Skip to main content

Zoom Text:

Curriculum Highlights

Assistive Technology


  • Participants will understand the reasons for and the importance of proper positioning techniques for people with disabilities.
  • Participants will be able to describe examples of state-of-the-art technologies for people with disabilities.

Why This Topic is Important

Disability can be defined as "any condition that challenges the development or functioning of an individual, such as sensory, physical, or mental impairments..." Assistive technology can help people with disabilities meet these challenges and become more self-reliant, productive, and included in schools, workplaces, communities—anywhere.

An "assistive technology device" is 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. (29 U.S.C. Sec 2202(2))

An "assistive technology service" is any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an "assistive technology device." (Assistive Technology Act of 2004)

Assistive technology can help people communicate, move around, meet their own needs, learn, control their environment, work, and be more self-reliant, anywhere, all the time. Technology allows us to identify and build on a person's abilities, rather than focusing on what the person cannot do. Assistive technology can make inclusion, productivity, and participation a reality.

The quality of life for many people with significant disabilities can radically improve when we're creative in identifying, developing, applying, and/or funding the appropriate adaptive or assistive technology devices.

Concept Highlights

  • Technology can assist a person who may have a functional limitation; it can help people see, hear, move around, communicate, work, learn, and be more self-reliant.
  • Technology is not always affordable or accessible for many people who could benefit from it.
  • Technology helps us see the abilities of people who are labeled with disabilities, and these success stories need to be shared.
  • Policymakers need to understand how assistive technology can save money by enabling self-reliance, helping people learn in school, and get real jobs.
  • People with disabilities, families, and professionals need to understand what's possible with technology. People need to be strong and clear in their advocacy for the increased availability of assistive technology.


There are many ways we can improve the lives of people with disabilities through environmental changes and assistive technology:

  • We can eliminate attitudinal barriers that, in turn, lead to environmental barriers that prevent people from disabilities being able to enjoy the ordinary relationships, experiences, and opportunities that people without disabilities take for granted.
  • We can ensure places and activities are physically and programmatically accessible so that all are welcome and all can participate.
  • We can ensure people with disabilities have the supports, modifications, and/or accommodations they need to fully participate at home, in schools, at workplaces, and in community activities.
  • We can identify and provide the technology that extends and enhances the abilities of people with disabilities.

Assistive technology—new or old, simple or complicated, low cost or expensive—can enable people with disabilities to:

  • Be more successful in school and participate in online learning opportunities.
  • Fully use the power of social media to stay connected.
  • Pursue productive employment.
  • Develop more autonomy and self-reliance in determining how and where they live.
  • Discover their talents and gifts.
  • Enjoy greater social and recreational opportunities in ways that are not possible without technology.
  • Shift the focus from their functional limitations to their abilities.
  • Be prepared for emergencies.
  • Become, and be seen as, contributing members of society.

We've never had greater opportunities for developing and applying assistive technology. There is much more support for the idea of helping people to be more and more independent. A number of pieces of important legislation are in place, including the Rehabilitation Act Amendments, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

To take advantage of these opportunities, we must take action to:

  • Assure technology is applied creatively.
  • Make sure people have access to appropriate technology.
  • Share information.
  • Fund training.
  • Carry out the research and development that expands on the promise of technology for people with disabilities.

The cost of these actions will be small in comparison to the resulting savings in productivity, economic growth, human dignity and well-being.

9Adapted from Abilities and Technology (1986). MN Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Possible Actions to Improve Accessibility and Use of Technology:

  • Lobby for full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Allow people to try out assistive technology until they find what works best.
  • Make sure people with disabilities, families and friends, professionals, policymakers and the general public are aware of advances in technology and what these can mean.
  • Train professionals from a wide range of disciplines on the uses of technology for people with disabilities.
  • Provide people who need assistive technology with access to adequate services for assessment, prescription, training, and follow-up.
  • Establish advisory boards on the use of technology for people with disabilities. Such boards could recommend public policy changes, ways to use technology, and how to get information out to people. Advisory board members should include people with disabilities and families, and could also include service agency representatives; family, friends and advocates; third party payers; and educational and government representatives.
  • Develop technical assistance and resource centers to promote the understanding and application of technology.

Examples of Assistive Technologies:

  • Augmentative communication to help a person communicate more effectively.
  • Environmental controls can include making a switch larger or a device easier to use. This can increase the ability of people with physical disabilities to independently control their environment. Examples include turning on the television, lights, and appliances; answering the phone; opening doors; and driving a power wheelchair.
  • Custom seating systems include a wheelchair insert that's fitted to the shape of an individual (without compromising the ability to maximize trunk strength where applicable). This can enhance body-system functioning, prevent skin breakdown, and improve learning/participation in all life areas.
  • Postural supports inserted into a power wheelchair can help a person sit in a comfortable position and reduce the loss of muscle tone. The person can then work at a desk or table along with friends and classmates, and participate in more activities.
  • Independent mobility is a first step toward independent living. Many kinds of power wheelchairs are available. The controls can be modified and/or placed to match a person's particular abilities.
  • Vocational and employment adaptations can include modifications to a worksite, such as raising the height of a desk, or fabricating work areas, or adapting machinery to make it accessible to employees with disabilities.
  • Home modifications can include lever door hardware and grab bars in the bathroom, lowered light switches and shelves, toe-space at counters and the sink, and lowered counters and paddle faucet controls to promote greater self-reliance at home.
  • Self-transfer lift systems include a track installed in the ceiling. Many lift systems require an assistant to "place" the person in a sling. But a self-transfer system can enable a person to get in/out of the lift without assistance. In one person's home, the lift can help the person get out of bed, then transport the person through the bedroom, across the hall, and into the bathroom (directly to the toilet or the shower/tub).
  • Environmental modifications can include ramps at state and local parks; improved accessibility at restaurants, theaters, retail stores, businesses, and other places of public accommodation to ensure access to public recreational, commercial, and business opportunities.
  • Lifts for public transportation.
  • Environmental control systems, including high and low technology, can provide the confidence and support to enable a person to be safer and more self-reliant in his/her own home. One man had an amplifier installed on his phone to accommodate hearing limitations and a personal alarm system to notify health personnel if he has a medical emergency.
  • Ultra Voice Unit is a loudspeaker with a rechargeable battery that fits on an upper denture or orthodontic retainer; volume and pitch are set by a handheld control.
  • Mind Control Tool Operating Switch (MCTOS) is a switch controlled by bioelectrical activity measured at a person's forehead. The switch operates using eye movement, muscle activity, or the mind; the switch is "off" when the mind is quiet and "on" when the mind is excited. Communication devices, environmental control devices, and computers can be operated by MCTOS.
  • A variety of adaptive driving aids can enable people with disabilities to drive their own vehicles.

Digital Literacy and Media Literacy

In the 21st Century, information and computer technology, social media, and electronic communication (computers, smart phones, iPads, and more) can be critically important in helping students with disabilities learn and succeed in school and helping adults with disabilities acquire and maintain real jobs. (See

Partners participants, and others with disabilities, can improve their lives, and the lives of others, by taking the various online courses at As described in the Partners in Policymaking® Coordinator's Handbook Supplement: Integrating Online Learning, the online courses can supplement in-person Partners sessions, or be useful stand-alone learning opportunities.

A four-year-old child with cerebral palsy could not write with a pencil. His parents helped him learn how to use a computer at this young age. When he began kindergarten, and throughout his school career, he was included in general education classrooms, doing most of his schoolwork (including language arts, math, social studies, and more) on the computer. Worksheets could be scanned into the computer. His parents and teachers found computer software programs that mirrored the content being taught in the classroom. During the high school years, he began using voice-recognition software; instead of one-finger typing, he was able to wear a headset microphone and dictate his words to the computer. Today, he's a successful college graduate, and he uses a very simple device—a name stamp—as his legal signature.

An inclusive education provides great benefits for everyone, but if homeschooling is the preferred option, or if parents want to provide something in addition to the public school, students with and without disabilities, as well as adults, can experience great success via online learning, at sites like,, and other sources.

Online courses are also available through public and private colleges and universities. A person can earn a college degree (and then move on to a great job) without ever setting foot on a college campus.

Encourage Partners to share the latest technology with one another and keep up-to-date with the latest technology advancements.