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September/October 2012 Issue

Assistive Technology for People With Disabilities
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 12 No. 5 P. 40

When Patrick Molloy, a blind student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, begins any given day, there are a few key pieces of technology that he knows he’ll use so he can perform at the same level as his sighted peers. With technology’s assistance, he’s essentially able to do everything sighted students can, but that doesn’t mean challenges don’t arise.

This “leveling of the playing field” is a relatively new phenomenon, as assistive technology for people with disabilities has only recently made such huge advances. The result has some fascinating implications for society and the field of social work.

John C. Bricout, PhD, a professor and the associate dean for research and community outreach in the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work, has been studying the use of technology among people with disabilities. He says technology may not only enhance the abilities of these people but may make them even more capable than what’s considered “normal” in today’s society for nondisabled individuals.

Bricout uses the example of Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee sprinter who had initially been denied a shot at the Olympics for being too fast. His carbon-fiber prosthetic feet were thought to give him too much of an advantage over competitors. That decision was ultimately overturned, but it suggests an interesting future where people with disabilities not only have enhanced performance with technology but may actually exceed the abilities of what’s considered normal human performance.

“It raises the idea of a future where those with a disability could surpass the norms we’ve created as a society,” Bricout says. “It may redefine how we see disabilities and also how we define normalcy.”

Eyeglasses are another example Bricout cites. “Long ago we ceased to look at unaided vision as a baseline performance variable, unless you’re talking about pilots who still need to meet a certain level of unaided vision,” he says. “Because of that, we are no longer too worried about taking a driving test. We are viewed as nondisabled and capable of operating a vehicle with the aid of glasses and can operate within the parameters. As people with disabilities across different domains achieve the kind of performances the general population can achieve—or even exceed those—it will change the idea of what we see as disability. In the way we see glasses as normal, we’ll begin to see those enhancements in the same light.”

Social Worker Assistance
Technological advancements for people with disabilities offers an opportunity for social workers. One key opportunity lies in the fact that assistive technology for people with disabilities often needs to be refitted or adapted for different users. “This is often overlooked in the field,” Bricout says. “The social worker may assume that the individual has the technology and it’s working and that’s the end of it. But there’s often some adaptation that needs to take place, and that’s an area where social workers can help. They can be a facilitator between the person with the disability and the help they need. Social workers are problem solvers, and they understand the need for adaptation.”

Adaptations for which social workers can offer assistance may range from the complex, such as helping to obtain a specific piece of software needed for a Braille machine, to the simple, such as helping a user “not look like a dork” when wearing a piece of equipment to aid him or her, Bricout says. “Remember that the psychosocial environment is just as important to the person’s integration into society,” he adds.

People with disabilities are aware of the problems related to adaptive technology, according to Bricout, such as troubles surrounding Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance in public settings, “Take, for example, a door that has a push button to open for persons in a wheelchair,” Bricout says. “If you live in a colder climate like St. Louis and the door stays open too long, that person will freeze as they’re waiting for the door to close. These are the kinds of areas where adaptation is needed and though the person with disabilities isn’t helpless by any means, they may need some support.”

Molloy says that while technology has helped him advance, it won’t necessarily “solve all problems, as many problems are very unique.” For example, he utilizes a program that reads what’s on his computer screen. It allows him to read back a paper he wrote or browse the Web. But it also poses some problems.

“A screen reader is going to read everything on the screen,” Molloy says. “So if I’m on ESPN to read some sports articles, the screen reader will also read all the ads or pop-ups that come on the screen because it can’t distinguish between what’s an important news story and what’s not. The operator of the computer has to know some commands to steer the technology.”

While Molloy is quite tech savvy and often able to troubleshoot such problems on his own, he may still need assistance. Molloy says if a social worker’s goal is to facilitate better use of technology, he’d suggest that the social worker personally try it out. “See what the technology is capable of and start playing around with it,” he says. “I’ve learned so many things by trial and error. It’s a matter of being patient and finding ways to make the technology work for you and your specific needs.”

Social workers may shy away from helping because they don’t think they understand a particular technology or can be of assistance, but Bricout urges his peers to think of it as a partnership. “The person with the disability can be a partner and can guide you to the areas where they may need some extra help,” he says. “I’ve had some students who are blind and if they weren’t teaching me what they knew, I wouldn’t be able to help them. The social worker doesn’t have to know everything or even really understand the technology to help.”

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Social Work Today.