Celebrating Assistive Technology
For people with disabilities, assistive technology and devices are both ordinary and life-changing.
The World Health Organization defines assistive technology and devices (AT) as "those whose primary purpose is to maintain or improve an individual’s functioning and independence to facilitate participation and to enhance overall well-being." This can include wheelchairs, hearing aids, prosthesis, computer software and much more.
Low tech or high tech, the defining feature of AT is that it helps rather than hinders the person using it. Phrases like "confined to a wheelchair" imply that assistive devices interfere with a person's life or hold them back in some way. A lot of people with disabilities will tell you that the opposite is true. Assistive devices open up opportunities rather than closing them off. They are tools that help us move through the world.
This blog post is about assistive technology. But it won't focus on the types of tech that are available or which devices are used for which disabilities. This post is about how people with disabilities interact with and relate to AT. It's about how we embrace and celebrate these devices by accessorizing our canes, naming our wheelchairs or choosing brightly coloured hearing aids. The books I have selected for this post feature people with disabilities talking about the tech and devices that are a part of their daily lives and experiences.
A note on language: Though Toronto Public Library uses people-first language ("people with disabilities") when writing about disability, in this post I frequently use identity-first language ("disabled people") in deference to the authors' preference.
Disabled Perspectives on Assistive Technology and Devices
A person's perspective on the assistive devices they use is very specific to that individual. For some people, they are medical devices and are simply tools that address a specific need. For others, the devices are like an extension of their body and become a core part of that person's identity.
Even determining what is considered an assistive device can vary. My own disability causes debilitating levels of fatigue. As that condition worsens, everyday conveniences have taken on a new meaning for me. There may come a time when I will use more recognizable assistive devices, like a motorized wheelchair. For now, an electric toothbrush and a shower stool are the types of tools that make it possible for me to go about my day more comfortably. Even a dishwasher is now a necessity because prolonged standing and arm movements require more energy than I have most days. I once thought of a dishwasher as a luxury; I now think of it as an assistive device.
Falling for Myself by Dorothy Ellen Palmer
Dorothy Ellen Palmer was born in the 1950s, a time when her congenital anomalies were described as birth defects. She has a limb difference in both her feet and so, like her book title suggests, she falls down a lot. In her hilariously honest memoir, Palmer is done apologizing for this. I picked this book not only for Palmer's uncompromising attitude, but also because of the way that she talks about her feet and her crutches. Hint: they all have names!
Strangers Assume my Girlfriend is my Nurse by Shane Burcaw
Shane Burcaw is hilarious. He runs a not-for-profit organization that teaches children about respect and kindness, and provides adaptive equipment to people with disabilities. It's all very serious and important so, naturally, Shane called the organization Laughing At My Nightmare. It's also the title of his first book. In his second book, Strangers Assume my Girlfriend is my Nurse, Shane brings his trademark humor to a series of essays about the realities of living with spinal muscular atrophy. And yes, people do think his girlfriend is his nurse (Update: since the book was published, Hannah is now his wife!)
Disability Visibility : First-person stories from the twenty-first century edited by Alice Wong
This collection of essays, edited by disability activist Alice Wong, is important and I recommend it every chance I get. It is filled with the stories and opinions of so many disabled people. So many different disabilities, different experiences, different writing styles, different emotions. Not all of the essays mention assistive technology but there are a few really great ones that discuss it prominently, like Wanda Díaz-Merced's "How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars." If you liked this book, I also recommend About Us and From the Periphery.
Being Heumann : An unrepentant memoir of a disability rights activist by Judith Heumann
Not everyone can say that their actions have improved the lives of millions of people, but Judy Heumann can. As a lifelong wheelchair user and a lifelong activist, Judy's advocacy work has had a significant impact on disabled people in the United States and around the world. She was one of over 150 disabled activists and allies who staged a sit-in at US Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977. Their protest directly led to increased protections for disabled people and the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most recently, Judy was seen on the red carpet at the 2021 Academy Awards, representing her Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Crip Camp.
Communication Technologies and Devices
Some people who are Deaf or hard of hearing use assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. For other people, communicating through spoken or written words is difficult or not possible. Instead, they might use augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) methods, such as text-to-speech software that reads aloud the words the person types either by hand or using eye movement tracking equipment. AAC methods aren't always high-tech either. Some users prefer a low tech version, such as a display board of letters, numbers, and basic symbols that they can point to.
Typed Words, Loud Voices edited by Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth J. Grace
I was really excited when I came across this anthology. It is a collection of essays written by autistic and neurodivergent people, as well others who are most comfortable communicating by typing rather than speaking aloud. Some didn't begin typing to communicate until adulthood and describe the joy in discovering a new ease to communicating. Other, younger contributors discuss being able to explore and develop their identities through participating in online communities and advocacy networks. The common thread throughout is that typing creates ways and opportunities to communicate that the contributors would not have if denied access to this assistive tech.
In a series of short essays and anecdotes, Canadian writer Janelle Riedstra humorously describes her life as a deaf* person. She talks about closed captioning devices in movie theatres, misadventures in lip reading, and the complicated decision to get a cochlear implant.
*Many D/deaf or hard of hearing people spell "deaf" with a capital letter "D" to reflect their participation and belonging in Deaf Culture. In this case, I have used a lower case "d" because Janelle Riedstra consistently does so throughout her book.
Hearing Happiness : Deafness cures in history by Jaipreet Virdi
Jaipreet Virdi is a Deaf activist and historian of science whose research focuses on medical inequalities and disability rights. In her first book, she documents the history of the social and medical crusade to "cure" deafness. Highlighting everything from ear trumpets to bloodletting, Virdi looks at the dangerous and ineffective methods that were inflicted upon Deaf and hard of hearing people during the 19th and early 20th century. All of which were done in the name of social conformity and masking a person's so-called "defect."
And Now For Something A Little Unexpected...
The last entry in this post might initially seem like an odd choice. It's the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and, in my opinion, it's an important example of assistive technology representation in popular culture.
I like that the focus of the movie is on the humans' relationship with dragons, not on the importance of accepting difference and respecting people with disabilities. In their community, disability is commonplace. And it is not a tragedy. When Toothless the dragon loses a tail fin and cannot fly, Hiccup simply designs a prosthetic fin and together the boy and dragon learn to move through the world in a new way. There is both normalcy and humor in the movie's depiction of prostheses, especially the character Gobber who has multiple different accessories for his prosthetic hand, including one with a beer stein!
One of my favourite moments comes at the very end when (SPOILER ALERT!) our hero Hiccup wakes up after being injured in a battle. He discovers that he has been fitted with a prosthetic foot and comments that he "might make a few tweaks" to the prosthetic's design. It's such a fleeting moment in the film but an important one nonetheless. It's crucial to listen when disabled people talk about their assistive tech. We are experts in our accessibility needs but our control over our own assistive devices is limited by insurance providers, medical professionals, and even the manufacturers. With that one quick comment in the film, Hiccup reclaims control over his body and his mobility equipment.
Assistive Technology and Devices at Toronto Public Library
The library has assistive technology and devices you can use in branches. There are assistive reading devices, such as hand-held magnifiers, page turners, and book stands. These may make it more comfortable to read print books if the type is too small, or if it’s difficult to turn the pages or hold them open. We have computers with large print keyboards, so it’s easier to see the keys, as well as large trackball computer mice, which require less fine motor control, and adaptive technology such as JAWS software, which reads digital content out loud.
For a full list and locations, please visit: Accessibility at Library Branches.