Assistive technology helps millions of Americans with mental and physical disabilities improve the quality of their lives and be more independent. Some devices help with activities like cooking, getting in and out of bed, or taking a bath. Others make it easier to use a computer, drive a car, enjoy a favorite television program, or use a telephone. Many small assistive technology devices are relatively inexpensive and can be found at hardware stores or elsewhere. Other devices are big investments for which financial aid may be available.
With the help of research, assistive technology is improving continuously. Assistive devices can be particularly useful for the elderly, as statistics show half of all people over eighty-five have some difficulty with the activities of daily living. Special devices can also meet the needs of children and adults with physical disabilities. If you or someone you care about has a disability, assistive technology can help in areas such as:
- Mobility. Devices to help people get around may be simple and inexpensive or examples of cutting-edge technology. They include canes, walkers, scooters, wheelchairs, reaching aids, environmental control units such as voice activated switches, and personal global positioning devices to help prevent people with cognitive impairment from getting lost.
- Vision. Many types of devices help people live with vision problems ranging from total blindness to mild difficulties with reading certain kinds of material. Sight-related technologies include aids to help read printed material, and voice input/speech-activated devices for household appliances.
- Hearing and speech. There are many types of hearing and speech problems. Some devices may be appropriate for one type of hearing loss but not for another. Hearing aids are designed to fit in the ear canal or behind the ear. Personal amplification systems raise the volume of surrounding sounds and can be used in many different situations to help people take part more easily in conversations. People with speech or hearing problems can communicate by phone using a teletypewriter (TTY), sometimes called a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD). Some new cell phones have features that include extra-large buttons, a simplified design, and access to operators around the clock. Many landline phones are available in styles with extra-large buttons and an amplified handset for the hard of hearing. Other useful items include closed-caption television sets and sensory-stimulation devices (which activate vibrations or lights to get a person's attention) for items like doorbells and alarm clocks.
- Computer use. Most computers come with features that can be adapted in ways that make them easier to use if you have a disability. The built-in elements may include such things as on-screen keyboards (for people who can't press keys on a regular keyboard) and visual cues such as a flashing light (for the hard of hearing). You can buy additional hardware or software such as speech recognition systems for voice commands, Braille displays, touch screens, screen enlargers, and speech synthesizers (also called text-to-speech [TTS] devices), which enable a computer to "speak" aloud any text displayed on the monitor.
How to purchase assistive technology
The first step toward finding the right device is to have an assistive technology assessment. The professionals who do these evaluations usually have a license in a field such as speech pathology, occupational therapy, or physical therapy. Depending on your concerns, they may do vision, hearing, or other tests and encourage you to try a variety of devices before making a decision.
You can buy small assistive devices such as magnifiers at drugstores and hardware stores, online, and through mail-order catalogs. Medical supply stores are often a good place to find higher-cost devices. For many higher-cost devices (such as a wheelchair), you'll need a prescription.
There are various alternatives to help pay for assistive devices if they are not provided by military or veteran's health care benefits:
- Private medical insurance such as a managed care plan. Health plans typically allow you to purchase a new device every couple of years. They may pay only a certain percentage of the total cost. However, you may be able to count the amount you must pay out-of-pocket for these devices as a tax-deductible medical expense. Check the IRS regulations or with a tax professional to determine whether an item is tax-deductible.
- Government health insurance. Medicaid or Medicare may cover part or all of the cost of assistive devices necessary for day-to-day functioning when prescribed by a physician.
- Grants and subsidies. These are sometimes available for assistive devices. Your state's office of vocational rehabilitation may be able to tell you who provides them in your area. For children who need to use assistive technology in the classroom, school districts may pay for needed devices. You will have a much better chance of obtaining some financial assistance if the device is necessary for a child to be successful at school and is included in an individualized education plan (IEP).
- Used equipment. A hearing-aid bank in your community might provide an appropriate device at little or no cost. Some areas also have equipment banks where people can donate devices they no longer need to others who can use them.
- Leased equipment. You might choose to save money by renting rather than buying an expensive item such as an environmental control unit.
If you or someone you care about requires several devices, you may need to apply to and use more than one funding source. If you hit a roadblock, be persistent. You may want to get advice from a national organization specific to the condition that affects you or your relative.