Choosing the Best Assistive Technology for You

Assistive technology” may sound like something best left to engineers, but in fact it’s highly relevant to daily life. Scooter or hearing aid or smartphone app, any item becomes a form of assistive technology (AT) when used for a task that would otherwise be impossible. “Where a person struggles to touch the screen on their phone” due to difficulty moving fingers independently, says Daryn Ofczarzak, BridgingApps Speech Language Pathologist, “a glove with one finger cut off equals instant assistive tech.”

BridgingApps/Easter Seals Greater Houston is one of 16 AT programs receiving funding from the State of Texas. Through our assistive-technology labs and our partnership with Texas Technology Access Program (TTAP), we provide public demonstrations and hands-on coaching in using specific apps or devices. We also loan out iPads and other equipment for up to thirty days, with free shipping and returns.

TTAP provides device loans (with 35-day checkout periods and free shipping/returns) and demonstration centers. Apple stores offer trainings on their products’ accessibility features. And most doctors’ offices, public libraries, and community centers can provide information on finding free AT advice.

young lady helping older adult female use ipad

How Not to Choose AT

What’s most important, if your family is shopping for assistive technology, is to do your homework and avoid purchasing anything on the basis of an enticing commercial—or, worse, an unsolicited direct offer. Many such offers are outright frauds. “Anything that seems too good to be true is a red flag,” says Dr. Anita Swanson, Project Coordinator at TTAP. “And I would be cautious of any sales rep who really pushes to make the sale, especially if they contact you beyond what you said is okay.”

There are other dangers to impulse purchases, even where the offer is legitimate and the device excellent in itself. “The biggest risk,” says Swanson, “is that the AT will not meet your needs, you won’t use it, and the money will be wasted.” You’ve wasted time, as well, and you still have the original need—problems even when an option is cost-free, as with many apps.

Ofczarzak agrees: “The biggest consideration is whether the client can easily and willingly include this in their daily lives! It may sound great online, it may even meet their needs, but if using it feels too inconvenient, bulky, intimidating, or stigmatizing, it is not a good device for them.”

Getting “SETT” to Choose

So, even a device or app that’s a perfect match in the lab may not pass the daily-duties test after you get it home. (Who hasn’t, at one time or another, “fallen in love” with a toy, gadget, or accessory, only to put it away and forget it within a week of purchase?) Trying it first on loan is good insurance against this problem; but, loan or acquisition, the best starting point is a careful evaluation of what you need. Do this before you even look at specific options.

“I ask people, ‘What is something you want to be able to do, and cannot right now?’” says Swanson. “With their answer, I look for AT to help make their wish a reality.”

For really thorough planning, BridgingApps recommends the SETT framework, developed by Joy Zabala in 1990. “It’s research-based for helping individuals and teams select AT,” says Program Director Cristen Reat. “We use it because it focuses on being person-centered, which is what BridgingApps is all about.”

SETT stands for:

  • Student or other assistive-technology user: What are this person’s specific abilities and disabilities? What do they personally want to accomplish with assistive technology?
  • Environments: Consider every environment a user is likely to enter—home, work, public transportation, library, etc., plus individual rooms and passageways in each—with layouts, resources, and requirements. Remember to include other people, and their personal space/attitudes/availability to help, as aspects of each environment.
  • Tasks: List every task (e.g., keyboarding, talking to others, getting from room to room) that the person needs to perform in daily life and responsibilities, and cannot perform adequately without assistive technology. (Note: tasks are not the same as goals. Goals are ends; tasks are the means to those ends.)
  • Tools: After compiling a comprehensive picture of the individual, environments, and necessary tasks, look for the best possible match among assistive-technology options. Don’t forget easily-overlooked points such as: How often will this technology (or the phone/device that holds the app) need recharging? Will every environment have a usable power source?

(Check the Joy Zabala website for downloadable worksheets and other resources.)

Final Steps

You may have noticed that “budget” is not included in the recommended initial evaluation: that’s because “bargain” rates should never be allowed to overshadow the importance of good quality and a good personal fit. But once you’ve pinpointed your ideal assistive technology, you do owe it to yourself to seek the best possible price. First, check what your health insurance will cover (there are usually provisions for needs related to diagnosed disability). Then, look into options for additional financial assistance:

  • Ofczarzak: Insurance and Medicaid may pay for some medical-equipment-type tech. You can also apply for grants funded by nonprofits, like Be an Angel which provides equipment for children and families.
  • Swanson: Check funding sources for which you may qualify. Ask if there are any sales coming up, especially during a month of recognition [e.g., Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month in March, or Better Speech and Hearing Month in May].

Additional Resources

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