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What is Assistive Technology?

What is Assistive Technology?


Young white male with glasses is sitting in a wheel chair using several different assistive technologies to help him with using his lap top computer that he is looking at.

The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 defines assistive technology (AT) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Ultimately, AT can bridge the gaps between people’s abilities and their job requirements.

Assistive technology can take on many forms, including low-tech devices such as canes and lever doorknobs, or high-tech devices, such hearing aids or motorized wheelchairs. Additionally, computer hardware and software, such as alternative keyboards, screen readers and voice recognition software, serve as forms of AT.

In many cases, while a device may not be considered AT by the mainstream public, it can often be considered so by people with disabilities. For a person with limited mobility, a simple back scratcher can become a reacher/grabber. For a person who is blind or low-vision, a cell phone loaded with appropriate apps can provide access to email, social media, transportation, public venues, and so much more.

Which AT solutions are designed for specific disabilities?

AT is not prescriptive, meaning not every tool will work for every person with the same disability. It is less about accommodating a specific disability, but more about accommodating the specific functional needs of a person with a disability. In many cases, one form of AT can accommodate many forms of disability. For example, voice recognition software can be a significant help for people with limited hand use, but can also be just as helpful for people who are blind/low-vision.

Is AT the same as an accommodation?

While AT can serve as a form of accommodation, it is not the same. Some accommodations, such as alternative work schedules, telecommuting, and personal assistance services (PAS) are examples of non-AT accommodations.

How do I find the right AT for my needs?

Finding the best AT can often be a process of trial-and-error. If you’re seeking AT to assist you at work, the first step is to let your employer know about your disability (if you haven’t already done so) and that you need AT to effectively do your job.

If you or your employer don’t already have an idea about the best AT to meet your needs, it’s best to connect to professionals that are either familiar with specific forms of AT or that are trained to match AT to specific needs. This can often include doctors, occupational therapists, rehabilitation professionals, speech-language pathologists, and other AT specialists. Additionally, many states and universities house AT lending libraries, which allow people to try out and borrow devices for various periods of time in order to determine its compatibility for specific needs.

After doing research or consulting with a professional, here are a few questions you can ask to determine whether a specific AT tool will meet your needs, either at work or elsewhere:

  • Does the tool address your specific needs and challenges?
  • Does it maximize your strengths?
  • Is there a simpler tool that would work as effectively?
  • Will it be easy to incorporate into your work?
  • How easy is it to learn to use the tool?
  • Will you receive support or training on how to use it?
  • Is the tool compatible with the existing technology you use? (For example, will it work on your existing computer or mobile device?)
  • How reliable is the device?
  • What technical support is available?

The above list was modified from Understood.org, Checklist: What to Consider When Looking at Assistive Technology.

Who pays for AT in the workplace?

If you identify as a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), AT can serve as a reasonable accommodation that your employer can provide to help you perform the essential functions of your job.

If tasks are non-essential functions to do your job, your employer does not have to provide AT. Keep in mind that your employer doesn’t have to purchase the latest or most expensive version of a specific device or AT. Additionally, if they find another way to meet your needs without purchasing AT, they can do so.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides worksite accommodations solutions, among other services to increase employability of people with disabilities, and has proven that most accommodations cost less than $500. Ultimately, your employer cannot simply say they will do nothing because they can’t afford to, unless they have explored all alternatives and can justify that the cost of the AT would cause undue hardship. When all options are eliminated, the next step would be to explore funding the AT yourself.

To learn more about AT funding sources, check out the Assistive Technology Industry Association’s (ATIA) Funding Resource Guide.

Where do I go to learn more?

Assistive technology continues to increase access to employment for people with disabilities. However, it’s important to consider individual needs to determine which AT tools will be best to ensure long-term success. To learn more about assistive technology in the workplace, contact the Getting Hired team.

Contributions to this blog were made by Andraéa LaVant of Solutions Marketing Group.

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