also a variety of different hand-held magnifiers and miniature telescopes, and artificial cataract lenses that can help to restore sight.

Although it has not yet reached the market, there is ongoing development into a prosthetic, electronic eye that would be surgically implanted in the patient's eye socket. While this is some ways off, there are about a dozen companies trying to be the first ones to create a prosthetic eye that actually functions.

Hearing Aids

We've made great strides since the days of ear horns. Electronic hearing aids have gotten more effective, smaller, more comfortable, and cheaper over the year. With the development of cochlear implants, it has allowed many deaf individuals to hear, either again or for the first time. A cochlear implant essentially bypasses the outer ear entirely and is wired directly into the cochlea, the area of the inner ear where sound is processed.

Cognitive Aids

Cognitive aids are among the least noticeable of the assistive technologies, but don't let that fool you. Cognitive aids can drastically improve the quality of life with those that have any type of mental disability. A cognitive aid can be anything from a smart phone to, simply, a notebook. Something like a notebook can be indispensable for those of us with memory problems, while smart phones are great for scheduling and recording information. Used correctly, a cognitive aid can start to feel like a mental prosthesis, a sort of artificial extension of your mind.

Software

We live in a technological world, and there's a pretty high chance that your work includes computers in one-way or another. That's why there are a number of "handicap-accessible" options on modern systems. From desktop computers to smart phones, you can usually find a number of options that will make your life a little easier.

These include electronic "magnifying glass" programs, controls that make working the keyboard and mouse easier, high contrast displays to make text and images easier to see, and even programs for epileptics that will automatically slow down flashing lights that appear on your screen.

For smart phones, there are numerous settings and applications, both in the Apple and Google App stores, and on independent websites like Appcessible.org.

Prosthesis

Prostheses have been around for a long time, and they've come a long way since wood and metal peg legs. Artificial limbs have gotten so advance that, at least in the case of the leg prostheses that are used by Paralympians, can actually match the performance of natural limbs. A prosthetic can be anything from a thumb to an entire arm, and can dramatically increase a disabled individual's quality of life.

There are also prosthetic implants. This includes an artificial hip or other joint, heart valves, pacemakers, stents, and dozens of other types of implants.

Home automation

Home automation isn’t the future of assistive tech, but rather the present. Home automation has been around in a limited way for years. Take something like Life Alert, for example. Before the age of widespread cellphones, the Life Alert bracelet was capable of activating an auto-dialer elsewhere in the house. With the advent of WiFi, Bluetooth, motion sensors, and smart phones, home automation has come a long way.

Home automation still has a ways to go, however. It's still in its infancy, and we're still a long way away from a Jetsons-style "house of tomorrow." But "Smart houses," as they're often called, are getting better every day, and even something like automated blinds and motion sensor activated lights can greatly improve your quality of life.