We round off National Assistive Technology Awareness Month with a look at some common-but-untrue assumptions about AT.
Misconception: Assistive technology is limited to wheelchairs and other bulky devices.
Facts: Any “assistive” item counts—including digital apps. You can carry dozens of assistive-technology options on a smartphone.
Misconception: All assistive technology (AT) is “high-tech.”
Facts: “Assistive technology” can be as “non-technical” as a cane or magnifying glass: the term covers all forms of equipment (except implants) used to compensate for disability-related impairments. Nor was assistive technology invented in the twenty-first, or even the twentieth, century. The first read-by-touch Braille system was developed in 1824, the first electric hearing aid in 1898.
Misconception: The purpose of assistive technology is to “correct” or “cure” a disability.
Facts: Not really, although it may seem that way once everyday functioning becomes significantly easier. Whether a disability is temporary (such as a broken leg) or permanent, it’s the user (or their body’s natural healing system) that does the real work.
Misconception: Students shouldn’t be allowed to use AT in class, because it constitutes an unfair advantage.
Facts: Perhaps this idea grew from controversies regarding general use of personal technology in schools. (“If students can use a calculator app during math exams, what’s to stop them from looking up whole answers on the same device?”) Legitimate assistive technology (which anyone with diagnosed disabilities has a legal right to) is designed to let individuals learn at the same challenge level as their peers—not to confer special advantages, but to remove unfair disadvantages.
Misconception: All screen readers/wheelchairs/speech-to-text apps are alike.
Facts: Not in today’s multiple-choice marketplace. And no one should feel limited to the most obvious option, unless it meets their unique needs.
Misconception: An AT item that’s perfect for one person will be perfect for everyone with the same disability.
Facts: No more than everyone in any other demographic opts for the identical car, computer, or coffeemaker. Everyone deserves a choice that fits their unique preferences, temperament, and abilities.
Misconception: If you need assistive technology, you need it all the time.
Facts: Just as many people wear eyeglasses only part of the time, many people need AT in some situations but not others. For example, someone with speech difficulties may use speech-to-text software only among acquaintances who are unfamiliar with the user’s natural voice.
Misconception: “High-functioning” people don’t need assistive technology.
Facts: Just because a disability is categorized as “high-functioning” (i.e., the person who has it can function like a “typical” person in most situations) doesn’t make it easy to manage. “High-functioning” people work hard mentally to stay in the “functional” zone, so any technology that reduces stress fills a legitimate need.
Misconception: If you reach adulthood before being diagnosed with a learning disability, it’s too late for AT to help.
Facts: Much better late than never. People don’t “age out” of the ability to learn.
Misconception: Assistive technology is prohibitively expensive for most people.
Facts: Many assistive apps are free to download; few cost more than $10. Even with wheelchairs and other genuinely expensive equipment, going through a disability-services organization can significantly reduce cost. There are also programs where you can borrow and/or test AT, to pinpoint the right app or device before committing to a purchase. (Check out options from Easter Seals Greater Houston, also the Texas Technology Access Program’s demonstration centers and loaner items.)
Misconception: Once someone has the right AT, they don’t need any other accommodations.
Facts: Even the best assistive technology can’t fully duplicate natural human abilities, nor change a brain to match a “standard” teaching approach. This misconception does the most damage when non-AT users take the attitude, “You got your extra help, so don’t go thinking I owe you any special favors.” (There’s another thing that only humans can provide: empathy and understanding.)
Misconception: Assistive technology isn’t much use to people without disabilities.
Facts: It depends on the technology. Many apps/devices/everyday accommodations are popular among people without disabilities:
- Captions or headphones let you work (or watch a video) in public areas without annoying others.
- Reaching aids let you get things off high shelves without searching for a stepstool—or fish things out of a corner without moving heavy furniture.
- Voice-operated smart devices provide an extra “hand” when you’re driving or your arms are full.
One final fact: assistive technology needn’t be a “burden” to anybody. Providing the right AT may be a little extra trouble at first, but it pays dividends to all of society once the user is free to make his or her maximum contribution.
See also: BridgingApps App Search Tool for locating the right AT for your needs.