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The Evolution of Assistive Technology into Everyday Products

10:30am 17 September 2010

Nicolas Steenhout
Nicolas Steenhout

Principal, Accessibility NZ

Many universal design features in the physical world were first designed for people with disabilities but benefit everyone – such as curb cuts for wheelchairs helping parents with prams, or wider handles on kitchen tools for people with arthritis now being favoured by many cooks.

In a similar way, assistive technologies originally intended for people with disabilities have gone “mainstream”. It is often suggested in the disability community that people with disabilities are very good at thinking “outside of the box” due to the need to resolve problems and eliminate barriers directly related to their impairment.

Technology is often developed to meet a medical or disability need first. Highly specialised items with a small market make that technology rather expensive. As these technologies evolve and become more mainstream, costs come down and more general applications are developed.

Do you use a GPS device in your car that “speaks” the driving instructions as you are driving? This is a not-so distant cousin of text-to-voice applications such as screenreading software, that began life for people who have vision impairments. The Segway scooter relies on gyroscope technology that was first implemented in a power wheelchair intended to raise wheelchair users to eye level.

Many professionals use dictation applications to take notes or prepare reports. Hands-free phone operation is common enough that people don’t really wonder at it anymore. Both of these are descendants of voice-to-text or voice-command applications. Initially, voice-to-text applications were developed to help people unable to use a keyboard or mouse interact with computers. The brain-computer interface was originally aimed at helping sensory-motor or cognitive functions in people. There are now “neuro-headsets” available for gamers, allowing them to control games with thoughts (although few games exist). And a “Tweet” was “typed” and sent in May 2009, using brainwave only.

It may take a while before voice-to-text or text-to-voice software is replaced by brainwave control. When it happens, it will be an initially disability-related improvement to a “mass technology” which itself saw life as a disability-related technology.

This presentation will explore some of the hacks often developed by people with disabilities to handle the physical world as well as changes in the physical world intended for people with disabilities, and how these hacks and changes benefit the general public. The presentation will also discuss specific technology (hardware & software) aimed at disabilities and/or medical needs which evolved into day-to-day devices and programs used by many people in our society. Finally, the question “what next?” will be asked.

About Nicolas Steenhout

Nicolas Steenhout is a person with a disability who has worked in disability awareness and services for many years.

Nicolas was one of the judges for the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) Student Design Competition in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in Chicago, IL.

Nicolas is an experienced speaker on the topics of disability rights, disability awareness, assistive technologies, web accessibility, and FOSS.