You can only experience how technology can transform your life, if you know what is out there in the marketplace.

This was what Robyn Chapman, chief executive of Assistive Technology Australia, told us when she was in Singapore in July as a guest speaker at the inaugural E2 Connect forum. An experienced physiotherapist across the aged, disability, and other sectors, Ms Chapman shared insights on how initiatives in Australia have helped to increase adoption of assistive technology among people with disabilities.

As a specialised category of technologies, many people with disabilities find it challenging to identify assistive technologies that meet their needs—even when many of these products already exist. This is a problem, because it narrows users’ choices, hampers their purchasing decisions, and wastes effort and time needed to learn how to use them.

Not just about putting stuff up on the web

Chapman emphasised that it’s crucial to build up users’ ability to conduct product research on their own, and not assume people will find critical information simply because you published it on the web.

“It’s actually really hard to keep up with all the developments. Even those who assist people will need to keep up with the changes that are happening. If you don’t know what’s out there, how do you know what you can use?”

Chapman shared how Assistive Technology Australia, which is part of a national network in Australia, adopts a person-centric approach to helping people find suitable assistive technologies. The centre provides impartial advice, information and leadership, in order to to empower people with disabilities to make their own choices on what devices they adopt.

Another example of this personalized approach is “Everyone Connects Australia”. A programme in partnership with Telstra Foundation, it aims to improve the connectedness of young people with profound communication disability (known as Complex Communication Needs or CCN) through the use of mobile and tablet technologies. Under the programme, speech pathologists and occupational therapists organise mini-expos and in-depth training sessions about a range of assistive and mainstream communication technologies. These events are well-attended by young people with CCN and caregivers across Australia.

From one user to another

Another of the centre’s programmes is the AT Mentor Project. Instead of Allied Health Professionals who make prescriptions (and decisions) on clients’ behalf, the project pairs users with mentors who are personally experienced in the use of assistive technology. Besides helping new users make independent, informed choices about devices and home modifications, it also builds upon knowledge that already exists in the community, and puts on a training framework to it.

[The good thing about] this system is that it recognises that people with disabilities have the capacity to use their experience, and to make their own choices,” said Chapman. “We really have to understand that life really does happen as a serious of linked events involved in community, not just at home. You can’t undertake an activity with a disability if you haven’t got assistive technology to support that.”

The trend in universal design

Chapman highlighted one big trend in assistive technology: Universal Design. Thanks to accessibility features in mainstream technology and the growing popularity of product designs that suit both able-bodied and disabled users, more and more products in the general marketplace come with disability-friendly features already baked in. This means less need for specialized, hard-to-find and even custom-made devices that can only be used by people with disabilities.

Another area of great change is in infocomm technology: computerised telecommunications, environmental controls, and advanced robotics.

“Universal design has had a considerable impact, as manufacturers see the disability and aging marketplace as being beneficial to their bottom line.”