Assistive Technology

The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology (AT), often used synonymously with the term adaptive technology, is an overarching term that encompasses assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for individuals with disabilities. AT promotes autonomy by allowing users to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be impossible or extremely difficult to manage. Specific items, equipment, software, and products are used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using such devices.


As early as 950 BCE, examples of AT can be found. The “Cairo Toe” was discovered attached to the foot of a mummy buried in an Egyptian tomb at Luxor. Made of wood and leather, this is believed to be an ancient prosthesis. Discovered in an ancient Roman grave, a bronze leg from 300 BCE was a known mobility support device. As early as 1286, during the European Renaissance, traders introduced convex lenses developed from writings by Muslim scholars such as Ibn al-Haytham (965—1040). Ambroise Pare’s (1510—1590) 16th-century book Dix Livres de la Chirurgie earned him the reputation of the father of modern surgery, with his detailed and advanced designs of mechanical prostheses. As human needs increased, our industriousness grew and the development of early AT gave us devices such as rudimentary ear trumpets, wheeled chairs, bifocals, dentures, braille, hearing aids, guide dogs, and text to speech communication tools. Today, devices are being developed at a rapid pace. With technological advances and rapidly expanding markets, AT has become widespread and increasingly available.

Legislation for Assistive Technology

In the United States, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93—112) was signed into law, prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in regard to employment and academic program admission. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94—142) was enacted. This monumental decision paved the way for millions of children with disabilities, ensuring that children with disabilities have access to education. Now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it guarantees every child with a disability access to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment.

AT devices and services were first defined in federal law in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (Public Law 101—476) as: “Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities” (Assistive Technology Industry Association, n.d.). These definitions remained unchanged until 2004 with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (Public Law 108—446) when an exemption to the definition of an assistive technology device was added to clarify a school system’s responsibility to provide surgically implanted technology such as cochlear implants. The definition of an assistive technology device is very broad and gives Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams the flexibility that they need to make decisions about appropriate devices for individual students.

Types of Assistive Technology

AT has grown to include a wide spectrum of equipment and products. Those with mobility impairments now have access to devices such as wheelchairs, transfer devices, walkers, and prostheses. These allow for independent mobility and the ability to perform daily living activities, such as feeding, toileting, dressing, grooming, and bathing. Tools and techniques to improve independence for those with visual impairments include products such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, braille and braille embossers, desktop video magnifiers, and screen magnification software. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing utilize a variety of assistive technologies that provide them with improved accessibility to information in numerous environments. Products such as hearing aids, assistive listening devices, and amplified telephone equipment allow for improved communication. People experiencing cognitive impairments have the opportunity to implement products that aid with attention, memory, self-regulation, navigation, emotion recognition and management, planning, and sequencing activity. Memory aids and educational software assist with reading, learning, comprehension, and organizational difficulties.


AT has come a long way from the basic support devices created to make life with a disability easier. The complexity and variety of today’s devices allow for individualized support and independence. Researchers are now conducting studies on the types of AT used and the influence such products have on major life activities. These projects hope to increase the capacity of the independent living community to work with its members and stakeholders to collect research data on access and use of AT to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Enabling individuals to participate more fully in all aspects of life while increasing opportunities for independence, education, employment, and social interaction remains the goal and driving force behind the continued progress of AT.

Lin Browning

See also: Americans with Disabilities Act; Blindness; Braille; Cochlear Implants; Deafness

Further Reading

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA). (n.d.). What is assistive technology? How is it funded? Retrieved from

Bluebird Care. (n.d.). Assistive technology from ancient times to modern times! Bluebird care: Care at home and in the community. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Building the legacy: IDEA 2004. Retrieved from