The very essence of being human is to live in a community where we can help one another. But some people need more than just help; they need our support too. For example, people with disabilities. Disability does not make a person less skilled or talented but just requires the person to use his/her skills differently. We, as humans, live in a box with our own set of rules and regulations, and while strictly following these boundaries, we often forget that there are people around us who are similar yet so different from us. Hence, we should be able to create a society that welcomes these people and doesn’t consider their disability a human flaw but accepts it as a special talent that requires to be cultivated differently. After we have created such a society, we can help disabled people and make their life comfortable through assistive devices.
Assistive devices are any devices that help a disabled person communicate or operate more effectively. It assists disabled people in living a healthy, productive, and independent life. These devices assist people in hearing others and expressing their ideas or thoughts. It also enables them to move from one location to another without or with little assistance from others, giving them greater independence. A life free of the limitations imposed by their disability. According to the WHO, more than one billion people worldwide require one or more assistive products, but only one out of every ten people in need has access to them. This is because of the high costs of such devices, and the lack of awareness, and availability.
Disabilities can take many forms, including vision, hearing, speaking, and mobility. Thanks to the advancement of technology, we have devices to cater to the needs of each area. There are also more severe disabilities wherein people are partially or completely locked in. This could happen to people suffering from paralysis, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, or who have lost voluntary control of their bodies due to an accident. This condition may result in the loss of multiple voluntary functions. Assistive technology for people with such conditions is still in its early stages, but it is rapidly improving thanks to advances in Brain-Computer Interface.
Assistive devices for vision disabilities
People with vision disabilities used canes as their most basic assistive device. Then came electronic cranes equipped with ultrasonic devices that emitted ultrasonic signals that reflected off obstacles and transmitted audio signals to the person. Braille was an incredible technology in this field that allowed people with vision impairments to read and write independently. Then came text-to-speech software, which can convert any text-based document or book to speech. Virtual assistants on computers and smartphones could also follow audio instructions instead of typing or navigating.
Assistive devices for hearing disabilities
Hearing-impaired assistive devices have probably seen the most progress in both research and industry. Some devices are designed for large settings such as classrooms and meetings, while others are designed for more intimate settings such as one-on-one conversations. All of these devices are compatible with hearing aids and cochlear implants, which are commonly used by people with hearing loss.
Induction loop systems, which transmit sound in the form of electromagnetic signals, are the first of these devices that can be used in large gatherings. The sound is picked up by a sound source (microphone), amplified, and routed through a wire loop to create an electromagnetic field. This field is directly picked up by the receiver attached to the hearing aid or cochlear implant.
FM systems are another device with larger settings that can be modified for personal conversations. These devices use radio signals to transmit sound. The speaker’s microphone is connected to a transmitter, which transforms the sound into radio signals and transmits them to the audience members whose hearing aids are tuned to the same channel or frequency as the transmitter.
Infrared signals are yet another signal type that is used to transmit sound. The sound from the microphone is converted into light, which is directed towards the receiver, which converts it back to sound and allows the listener to hear the speaker.
Assistive devices for speaking disabilities
The most primitive assistive devices in the case of a speech disability were picture boards or screens.
which showed images or symbols of everyday activities, like drinking water or watching TV, which people could choose from. This is usually a very slow process and could enable a limited stream of conversation. These devices are sometimes called Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC). People often use sign language to convey their thoughts, but it requires knowledge of sign language both on the speaker’s and listener’s part.
Going one step ahead of this came the keyboards, which can be used easily by people either to communicate their thoughts and ideas in a written format or by using text-to-speech software to convert them into speech. The speech can be customized according to the preferences of the user.
Assistive devices for mobility disabilities
People having any type of physical disability have difficulty with mobility or performing basic physical activities. The most widely used assistive devices in this area are wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers. All of these are low-tech devices that do not need electricity or batteries to work.
Going over to more advanced devices, we have prosthetic arms and legs, powered wheelchairs, and functional electrical stimulation.
Powered wheelchairs come with various features like seat tilt and elevation, a joystick to control movement, and more. These functionalities give the user comfort and ease of doing basic activities. Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is usually used in cases where people have lost voluntary function due to paralysis. Low energy electrical impulses are used to generate movement in the paralyzed limb. In paralysis, the brain signals cannot reach the limbs, which makes the user unable to control the movement. In FES, the electrical impulses are applied similar to brain impulses, which can stimulate movement in the limb.
Assistive devices for people in locked-in states
A locked-in state is a state wherein people can lose all voluntary movement. They are unable to move their limbs or speak, but they are conscious, alert and have full cognitive function. People in a locked-in state usually communicate by blinking or responding through picture boards.
Recent improvements in the brain-computer interface have made it possible for these people to use their brain signals directly to talk to their families and share their ideas with the rest of the world.