Assistive Technology Enters a New Age
By Suzanne Robitaille, founder and publisher, abledbody.com
When I began writing my book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology, I wanted my readers to know that there are a lot of positive benefits to disability technology that may outweigh the cost and funding issues. It was also important to me that readers know I have personal experience with a disability and understand the issues facing us. I’ve been profoundly deaf since an early age and received a cochlear implant in 2002, which I call the “ultimate assistive technology.”
After doing initial research, I decided I wanted to write my book from a purely consumer perspective. I’m not an academic or a doctor; I am a former reporter who is professionally and personally curious about how AT is evolving to enable more and more people with disabilities to lead more independent, productive and creative lives. There’s an information gap that I’m looking to close through my book and on my website, abledbody.com.
Excerpt taken from The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology (Demos Medical Publishing, 2010):
The History of Assistive Technology
In the beginning there were bullhorns. That’s what hearing-impaired people used as tools to try to hear. In the 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife was deaf, tried to develop a device for her to hear and ended up inventing the telephone. Until Louis Braille invented braille in 1824, blind people couldn’t read; it wasn’t until the development of “talking” reading machines, including the one invented by Ray Kurzweil in 1975, that many people with vision impairments could have access to printed material.
The history of modern assistive technology doesn’t go back very far. In fact, the people who are considered the pioneers of assistive technology are still around and working on next-generation technologies. Many consider Gregg Vanderheiden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be a leader in this field. In the 1970s Vanderheiden developed Auto-Corn, one of the first communications devices for people who cannot speak. Today he is working on making the World Wide Web more accessible for people with disabilities.
We also must recognize those who pioneered mainstream technologies such as the personal computer. Without Bill Gates and Paul Allen and their colleagues at Microsoft, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and their team at Apple, or Vincent Cerf, the father of the Internet, who committed themselves early on to making their technologies accessible to the widest audience possible, the disability community wouldn’t be as well equipped as they are today.
The rise of assistive technology in the United States can be traced to the pre-computer era, particularly following the Second World War, when the great number of veterans with disabilities posed a dramatic social problem and prompted the U.S. Veterans Administration to launch a prosthetic and sensory aids program, which was followed by many initiatives that spawned modern research into rehabilitation and assistive technology.
Gradually the idea took shape that a person with a disability should aim not necessarily at bodily normality but at life normality, which inspired the first programs of vocational rehabilitation intended to help people regain access to work and productive life. The Vietnam War also increased awareness about disability civil rights. Veterans who returned home with disabilities in the mid-1970s laid the groundwork for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history.
The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology, is available for sale at Demos Publishing, and is also available in large print format, digital braille, DAISY and Mp3 from (http://readhowyouwant.com). For more information on the author and her book, go to abledbody.com (http://abledbody.com).