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Assistive Technology: Enabling All
Assistive technology is more than just a tool - what it can offer is a new lifestyle
Assistive technology is more than just a tool - what it can offer is a new lifestyle, a hope for a better life and a more inclusive society. But with ongoing discussions about the concept, a number of stereotypes have been created about what such technology means, and what it can do. Experts participating in ictQATAR's Assistive Technology panel - held at Carnegie Mellon University as part of the International Conference for ICT and Development (ICTD) - dismissed many common stereotypes and offer a new vision of what assistive technology really is and how it should be perceived and implemented.
The first question one must ask is who is truly 'disabled'? Dr. Yasser Khan, clinical advisor for the e-health program at ictQATAR, recalls a professional experience in which he witnessed the lines blurring between those typically considered able and disabled. "As a clinician, I worked with children with special needs. The more I worked with them, the more I began to wonder does the limitation lie on their part and their impairments or is the limitation on my part - being unable to see beyond their disability? There was a child who had minor mental 'disabilities' that I later discovered was brilliant, talented and expressive in photography. It took being able to look beyond one disability to see brilliance. It's the whole supporting environment and the attitude of people towards people with special needs that makes a difference."
"So called 'disabilities' do not just apply to one sector of the community," adds Dr. Elizabeth Goodman, founder and director of Smart Labs Digital Media Institute, and the Magic Multimedia Games Innovation Center, University of East London. "We can all be equally able and disabled by technology and our relationships to it, and thus to the social world around us. When we talk about making better and more assistive technologies, we are not just talking about people with obvious disabilities. Although they are an important group, yet we the term applies on all of us in who need different kinds of interfaces to technologies, to speak, express ourselves, learn and relearn. Assistive technology tools are for us all."
Following the notion of who can benefit from assistive technology, Michael Thatcher, Microsoft's Regional Technology Officer in the Middle East and Africa explains that the essence of assistive technology is to look at it from an 'enabling' perspective and not solely a tool for the disabled. "We often think of assistive technology and what it can do for disabled people. Today, the way of thinking should shift to how technology can enable people, including those who are not just disabled, but also those with partial disabilities and those with changing levels of disabilities, such as those who experience changes in eye sight throughout different life stages."
Panel members argued that assistive technology when embedded in life, has the power to improve lives, but that it is often not accessible for those that can most benefit. Assistive Technology has been often labeled as a 'Just-In-Time' technology, but Goodman argues that such technologies are often "almost-too-late" technologies that should have been there, long time ago. "People with no voice or with no ability to move, need free, customized and accessible assistive technology from birth to death. It is late to start making this happen now, but it is not too late as long as there is community collaboration."
Goodman sees immense potential to bring assistive technologies to all realms of life as well, not simply for the functional and learning realms as most assistive technologies address. She cites the "Eye Gazing" technique- which consists of 4 infra- red cameras following eye movements of those who can't move any part of their body. As the eye remains gazing at the screen, whether on a letter or image, a description of that object is heard out loud or is written on screen. "Your eyes become your mouth or your interface for creative expression. Those tools could be used to activate gaming and learning environments alike, both of which are vital to an enriched life,"
With this forward thinking on assistive technologies, the way they can benefit people, and how they have the power to benefit all, there is great hope for a more inclusive society in Qatar and around the world. ictQATAR's planned Center for Assistive Technology will undoubtedly be a major voice in the Middle East to help ensure the benefits of ICT are realized by all.
By: Mina Nagy