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Technology and Aging

Ecological And Assistive Technology For The Disabled

Assistive technologies may be defined as ‘‘any item . . . that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of an individual with a disability’’ (Brandt and Pope). According to this definition, assistive technology may include assistive devices, environmental modifications, prosthetics, personal response systems, and other ‘‘smart house’’ technology. About two-thirds of disabled older Americans use some form of assistive technology to assist then with limitations in the activities of daily living; the most common items are simple devices that assist with mobility, such as canes and walkers (Agree and Freedman), and this number has been growing (Manton et al.).

The use of assistive technology is highly task-specific, and the successful adoption and retention of assistive devices has been shown to depend largely upon three main factors: the nature of the disability and its severity, the design of the device, and appropriate training of the user (Sanford et al.; Kohn et al.). Environmental barriers also may impede use of equipment, particularly for older persons in aging and/or substandard housing. Though the perceived stigma of using a device also may be a significant factor (Gitlin; Covington), it may depend upon the availability of alternative forms of coping, and not enough is known about these informal adaptations.

Whereas assistive technology is used to enhance the capabilities of the user, environmental modifications serve to reduce the disabling effects of the physical environment, eliminating barriers and increasing the ability of assistive devices to work properly. Recent developments in adaptation of the physical environment have focused on universal and transgenerational design. Universal design is intended to make products useful by persons of all abilities, without expensive or hard-to-find special features (Story). Transgenerational design is a form of universal design specifically developed ‘‘as a strategy for eliminating design discrimination against older members of the population’’ (Pirkl). It is intended to address the needs of ordinary individuals as they age and to create products that are useful across generations and over time.

The growth in assistive technology use and the increase in barrier-free environments in public spaces may be directly linked to political developments since 1960. The growth of advocacy groups for the disabled during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States contributed to major changes in the understanding and treatment of disabled persons. The return of disabled veterans from Vietnam, as well as a general political climate focused on civil rights, generated the independent living movement. This political movement promoted a new paradigm by which disabled individuals have been elevated from a status as deviants who are either tolerated or hidden away, to members of a disadvantaged minority group to whom the state owes a responsibility for full participation as citizens (Albrecht). The ultimate result of this shift in attitudes was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. This legislation may have been mainly the result of activism by younger persons with lifelong disabilities, for whom incapacity has a very different meaning than that experienced by older persons, but both groups have benefited from greater access to public spaces and protection from discrimination as a result.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Technology and Aging - Medical Technologies, Ecological And Assistive Technology For The Disabled, Information Technology And Older Adults, Conclusion