girl in wheelchair holding basketball

Assistive Technology and Independence

Happy Independence Day month, everybody!

No one is “confined to a wheelchair.” Or “stuck in a wheelchair.” Or “wheelchair bound.” Any such phrase marks the speaker as insensitive to wheelchair users.

It’s not that wheelchair users have anything against the idea of getting about on their own legs, were that a full-time option. It’s that the word “confined” implies the wheelchair is part of the problem. In fact, the wheelchair is the solution—along with the ramps, lifts, and automatic doors that allow wheelchairs to access the everyday world. “Confinement” would be life without a wheelchair: trapped at home, if not in bed, for lack of mobility.

boy in wheelchair with dad helping him look at phone

It’s Not about the Limitations

The same principle applies to all forms of assistive technology (AT). AT users resent implications that it’s a “pity” they “have to” use an assistive item, be that a cane, a hearing aid, or the latest text-to-speech app. The underlying assumption is that life would be so much better without a disability, it must be torture to have AT around as a reminder of one’s limitations.

That’s not how people with disabilities see it. Once they accept limitations as part of who they are, they don’t waste energy feeling sorry for themselves. As the late activist Judy Heumann put it, “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair. Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to live our lives.” And those “things” certainly include the best of assistive technology.

I Like Myself Just the Way I Am

It’s true that assistive technology doesn’t “cure” disabilities; but it’s also a misconception that everyone who uses assistive technology would rather be like the “non-disabled” majority. If you want to see a topic that pushes buttons among scientists and laypeople alike, try Googling “is autism really a disability/disorder.” Although society has long focused on the disadvantages of autism, more recent thinking (and more public input from those who actually have autism) is leaning toward the idea that autism is simply a different form of natural functioning, no more to be suppressed than left-handedness.

Technical definitions aside, not everyone prefers AT options designed to duplicate typical functions. Case in point: cochlear implants are frequently touted as better AT for deaf users than captioning or sign language interpretation, because implants simulate the physical hearing experience. But not everyone who actually tries cochlear implants is so enthusiastic. Some people get headaches or tinnitus from implants. Some struggle with the high learning curve. And some just resent the idea that everyone should rely on their auditory nerves, regardless of personal preferences.

The fact is, there’s no one form of assistive technology that “should” work for everyone, even the “everyones” with similar needs and diagnoses. In real life, each individual has to decide what works best for him- or herself.

But then, what better epitomizes independence than the right to one’s own best choices?

man with prosthetic leg sitting on bench outside looking at phone


For those struggling to find the right AT due to limited understanding, access, and/or budget, BridgingApps and Easter Seals Greater Houston offer programs including:

And don’t miss our BridgingApps Search Database for exploring thousands of AT options according to your needs!

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