Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Everyday Devices As Assistive Technology

The convergence of dedicated assistive technology and everyday products can only increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in society. As I discussed in my presentation at the New Zealand Computer Society’s Innovation Conference last year, more and more assistive technology is appearing into every day products. I just read another example of this happening.

Glenda Watson Hyatt wrote a brilliant piece about the iPad as an affordable communicator device. That is a fantastic example of the kind of convergence we need. The three main advantages I see are:

  1. Affordability
  2. Flexibility
  3. Familiarity

Affordability & Flexibility

Two significant issues with a lot of dedicated disability communication aids is their high cost and often limited capacity. For example, the GoTalk 20+ costing between US$275 and US$350. It allows pre-recording of up to 100 phrases or sentences. This seems like a bulky, heavy, and expensive device that doesn’t allow much flexibility. On the plus side – it looks rugged and solid enough to endure a child’s mistreating it. Another device, the DynaWrite, is basically a computer keyboard with a small screen and speakers. It has 3 voices. And it costs AU$7,000.

In contrast the iPad allows typing of sentences on the go, will also speak these aloud. Entire speeches can be prepared. With the right software, one can even select a specific "voice". It is half the size, and lighter than the GoTalk 20+. It is a fraction of the price of a DynaWrite.


A less obvious aspect is the fact that people tend to be more familiar, hence comfortable, with iPads than devices designed specifically for people with disabilities.

Someone I know in the United States has autism and uses a device similar to the DynaWrite. The difference is that her keyboard doesn’t speak – people have to read the display. I remember her frustration at the number of people who just refused to even look at the keyboard when she attempted to communicate. Her experience is not an isolated one. Many users of communication aids report that other people are intimidated by their device.

But an iPad isn’t a bespoke disability device. It is perceived as a cool gadget and people are more likely to accept it. People are more open to interact with someone through an iPad than they are through other “disability” devices.

Not Just iPad

I wrote about the iPad simply because Glenda had such a good example. I want to see an increase in "everyday" devices that can serve multiple purposes, including assistive technology. Granted, there are specific cases where bespoke devices will always be required. I like to think that in the not too distant future, companies and engineers will embrace principles of universal design and deliver more of these products.

What About You?

Do you or someone you know use communication aids? Have you found people receptive to interacting with you, or are they reticent? What kind of difference do you think using a popular device could make in your ability to interact?