Assistive Technology: Not a Replacement for Social Responsibility

SignAloud Gloves - black gloves with micro processors on the wrists

One of the most exciting parts of working for the Michigan Assistive Technology Program is that it puts me in social media circles where I am more likely to see the latest prototypes of equipment and devices.  It seems like I see some sort of device, app, or equipment that amazes
m
e every day,  Just this week, I came across, gloves that turn sign language into speech, an electric mountain biking handcycle,  and a wheelchair accessible motorcycle.  The potential of assistive technology is limitless, and the ingenuity of people who develop new technologies keeps me in a constant state of awe.

Yet, I keep thinking back to a conversation I had several days ago,  I was talking with a woman who asked about my career,  When I told her I worked with assistive technology and explained what that was, she immediately became very excited, and recalled a video she saw online of a stair-climbing wheelchair.  “Isn’t it great?”  she exclaimed, “Pretty soon we won’t even need to build ramps!”

A power wheelchair ascending stairsNo.  Not great, for several reasons.  First, and most obviously, Many of these innovations that we are seeing are prototypes,  They may or may not ever become available on the mainstream market.  If they do become available on the market, it is most likely that only the most affluent, who are able to pay out of pocket, will be able to obtain them.  Most assistive technology tends to be low cost/lower tech and paid for by insurance,  People with disabilities and advocates are fighting for coverage of even the most basic equipment (durable medical equipment is an excellent example), let alone the latest cutting edge designs.

Secondly, the argument that stair climbing wheelchairs would negate the need for ramps in based the medical model of disability.  It’s saying to people with disabilities that their disabilities are the “problem”, and puts the responsibility on them to negotiate a world that is not accessible to them.  It puts the social responsibility of access as a civil right on technology and not on society, where it should be.  As a person with a disability, I am given the message that I am the problem, and that being afforded accommodations is “special” or “extra” in a thousand different ways every day.  In reality, my disability is a gift, not a problem.  The problem lies with society and the idea that we need to be fixed or in some way made better by technology instead of being granted the same access (physical and otherwise) as everyone else.

Finally, sometimes, the latest and greatest technology cannot and should not take the place of other methods or technology.  For example, many people now argue that there is no longer a need for people who are blind to learn Braille because screen readers and other auditory technologies are available.  However, by relying solely on auditory technology, a person may be missing out on important literacy skills.  There are also places where Braille may be the only way to obtain necessary information, such as locations and orientation within buildings.  It is also important to consider that communication via Braille and American Sign Language are very important aspects of disability (Blind, Deaf) community and culture.

Innovations in assistive technology are a wonderful, exciting thing.  I am certainly not arguing that progress and development should stop.  However, technology should not take the place of the social responsibility we have to provide access and accommodations to all – it is a civil right.  We also must be mindful that these cutting edge technologies may not be available or appropriate for everyone, and that existing technology and methods often play an important role in the disability community, pride, and culture.

Modify Your Home and Age in Place

By Aimee Sterk, LMSW, MATP Program StaffThe outline of a home with the words Home Sweet Home inside it

A study, Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE), funded by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, showed that home modifications and access to AT (assistive technology), helped older adults age in place. The study results indicate 75% of participants were able to perform more activities of daily living than before they entered the study and symptoms of depression also improved.

The older adults who participated were paired with a team including an occupational therapist, nurse, and handyman who worked with them over a period of five months. Together, the team helped choose and install AT and make home repairs to improve safety and access. The budget for the AT, repairs, and handyman work was $1300.

Everyone in the study was on both Medicare and Medicaid and had barriers to completing activities of daily living including bathing, dressing, using the toilet, and walking across a small room.

A key aspect of the program was supporting the older adults to set their own goals instead of the professional team setting the goals for them. After the study was completed, participants are continuing to contact the researchers and share goals they are setting and achieving. This important work illuminating the benefits of AT and home modifications is expanding. One group is replicating the program in Michigan through Michigan State University—calling it MiCAPABLE and working with people who participate in the MiChoice Medicaid Waiver program in the state. We are always excited to see increased access to AT!

What programs and services have you accessed to improve your ability to age in place? Were they medical-model driven, or did you steer your goals? What kind of AT or home modifications improved your life?

Can You Hear Me Now? What about now? … Good!

By Jen Gosett, BS, CTRS, MATP Staff

Sound waves projecting into an earHearing loss is something that’s common in my family.  Since my late 20’s, I’ve noticed a decline in my hearing.  A concern in the back of my mind is that I will grow older and have to wear large, ill-fitting, analog hearing aids that don’t seem to work how I need them to; that was my Grama Ann’s experience and frustration with her own hearing aids.  As a child I remember many crowded family gatherings where I could hear Grama Ann’s hearing aids whistling shrilly until she manually turned them down or off all together.

Technology is ever evolving and I feel heartened that assistive tech for better/amplified/more intuitive hearing devices has improved over the years; namely by way of digital (DSP, or digital signal processor) hearing aids (versus the analog hearing aids my Grandmother used).

Ear surrounded by a variety of hearing aids
Both analog and digital hearing aids are used today, though analog are becoming a little less common, and digital hearing aids are becoming a more popular choice.  Analog and digital hearing aids both have similar components. Both types pick up sound using a microphone and use circuitry to amplify sound.  Analog hearing aids work by making continuous sound waves louder, amplify all sounds (speech and noise).  [DSP hearing aids] convert sound waves to digital signals, producing an exact duplication of each sound, instead of just amplifying it. Computer chips are used to analyze speech and other sounds, allowing for more complex processing of sounds during amplification.”  This text is from the HUH?!? Help U Hear Center.  

Woman wearing a futuristic-looking hearing aid

With the ways that Google Glass and Bluetooth technology work today, I can’t even imagine the possibilities of hearing aids of the future!  By learning about what’s out there today and thinking about what’s in store for the near future, I feel more comfortable planning for my own hearing supports.

Thanks for reading!

We are Back, Sort of…

Back in October 2016, our previous blog suddenly disappeared. We had over 3 years of regular posts on a wide variety of Assistive Technology-related topics. Despite having back-ups of all the posts and of the site, we have been unable to successfully recover the site or the articles.  If anyone can help, please let us know!

So for now, we’ve moved to this format. We’ll be updating the format of the site to maximize accessibility. Let us know as we go of any specific issues. We are working on it! The tools are a bit different so we have a bit of a learning curve to climb up.

We’ve missed all of you and have lot’s to say and share. We’ve been saving up ideas for posts! Stay tuned!